Q&A: When We’ve Done Wrong
What do we do about things we’ve done wrong in the past or ongoing troubling situations?
Student: What about dealing with things that you know you have done wrong in the past... a person you've wronged, and the circumstance may become ongoing, or may just be in the past. What is the Buddhist take on that?
Culadasa: Well, that's a very good question, and as a matter of fact, that's a kind of thing that does come up in meditation because, in order to be very calm and very focused, we sooner or later have to deal with all of these things that we've buried or pushed aside. So, there's things that we have done in the past that we may not even think about, but they're still affecting us, and they're still producing disturbance and agitation in the mind.
And when you get into deeper states of meditation, all of a sudden you find- there it is. Sometimes it comes up and is right away recognizable, sometimes you first become aware of the emotions associated with it, and it takes a little while before enough of it emerges that you recognize what it is. And the other kind of thing is of course, as you say, ongoing situations that you're in. And we are all very adept, very skilled, at compartmentalizing those things and pushing them aside and feeling like, even though they're ongoing, feeling like they're not... they're not a problem. But once again, even as in meditation as your mind settles down, we discovered that you can't really hide any of those thoughts, sooner or later it comes up. And so you are left with the question of, what do you do about it?
What you... ultimately, what you need to do with it, is to get completely beyond it, resolve it, let go of it, be finished with it once and for all. But, what you may have to do to make that happen is... that's the other kind of question. Things that have happened a long time ago, there's often less that you can actually do, in terms of actual actions or saying anything, but sometimes there is. And sometimes, even though it's long in the past, if you can make some kind of reparation or an apology, or something like that, this will ease a lot of the emotional attachment that you still have to it. And, right now, just because of the way you stated your question, I'm sort of speaking in terms of something that you may have done that you're disturbed by, but, you know, it also includes things that were done to you and you're still carrying resentment and anger... it can be any kind of thing. But if there's anything that you can do to let go of the emotional baggage that you carry associated with some past action... if it's something you did, you're going to need to forgive yourself, and you're going to need to do whatever you can do to help you forgive yourself. Or if it's something somebody else did, you're going to need to forgive them, and you're going to need to do whatever is necessary to bring you to that place.
Because you want to be able to let go of it. You want to be able to just look at it, confront it, and say "that's passed, that's settled, that's over and and done with, there's nothing left, there's no reason to hold onto it anymore". So as long as you have something that's making you hold onto it, that you can do something about, the easiest thing to do is to go ahead and do something about it. And then it makes that next step of letting go a lot easier, because now you've done the thing. There's not some part of your mind niggling away that "well you could do this, you could phone them up and say, I'm sorry", or, whatever. But if it's in your mind as a possibility and you haven't done it, it might continue to be in the way of letting go of it.
If it's something that's ongoing, you're not only going to have to let go of the feelings that you have about what you've already done, you're going to have to stop doing it as well. And sometimes, you know, that might mean that you have to do something in terms of the situation or relationship, but you're definitely going to have to do something about what's happening in you that keeps it going. For example, you have a relationship with a close family member that's a problem. And what we always tend to do is to see how it's a problem because of the way the other person is, what they did. And even when we look at the part of it that involves us, we tend to see it as not something that... as something that, well, it's bound to be that way, how else can I react to it? Anybody would feel this way! In other words, we have the kind of thoughts that actually keep us from making any sort of necessary change. And this is where the power of mindfulness comes in, mindfulness, the practice of mindful awareness, is just clearly observing what's really going on, especially in yourself, in situations like this.
And, a very useful way to start, you know... suppose there's a problem you have with a family member and it creates a lot of resentment, negative emotions, disagreements, whatever it is that you're experiencing in yourself. And, of course, the dynamic is that you'll do or say something and they'll do or say something, so it never kind of ends, you keep it going. What you have to do is start just observing yourself. You observe, okay... first of all, what are the sensations in my body really associated with every aspect of the situation. And that can... that gives mindful awareness some ground to start to see in. And then you can go from the way it makes you feel physically to the kinds of feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness and other emotional things that are there. And you try not to judge. You just look at them. You just... the magic of this... and I'm seeing this now... I've been talking about this and practicing this for years, but I have a new paradigm by which to see; this is a feedback paradigm. What my full awareness does is it gives all the other parts of your mind feedback into the actual results of their action or their states of being. Forget the idea that you'd have "a" mind. You have a vast collection of mental processes, and they've all got their own agendas and they're all doing their own thing. And in these kinds of situations that we're talking about, there's a variety of processes taking place at an unconscious level that are producing our emotions and our actions and our reactions and perpetuating them.
