Sunday, February 13, 2011

Does guilt have a place in the practice, or in life in general?

I have my own answer to this question, which is: Ideally, no. Having grown up in a culture in which shaming or "guilting" people into doing things is such a big part of everyday life, I am aware that it can be an effective tool to get people (and even myself) to do things. But I just think that the emotional/psychological baggage created by guilt can't be good for one in the long run. So a few years ago, starting from around the time when I began to do yoga, I resolved that, even though I am far from being a perfect human being (are there perfect human beings out there? Please get in touch with me: I want to get to know you :-)), I am going to try my best to live life on my own terms, for better or for worse, and to try not to look back and feel guilty about stuff I could have or should have done. As an aside: Yes, I know that there is technically a distinction between shame and guilt, and some anthropologists characterize Asian cultures as being "shame cultures" rather than "guilt cultures", but I think that shame at some point or some level translates into guilt on the part of the individual, so I am not going to distinguish too much between shame and guilt here. I'm just going to treat them as two different manifestations of what is essentially the same phenomenon.

You might be thinking: So why do you even bother to write this post, if you already have an answer to this question? Well, recent posts in the cybershala have made me think about this question again. Here's an example. In his recent post, Grimmly alludes to this thing called "injury guilt". This is what he says:

"I'm sure experienced teachers are wonderful at helping their students with their injuries in the shalas but I can imagine said students often feel a bit of a bother and an imposition, injury guilt, however much they're told that's why the teacher is there and welcomes the break from the monotony."

I think I can relate to at least some of what Grimmly is saying here. I injured my SI joint big time last June, and while this happened after I had moved away from my teacher and was no longer practicing in a shala, I still felt frustrated and yes, a little guilty that my practice was not pain or injury free. If the idea of practice is to achieve Sthira Sukham Asanam ("Asana is comfort with stability"), my practice was definitely lacking in the Sukham ("comfort") department. I remember that in the first couple of weeks of the injury, it took me more than two hours (and a ridiculous amount of sweating) just to get through primary. There was also the guilt associated with not practicing well enough to avoid injury. And then there was the guilt associated with feeling this guilt (second-order guilt?). I can go on and on with this whole thing. But I think many of you know what I'm talking about here, so I'm going to leave it at this. I guess the question is: Is such practice/injury-related guilt something that gets in the way of the practice, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level? 
Guilt also surfaces in the practice in a more mundane everyday way. One might feel guilt at having missed practice, or at faffing around too much, or at not giving one's perceived best in particularly challenging postures. And of course, one may also feel guilty about feeling guilty (again, second-order guilt). Again, the question is: Is such guilt something that gets in the way of the practice, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level?
And of course, there is guilt that manifests in our lives off the mat. Guilt at not being a good enough son/daughter/father/mother/husband/wife/teacher/student/you-name-it. Moral guilt at having done something morally wrong, or not having done something morally good enough. Existential guilt. The list goes on. Again, the same question: Is such guilt something that gets in the way of a fulfilling life, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level?
I have already given you my answer to all these questions at the beginning of this post, and am curious to hear what you think.    


  1. Yes Nobel, I'm with you on this one. I've never been able to get anything constructive out of guilt, although I think that Trungpa might say that even guilt is "workable," perhaps there's something to that.

    I think it's worth tracking guilt back, when it shows up: where is this coming from? What is that about? Richard Freeman, in _Mirror of Yoga_ (basically the book form of _The Yoga Matrix_) says that the body will actually feel displeasure when we've mistreated others. Would that apply to guilt, perhaps explain some incidences of it? Hmm.

    A good post for questions; funny how it starts with an answer and is all questions in followup.


  2. Thanks Patrick. The idea of tracking guilt back and the body actually feeling displeasure when we've mistreated others sounds very intriguing. Although I wonder if it is possible to over-analyze in this direction and take it to an extreme? You are the second person in two days who has mentioned Mirror of Yoga to me. I should go read it.

