“Oops!” How many times have we said or thought that word? Guilt is the feeling that happens when something we’ve done doesn’t align with our values. The key question is, “How will I respond to this guilt?” Learning from guilt helps us unlock our growth potential, and move on.

Responding to Guilt

All right, now you’ve gone and done it. What next? “What next? Indeed, because when it comes to yoga paths, the error which you made in the past is less important than your will to grow in the present. According to the three modes of nature, we can respond to guilt in many ways:

GoodnessUnderstand what went wrong, learn and adapt.
PassionAgonize over the mistake.

If our passion is mixed with some goodness, we may make well-meaning, but hasty vows not to let it happen again; however, because we’re confused about what went wrong, we can’t back that promise up, and history repeats itself.

If our passion is mixed with some ignorance, we may doubt whether we’ve made a mistake, look for scapegoats to blame, or rush to our own defense and comfort ourselves with the statement that learning is a gradual process.

IgnoranceDouble down on it as if the mistake were flawless.

Responding with Humility Dainya

The Sanskrit word dainya means humility. This response to guilt is based on an informed and realistic assessment of the mistake, and the desire to learn from it. Humility is not to be confused with self-hatred, which is less concerned with serving others than with navel-gazing.

Humility is the most essential support to the practice of yoga because it aligns us with the reality of our relationship as servants of the Absolute Truth, or God, and of all others. Receptivity to knowledge, grace, and love is based on our recognition that we all need help.

The spiritual realizations from our yoga practice, the like-minded association with fellow practitioners, and the expert guidance we receive all inspire us to offer service to others. That service is further sweetened by humility. Mistakes on this path are stepping stones to success:

nehabhikrama-naso ‘sti pratyavayo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat

In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear. (Bhagavad-gita, 2.40)

Responding with Fear — Bhaya

In Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.2.37 we find the lines:

bhayam dvitiyabhinivesatah syad
isad apetasya viparyayo ‘smritih

Bhaya, or fear, arises when we misidentify with the material body due to absorption in something other than the Absolute Truth. In turning away from God, there is forgetfulness of our true self.

The forgetfulness referred to here is of our identities as spiritual servants of the Absolute Truth, and of all living entities. The fear response fails to account for this forgetfulness, and instead focuses on avoiding the consequences of this or that mistake committed out of the false ego.

To grow from our guilt, we must challenge the passionate assumption that the world is ours for the taking. As souls, we are secondary enjoyers. When we see and use things in the context of service to others, we experience happiness within, and freedom from guilt through that service:

saha-jam karma kaunteya sa-dosham api na tyajet
sarvarambha hi doshena dhumenagnir ivavritah

Every endeavor is covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work born of their nature, Kaunteya, even if such work is full of fault.
(Bhagavad-gita 18.48)

Mistakes happen to everyone. Guilt does not have to. If we fail to look within to the underlying causes of guilt, our confusion can devolve into delusion. The yogi is legitimately free from guilt despite mistakes; the psychopath may be legitimately guilty, but is unable to see how so.

Responding with Blind Pride — Dambha

Even if we don’t score particularly high on the psychopathy test, we all might sometimes deny our guilt. This blind self-righteousness is referred to in Sanskrit as dambha. It is by our kama, or selfish desire, that we are blinded. In this state, we pose a risk to ourselves and others.

In denying that a mistake was made, the greatest barrier to learning is encountered. Yoga practice can help us through this pigheadedness. John Milton, although not often turned to for insights into yoga philosophy, nonetheless has two relevant contributions from Paradise Lost:

“…long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light”

“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

To overcome this challenging barrier, the first thing we need to remember is that we are not our body, and we are not our mind. We are the soul, who:

  • Sees through the eyes
  • Smells through the nose
  • Hears through the ears
  • Tastes through the tongue
  • Feels through skin
  • Conceptualizes through the mind

Through the spiritual faculty of consciousness, we can witness the above-mentioned physical and psychic activities, and are therefore separate from them. In the case of false pride, we can watch, cooly and without judgment, as these thoughts arise in our minds, and pass away.

By practicing the yoga of dispassionate observation, we gain control over which thoughts we’ll act on. We can align our actions with our values, and in that way avoid future mistakes and guilt. This is indeed a gradual process, but not an automatic one. Yoga practice is all about choices.

Divine Guilt

The bhakti-yoga guru, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, wrote many songs, some of which show how the deepest feelings of guilt can help reconnect us to the Absolute Truth. As a closing meditation, here is his Bhuliya Tomare, or Forgetting You:

bhuliya tomare, samsare asiya,
peye nana-vidha byatha
tomara charane, asiyachi ami,
bolibo duhkhera katha

O Lord, I forgot You and came to this material world, where I have experienced a host of pains and sorrows. Now I approach Your lotus feet and submit my tale of woe.

janani-jathare, chilama jakhona,
bishama bandhana-pase
eka-bara prabhu! dekha diya more,
vancile e dina dase

While still bound up tightly in the unbearable confines of my mother’s womb, O Lord, You once revealed Yourself before me. Appearing only briefly, You then abandoned this poor servant of Yours.

takhona bhavinu, janama paiya,
koribo bhajana tava
janama hoilo, podi’ maya-jale,
na hoilo jnana-lava

At that moment I thought, “After my birth, I will worship You.” But alas, after taking birth I fell into the entangling network of worldly illusions; thus I possessed not even a drop of true knowledge.

adarera chele, swa-janera kole,
hasiya katanu kala
janaka-janani- snehete bhuliya,
samsara lagilo bhalo

As a dear son fondled in the laps of relatives, I passed my time smiling and laughing. The affection of my father and mother helped me to forget You still more, and I began to think that the material world was a very nice place.

krame dina dina, balaka hoiya,
khelinu balaka-saha
ara kichu dine, jnana upajilo,
patha podi ahar-ahah

Day by day I gradually grew into a young boy and began playing with other boys. Soon my powers of understanding emerged, so I diligently read and studied my school lessons every day.

vidyara gaurave, bhrami’ dese dese,
dhana uparjana kori
swa-jana palana, kori eka-mane,
bhulinu tomare, hari!

Proud of my accomplished education, later I traveled from place to place and earned much wealth. Thereby maintaining my family with undivided attention, I forgot You, O Lord Hari!

bardhakye ekhona, bhakativinoda,
kandiya katara ati
na bhajiya tore, dina britha gelo,
ekhona ki habe gati?

Now in old age, this Bhaktivinoda very sadly weeps. I failed to worship You, O Lord, and instead passed my days in vain. What will be my fate now?

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