Out of Guilt, Back to Present Time
When you hold to guilt, some part of you that stays connected to truth will not agree that you’re bad or wrong or suddenly undeserving. And a less evolved, more pleading part of you—needing to object to the injustice—will defend: it’ll defend mentally to self; it’ll defend out loud to third parties or to anyone involved. It’s gotta do something!
Would you like to defend less? Accuse yourself less. Quit believing you’re guilty.
This includes refusing to carry around vague feelings of guilt/self-accusation that never get properly looked at or dismissed. (How I wrote about this in Scooch!: Don’t just swat the fruit flies! They swarm back in and keep hovering.)
So how do you get out of this familiar accusation-and-guilt cycle when you’re in it? How do you just drop a well-practiced default?
I happened upon a brilliant question recently, which does something all by itself to support you to quit swatting the fruit flies. Taking you beyond guilt and defense, it also happens to bring you back to now, and I don’t believe there can be too much of that.
I was innocently riding my bike one morning and noticed I was carrying around something that felt bad, something a bit cringing and small, something clearly not aligned with the present moment! That now-moment was all about a vast blue sky, big, full trees at a positively gloating level of summer foliage, a soundtrack of joyful, singing birds, and just enough freshness in the air to feel skin-delicious on a bike. Why, riding through this scene, would I allow any bizarre, niggling feeling to kind of whine inside me?
So I felt into the sensation. I breathed into it. I realized it was guilt about something I’d consumed that my body wasn’t happy with. In truth, it wasn’t a big deal on the physical level. It just made me feel not my best—okay, it made me weirdly bloated, which I hate—and, if past experience served, it was likely to affect my sense of wellness or ease in my own body for the whole day. It was also true that I know what to put in my body to feel good, and still, I’d made a choice that doesn’t work for my total well-being.
I’m using an innocuous example because it’s ridiculous what we walk around feeling guilty about—and have you noticed that the guilt can exist nonverbally, as a vague sense of being wrong and bad, without having many (or any) thoughts attached to it? Just enough quiet, hissing presence to ruin your peace?
So I rolled my eyes at the guilt (because I also believe that guilt is a liar) and this question came in as I leaned into the left turn onto Utica: How long do I have to do penance for this?
The question was gorgeous. Seriously. Wow. Ask yourself this for the stain on the new shirt, the affair, the forgotten email, the failed job that changed your career trajectory—ask yourself this for guilt of any magnitude, anywhere in your life.
Let me quickly decipher perceived guilt from actual guilt.
Guilt is often not real! That is, when you check in with yourself about what you’re guilty of, you may find that you’re guilty of nothing. Your parent might think you’re guilty for not calling more often, but you’re actually in self-care and choice. Your friend might think you’re guilty for not listening to her ongoing complaints, but you’re actually minding your feeling states, which you rightfully don’t want to turn over to someone else. Your partner might think you’re guilty of not giving something you should know they want, but it’s actually their job to ask and ask again, and yours to give an honest yes or no. I could go on. Let me simply remind you that feeling guilty doesn’t equal being guilty, and that someone else declaring your guilt doesn’t make it a fact.
But if you’re actually guilty—you’ve done something you’re not happy with, as human beings are sometimes known to do—then ask yourself, How long do I have to do penance for this? If you go by the rules of your religious upbringing, or give yourself the treatment doled out by the worst manipulator you’ve come close to, or use any external authority or judge—well, maybe for quite a while. But if you pause and tune in to how long you actually need to do penance to be a valid human being here and now—you’re just done with the whole thing. Make amends if you need to; course-correct however you see to do that; and carry on in present time.
In that moment on my bike, here’s what felt truer than needing to do penance: there was a natural consequence for ignoring my dietary restrictions, which was simply that I felt how I felt, for as long as I felt it. That’s it. I wasn’t suddenly unworthy or bad. I didn’t have to have a bad day because of either what I’d done or how I felt. My well-being isn’t predicated on perfect adherence to an experimental diet imposed on me by me.
No kind of perfect is required for anyone to be worthy of well-being.
Hey, I didn’t end up feeling bad all day. Untethered to a past action, I was set free to act within and respond to things happening in the present moment. At some point, it dawned on me that I felt normal and was having a great day.
Please join me in greater clarity about what guilt does to you, and commit to responding to it more quickly and more consciously:
1) it requires some part of you to defend (so you can stop defending by actually processing your guilt more consciously);
2) it seems to ask for penance—and there's no need! (note: holding on to guilt itself is a form of penance);
3) it takes you out of present time. Now you’re stuck (by yourself, by your guilt), in something that’s past, while the rest of the Universe has moved on. Sure, it could be that some other people haven’t moved on: only because they share your human tendency to hold on to what’s gone by. The rest of the Universe, though, is done with that past moment.
I invite you to play with this question when you face your own guilt: How long do I have to do penance for this? Then you don’t have to accuse yourself or defend, and you’re free to live in present time (where you have the most power, clarity, agency, connection to your guidance system, and on and on).
Love and blessings, Jaya
For a look at whether you live in a punitive Universe, see this later post from July 2020.