    I'm beginning to think that there are a lot more questions than answers all the time, and it might not be a bad thing :-)

  3. I don't really have injury guilt. If I'm injured, I stop practicing and do alternative activities instead. I do get lazy guilt and that helps me get on the mat. In social, family and work situations, I agree guilt doesn't necessarily turn into productive drive to make me solve the problem/improve the situation. ie. not very useful.

  4. HI Nobel - I was intrigued by your post on guilt and shame since I was planning to write a blog on the same subject on Saturday and then ended up doing some "real" writing, as in the kind that would get published in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Is there a place for guilt and shame in life? Perhaps the more appropriate question would be "what is the function of guilt and shame in life" since apparently we all fall subject to these emotions - if you can call them that.

    My post was going to point out the obvious - that we all suffer from guilt and shame at some level and why is that? A friend once told me "guilt is its own reward." It took me years to figure out the meaning of that cryptic statement.

    And I was also going to point out that if we all suffer from guilt and shame then perhaps it serves a function, perhaps positive at some level, and therefore it could be some kind of important human adaptive condition (always seeing things from the perspective of an anthropologist). As far as we know, other animals don't experience these emotions. But then it would be hard to tell if they did.

    I have no clue what that function is, I just know it exists and sometimes it keeps people in check and sometimes it does the opposite and makes people go completely bonkers!

    I also think at some macrocosmic level we carry guilt and shame for local and global atrocities, and maybe we should be guilty and ashamed of what is going on around us - not that I want to feel guilty or make others feel guilty, but the reality of our lives in 2011 is that a lot of inequities exist and we do have some responsibility in this.

  5. @Yyogini, I'm happy to hear that you don't suffer from injury guilt. I don't think it is a productive thing to experience.

  6. @Cathrine, hmm... it might very well be true that guilt and shame serve an evolutionary-adaptive function in getting humans to do things they might not otherwise do to help the species survive or survive better. And maybe it doesn't exist in other animals because they don't need it; maybe their lives are not as complex as ours. I don't know this for sure; I'm guessing.

    But seen in this light, perhaps the collective guilt and shame that we carry for local and global atrocities serve an evolutionary function too. Interesting.

  7. I've seen dogs and cats with guilty looks on their faces before. This'll actually get them to behave better for a shorter period of time, until they start causing trouble again :)

  8. When I feel guilty, which I do (a lot), it really only puts me in a state of self-pity, which is not positive whatsoever. Not only am I not fulfilling myself, but I'm ignoring my responsibilities to those I care for. Guilt ultimately equals regret, and regret is that state of mind wishing the present wasn't as it is. So it's really self-denial.

    This sort of reminds me of Nietzche and the Genealogy of Morals where he talks about the origin of the Ascetic Ideals. Where we think it is moral to deny ourselves to the point where we are just a part of the "herd". I just think that if you wish to walk the middle path self-denial puts you far off balance.

    I also like to think of it in terms of Sarte's "Bad Faith" because you're not acknowledging your facticity (you being in situation) and your transcendence (you being beyond your situation). Where guilt lies is in the past, and although we should look on into the past for guidance for future actions, we should never dwell there.

    I like to think of yoga as the reset button of guilt. It removes me from both my facticity and my transcendence, in order to comeback with a clear mind so I can rediscover both of those aspects anew.

    That was a lovely little rant. It got me thinking about more film ideas. Your blog seems to get my creative juices flowing. That I am thankful for! :D

  9. @Yyogini, so maybe dogs and cats do feel guilty too :-) Come to think of it, I've seen that guilty look on dog's faces before. So maybe the evolutionary explanation of guilt may have something to it, after all :-)

    @Chris, guilt as a form of self-denial. Interesting. I haven't thought about it this way, but I think this is true. I think Nietzsche was definitely on to something with his talk of slave morality, and how the mechanisms of this morality (guilt being one of them) pulls everyone down to the same level of mediocrity. Am a bit rusty on my Sartre, so I can't really comment on that :-)

    Yes, I totally relate and agree to the idea of yoga as a reset button of guilt.

    I am happy that you find my blog useful to your creativity :-)