The Purpose of Guilt


Swami Kriyanand says guilt is a sin. But if a person has wronged someone terribly and moves on without any guilt, how will he advance spiritually? From our childhood, we have heard that a man of true character always has remorse for his wrongdoing. Could you pleas explain the contradictions in teachings?

Thanks / regards

—Sneha, India


Dear Sneha,

I’m not sure I ever heard Kriyananda specifically say that guilt was a sin, but I have heard him describe continuous guilt (if felt for years, long after a mistake had been made) as a useless emotion, and even damaging to one’s spiritual progress — perhaps this is what he meant.

For the spiritual aspirant, continuing to feel guilty for something one has done long after the mistake had been made is like carrying around a bag of rocks when you are trying to fly – it keeps you from rising into higher consciousness. Guilt arises from our conscience, our intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. When we’ve done something wrong we feel bad. Our feelings are telling us we’ve behaved out of harmony with our higher nature. If we listen to what our feelings are telling us we have an opportunity to learn, to change, and to grow. Depending on our mistake, we may also need to make apologies or, as best we can, undo the consequencies of what we’ve done. But once we’ve learned from our mistake and done whatever we can to atone for it, continuing to feel guilty about having made the mistake in the first place doesn’t serve the soul.

A woman disciple of Yogananda’s left his ashram for a number of years. Having realized she made a mistake in leaving, she returned. Some of her fellow disciples asked how she could dare to return after what she’d done. Her answer was simple and profound, “Do you want me to worship my mistakes?”

Remaining guilty over actions take long ago is like worshiping your own mistakes. One only remains mired in the mistake — which makes it very hard to learn from the mistake itself.

The word “sin” has taken on a powerful meaning over the years. Committing a sin sounds so much more lasting and consequential than making a mistake. But the word “sin” originally came from the practice of archery in the middle ages. To sin, for an archer, was to miss the target.

Our initial feeling of guilt is telling us we’ve missed the target of right behavior. Our initial feeling of guilt is highlighting an opportunity we have to adjust our aim so that next time we behave correctly. But — remaining perpetually mired in the feeling of guilt just makes it harder to adjust one’s aim and eventually hit the target — thus the first sin becomes compouned by another. Prolonged guilt is just one more way to miss the target of right behavior.

Warm regards,
Puru (Joseph) Selbie