The Purpose of Guilt – Part 2: How to Atone for Past Mistakes


Dear Puru Selbie,

Thank you for your answer on guilt.You have said after we have taken steps to undo the wrong or atone or apologise, we should move on and ensure we don’t repeat the mistake. Three years back,I had spoken very rudely to our maid servant who is 10 years older than me, and asked her to leave the job, coz she wasn’t doing her job properly and arguing. She felt very insulted and left. I feel bad for it and similar situations are coming back in my life. How do I undo the wrong. Will an apology help?


—Sneha, India


Dear Sneha,

If there are direct actions you can take to rectify a wrong done to someone else, such as making a sincere apology, by all means you should consider doing so. Further, if (in your case) you wanted to offer her the opportunity to return as your maid — if you sincerely want to have her back as your maid — then by all means consider doing that also.

But the important word in that last paragraph is “sincere.” Be sure that anything you do to rectify past mistakes comes from your heart. The actions you take to undo a mistake should, in the process, cleanse the heart. If you really don’t want to apologize to her, or you really don’t want to have her come back as your maid (for all the reasons that made you unhappy with her in the first place), and then you apologized or offered her the opportunity to return, there would be no true atonement.

Furthermore, there are many things that once done, can’t be undone. Often there is no direct action you can take to change the results of past actions. But what you can do is cultivate the willingness to atone for past mistakes. Such an attitude will almost always suggest to your mind the best ways to make amends.

Sometimes, however, we continue to feel guilty precisely because there isn’t anything we can do to right a wrong we committed. If you find yourself in that state of mind it can be very helpful to offer the situation (with all the feelings you have about it) up to God. A private ceremony that Swami Kriyananda often suggested was to light a candle in your meditation room (or somewhere quiet) and imagine the flame burning up your feelings, purifying you.You can even write down your feelings on a small piece of paper and then light the paper in the candle flame, affirming that the Divine is burning up your ignorance and purifying your heart.

In the end there is no precise formula. You must examine your own heart and see what you feel you should do.

I hope this is helpful.

Warm regards,
Puru (Joseph) Selbie