Liberation from Regret and Denial

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by Margaret McGoverne -

Like probably every fellow human being alive today, I’ve done things in my life that I’ve later regretted.

Certain actions will fail to meet our own or others’ standards of behaviour, and when faced with such acts, most of us will opt for one of two reactions:
  • 1. Regretting our actions and wishing them undone 
  • 2. Denying that they were wrong or denying that it was our fault by blaming someone else or denying that there was any lapse in the first place!
Even if we accept to the world and to ourselves that we were wrong, it is very difficult not to regret or to indulge in a spot of denial; as a species we are very adept at justifying ourselves.

I tend to engage in regret and in the past, this has brought me to my knees, in tears, praying for things to be undone. But they can’t be undone. Should I go into denial - or blame someone else?

Having read the teachings of Buddha, one of the first things I learnt of was the first Noble Truth or path to enlightenment: that the nature of life is suffering.

By this, Buddha meant that all human beings wish to experience a lasting happiness but that no one can live a life without experiencing problems and setbacks that reduce our happiness. 

Happiness based on improving our external situation is therefore doomed to failure because we will all suffer setbacks at some point.

True happiness must be sought from within, not by seeking more wealth, a bigger car, a nose job or a new partner.

If we can develop and maintain a calm and happy mind, regardless of our material situation, then we can’t be disappointed by setbacks and so we will break the cycle of suffering. And that’s where regret and denial come in.

Regret and Suffering

When we regret our past actions, or when we deny responsibility for them, or the outcome of them, we are suffering.

When we blame someone else for our woes, like a boomerang the hurt flies back to us. While we are regretting and blaming and denying what has been done, we are trapped in the eternal circle of suffering, or samara, the Buddhist cycle of life and death pervaded by suffering.

I can’t take credit for the solution – but thinking it through, the only real answer to the question "how do we heal ourselves and move on from regret, blame and denial?" is the answer provided by Buddha –to think beyond yourself and your own suffering.

I’m no different from you and you’re no different from the person down the street.

We all experience suffering in one way or another, and we all share certain suffering – beggar or king, we are all born, we all grow old or sicken or suffer an accident, and die.

We all lose loved ones. We are all trapped in samsara, in suffering.

There is an answer, and a way to liberate ourselves and others from the pain of suffering. 

Let go of regret. Let go of blame and denial. 

Realise that everyone feels pain and take some time to lessen, by however small a portion, the suffering of another.

You may think your action will go unrewarded or even unnoticed but if we practise this enough, it will make a difference.

Think about it. You’ve had an argument with your best friend and you’re hurt and upset. He said some nasty things and it hurts.

You deny that you started it but you may also regret harsh words spoken in anger. You’re both suffering. You can both engage in regret, blame and denial or you can extend forgiveness, bearing in mind that your friend is also suffering.

So you say sorry first and let go of the anger, the pain and the regret. Your friend will hopefully recognise your compassion and may be inspired to commit a similar selfless act to someone else in turn.

By letting go of your pain, you liberate yourself and others from suffering. 

Maybe not the first time. Maybe your altruism will go unrewarded but stick with it – only you can make you happy, and the first step is to accept this awesome responsibility towards yourself.

By striving to live life in a spirit of responsibility towards yourself and others, your compassion will grow, and your regret and denial will become apparent for the waste of time and energy they are.

Just as no one else can be happy for you, no one else can be responsible for taking away your unhappiness, your regret, your suffering, your samsara.