And they're able to keep doing this because they never get the right feedback. You know, they don't get the feedback that, well, "being with her makes me feel terrible, and it's because of the way I'm reacting". Instead, they get feedback "being with her makes me feel terrible and it's all her fault". And so those unconscious mental processes don't have the feedback they need to stop creating the same situation. Whereas you put mindful awareness in there, you see what's actually taking place. You see how it feels physically, you see how it feels mentally, you see how your... your reactions, you see where they're coming from. They're coming from your own past stuff. Everybody's got some collection of neurotic tendencies, some degree of insecurity or, things that you don't like about yourself, that other people remind you of... you don't need to analyze all that stuff. You just need to open yourself to letting that information seep in and percolate down through to that 99% of your mind that never sees the light of conscious awareness but determines all of your feelings and reactions and everything else. So you let mindfulness provide that feedback. And then, those parts of your mind that are contributing to the problem, they begin to change. So you combine the practice of mindful awareness with the recognition, with the things that you, that originally brought you to this, you realize that there's guilt or there's agitation, there's different kinds of feelings that come up and plague you because of the situation. And there's the obvious things that you can do, like restraining from saying certain kinds of things or restrain from engaging in certain kinds of actions that are not going to produce beneficial results, but then practicing the mindfulness that's going to get really to the root of the problem.
So, you have to deal with... you have to deal with both the past and old stuff, and you have to deal with the present stuff. And the primary tool for dealing with it is just mindful awareness. If it's old stuff, you just look at it and see it for what it really is. And you try to get to that place of accepting it and letting go of it, and you do whatever you have to to allow that to happen. Sometimes with old stuff, the person involved is dead. Well, that doesn't keep you from talking to them, or writing a letter to them, or whatever works for you. Whatever you need to do, you find a way to do it. When it's in the present, it's the same thing. You put your full mindfulness on the situation and you try to catch yourself anytime your mind does any of its tricks of "well, this is uncomfortable to look at, so we'll think of something else", or do something else, or blame the unpleasant feelings that you have physically or mentally on the situation or on the other person instead of realizing that where they come from is inside you, because of what your mind is doing. So, you just bring the mindfulness to bear. And then you also do whatever you have to and whatever you can, in terms of that part of ourselves that intentionally acts and can therefore refrain from speaking or refrain from doing.
[Inaudible student question or a period of silence]
Culadasa: We all have a lot of those. One of the things that is very valuable... however it comes about, whether it comes about as a result of your meditation practice or it can be any other way, as we begin to be aware of the kind of things that we spoke of, and as we accept responsibility for them, and as we begin to deal with them in positive ways, there tend to be a lot of them. And if we had to deal with every single one of them individually, you know, it might seem like it'd take forever. But the wonderful thing is, is that as we deal with those that we become aware of, it begins... the same work starts being done, and a lot of them get taken care of without our ever having to deal with them one-by-one.
And it's not a process of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Ya know, we're not trying to retrieve all these past events and work them through, or we're not trying to take our present problems and analyze the personality. We don't have to do all of that kind of stuff. We let it take care of itself through the practice of mindfulness, and doing what's obvious that we can do, and that we need to do. Which is mostly... it can involve some doing, but an awful lot of it is not doing. Some problem, just an example, some problem that you have with somebody that you work with. And the old way of thinking says, well, "I'm going to write all the bad things about this person down in a memo, and I'm going to send it to the boss, I've had enough"... that's the old way of doing things. And that doesn't resolve the problem. Because the boss doesn't read your memo and fire the person, or go to the person and say "here's Jack's memo" and then that person reads it and they change all the things in themselves, because they say, "oh my gosh, you were right all along!" You know? Isn't it funny though, our minds will make us think something like that will work. And people do that a lot, that kind of thing that I just described, right? Do you not agree? They have a fantasy that it's going to produce a kind of result which it absolutely could never possibly produce. And all it does is just make the problem worse. So, some of it is just learning to not do that kind of stuff.
"I'm going to phone my brother up and tell him once and for all exactly what I think of everything..." That never helps. Better, "I'm going to phone myself up, find out..." *Laughs* "...find out what's really going on inside me, when I do this".