“Using Guilt on the Path” is a guest post from the amazing Chris Lemig, author of The Narrow Way: A
Memoir of Coming Out, Getting Clean, and Finding Buddha.
I was having lunch with a friend the other day. We were reminiscing about the drug days. We’re both in recovery, have been for years, and for both of us the Dharma has played a big part in that path’s success.
But however different our lives are today, the memories of our past mistakes still occasionally return unbidden to haunt us and sometimes keep us peeking over the blankets in the dark, late at night.
“Was that really me?” we ask ourselves and whisper, “Could I become that person again?”
Then the images of all the people we’ve hurt, lied to, threatened and stolen from rise up in our minds like ghosts and banshees.
Whatever teachings I’ve heard about guilt being nothing but the worst kind of ego-grasping, something we should learn to let go of, just fly out the door at those times.
But let’s face it. We all have skeletons in our closets. Whether we’ve committed major crimes or just been assholes to our friends, kids and partners, we’ve all done things we regret, things we’ll never be able to take back.
Unresolved quarrels with loved ones now dead and gone. Missed opportunities to tell the people we love how we truly feel. All the times we should have or shouldn’t have.
I’m not saying you can just forget all the mistakes you’ve made. I’m not even saying you have to. But maybe guilt doesn’t always need to be so debilitating or self-absorbed.
When those dark times come up and you remember all the lies, all the stealing, all the cheating and all the harm you’ve done to family and friends, try just letting the memories come.
Don’t retreat to that safe, dark cave of self-deprecation. Rather, think to yourself:
“Yes, I did all those terrible things but that’s in the past now. From today forward, I will make every effort to be a kind and loving human being. I will strive with everything I have to use this precious human life to tame my mind and to work for the benefit of others.”
I think it’s from this place of positive motivation, this pure, aspirational bodhicitta, that we can then work skillfully with the memories rising and falling in our minds like so many waves on the ocean.
Then the focus shifts from the past to the present moment, from self to other, and we can begin to let go of the heavy burden of unnecessary shame and worry.
So guilt, and the painful memories that sometimes torment us, don’t need to be our enemies after all.
In the end, they can be transformed into not only inspiration but maybe, if we’re patient and diligent, even wisdom.
Even at twelve years old, Chris Lemig knew he was gay. He just doesn’t want to believe it. Spurred on by intolerance, ignorance and fear, he takes his first steps into the closet and so begins twenty-three years of drugs, drinking and attempted suicides. It’s only after he wakes up one morning, beaten and still bleeding from a hate crime, that he finally finds the courage to come out and make a change.