We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up over things we did wrong in the past, or that we think that we did wrong. And so we all need to forgive ourselves.
When we don’t forgive ourselves we often wish we could change the past. We replay past events over and over again, sometimes reliving events as they actually happened and blaming ourselves, and sometimes imagining that things went a different way. Then we end up regretting that this alternative reality didn’t actually happen.
And I think there’s a kind of myth about time that’s worth examining.
The Idea, “I Should Have Done Better”
I want to approach this myth from a direction that might seem a bit unusual. I’m going to start with talking about golf. Don’t worry if you’re not a sports fan. I’m not a sports fan! I don’t even play golf. So, no golf experience is necessary. But I think we can all imagine playing golf or practicing some other skill.
For now, just imagine that you’re a pretty good golf player. You’ve lined yourself up to take a short putt — something you’ve done many times before. You almost always get the ball in the hole with such shots because you’re a good golfer. But on this particular occasion, for whatever reason, the ball does not go in the hole. Perhaps you get close. But, as they say, no cigar.
Now, in sinking a putt we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables. Every time you make the same movement with your body it’s slightly different. However much you practice, there’s an unavoidable imprecision in your body movements and therefore in the movement of your putter. There are other conditions that you can’t control — deformations of the putting green, how wet or dry the grass is , how hard or soft the ground is, changing wind conditions, how focused you are, whether you’re feeling stressed, for example. Those are just some of the variables involved in making a putt.
So you missed the putt for whatever reason. Maybe you would sink it 99 percent of the time, but this is one of the one percent times. And you can say to yourself, “Damn, I should have got that putt!” and you might feel really angry with yourself. You might get really down on yourself and be very critical about yourself, but the thing is you missed the putt.
And you keep thinking, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.” The thought obsesses you.
Could You Have Acted Differently?
Now, you don’t have the ability to go back in time and step back into the exactly same circumstances and conditions. In fact if you literally did go back in time and were in exactly the same place, and exactly the same situation, under exactly the same conditions, what would happen? You would miss the putt again, because the conditions that existed at that time were the conditions that existed at that time!
Now you might think, “Yes, but if I could go back in time I’d have the knowledge that I was about to miss the putt, and I’d do things differently.” But then you’re not in exactly the same conditions. You’re in a different set of conditions. And that, in a world where we are unable to project our present-moment consciousness back into the past, is a set of conditions that can never have existed.
So the the idea that you you should have sunk the putt is an abstraction. it’s referring to a different kind of world than the world that we actually live in.
Applying This to Non-Sports Things
So let’s apply this reflection to other things in our lives.
Let’s say you lost your temper with someone, and you said some things that were unpleasant. And afterwards you regret that, which is fine by the way, since regret is perfectly natural and ethical thing to do. We can regret something without beating ourselves us. It’s beating ourselves up that is the problem.
But the thing is, if you look back at that particular event, if you could see all of the conditions that were pertaining at that particular time—your expectations, and your stress levels, and all the different things that you were juggling in your mind at that particular point, and your physiological states, depending on how tired you were what your blood sugar level was, and so on—if you could see all of those conditions you would realize that it was inevitable in that moment that you were going to lose your temper.
You were doing the best you could with the resources that were available to you. In fact, you did the only thing that you could with the resources available to you. Now, you can say, “Well, if I’d had a bit more mindfulness then I could have acted better.” But in that moment you didn’t have more mindfulness! You had as much mindfulness as you had! The idea that you could have done something differently is again a kind of an abstraction. It assumes that our present-moment state of mind can somehow affect our past state of mind, which is of course not possible.
Solutions Are In the Present, Not the Past
The myth about time that we need to see through is that the solution to painful regrets lies in the past. It doesn’t. The solution to our suffering lies right here, in the present.
The important thing is now. The regret you have about past unskillful actions is happening now. The learning you’re having, drawn from the lessons of the past., is happening now. The intention to act differently in the future is happening now.
And those things are happening now. So, in the present moment:
- Let the past be the past.
- Regret what you did wrong, which is just another way of saying “realize that what you did wrong was wrong.”
- Accept that you did the best you could with the resources available.
- Learn from your past mistakes.
- Intend to act differently in the future.
You can of course opt to use the present moment for beating yourself up, but self-punishment, calling yourself names, telling yourself you’re a bad person, and so on are all unskillful, unhelpful, and painful ways of acting. They’re a waste of this precious moment we have in the present to act in ways that promote our long-term happiness and well-being.
This Isn’t Determinism
Now, it might sound like I’m being deterministic—that we have no choice and therefore no responsibility. That’s not what I’m saying, as I’ll explain
The ability to choose courses of action, including the choice not to do something that hurts us and other people, is always potentially available to us, but practically speaking it often isn’t, because we frequently lack mindfulness. Without mindfulness, it’s as if our lives are predetermined by conditions. When we have mindfulness, life becomes more creative. We begin to be able to make choices that prevent suffering happen to ourselves or others.
Normally we’re not very mindful. I remember reading about a study once that showed that what we do and say is something like 80 percent predictable. Normally our habits simply roll on, without much mindful intervention.
An Analogy for Mindfulness, and Its Lack
Imagine a heavy ball rolling down a slope toward something precious, like a kitten. The ball is going to hit the kitten (which is, for the sake of argument, too young to move out of the way). That’s life without mindfulness. Our habitual impulses roll on, like heavy balls on a slope. Sometimes bad things happen as a result.
Now, imagine there’s someone observing the ball rolling down the slope. They see what’s about to happen, and with the touch of their hand the ball is diverted on a different course and the kitten remains untouched. That’s life with mindfulness (or with sufficient mindfulness to take action, which is the important thing).
It’s just an analogy. Don’t overthink it!
In any given moment of life, you either have enough mindfulness to act skillfully, or you don’t. When there’s no mindfulness present, it’s like there’s no one there to nudge the heavy ball.
And any moment in the past when you acted badly was a moment when you didn’t have sufficient mindfulness or wisdom to do otherwise.
Mindfulness = Wiggle Room
Mindfulness gives us wiggle-room. And if we want to live happier lives, and to have fewer regrets, then we should make it a goal to develop more mindfulness. Because more mindfulness gives us more wiggle-room.
With the little bit of mindfulness we have at present, we recognize that life has more potential for happiness when we’re mindful. So we set up conditions so that we can develop even more mindfulness. We meditate, for example. Or we commit ourselves to living according to ethical principles, like Buddhism’s five precepts. Or we join a community of other people who also intend to cultivate mindfulness. Or we go on a retreat where we can intensively train in mindfulness. Or we study by reading books and listening to talks on mindfulness so that we understand better what it is we’re trying to achieve. Or we create mindfulness triggers for ourselves. Or, all of the above.
- Lovingkindness: the missing link
- Five ways to forgive yourself and let go of painful regret
- The art of self-forgiveness
- Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness
And right now, in the present moment, as we look back on things that we regret doing (or not doing) we recognize that self-blame is a painful waste of time. We recognize the value of accepting that we did what we did, and we did the best we could with the resources available to us at that time, and we in fact couldn’t have done otherwise. And in this present moment we can ask how we might act differently in the future.
The key to forgiveness is seeing that the solution to our present suffering is not in the past. It’s here, now. You can’t go back and change the past. But you can bring about change right now. And that’s going to benefit you—and other people—in the future.