The Enormous Gravity of Guilt

By Anthony Gold

Two monks are silently walking along a river path when they encounter a beautiful woman looking to cross the water to the other bank. The woman is wearing expensive, flowing clothes and is worried her dress will be ruined by the water and mud.

The older monk picks the woman up on his shoulders, carries her across the river, and sets her down on the other side. The woman graciously thanks the monk, and the two ascetics resume their silent journey toward the monastery.

Several hours later as they neared their cloister, the younger monk could no longer contain his disdain and lashed out expressing severe disappointment. “How could you have touched that woman! We are holy men who have taken a vow of chastity. And you not only put your hands on her, but you picked her up and carried her. What were you thinking?”

The wise monk gently smiled and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

How much baggage are we carrying that could easily have been set down long ago?

Guilt is such a burden – a heavy load indeed.

We experience guilt when we believe that we’ve compromised our own standard of conduct, whether that be by hurting someone or otherwise doing something we believe we shouldn’t have done (or conversely, not doing something we wished we would have done).

And we choose guilt partly as a form of self-punishment. We’re not proud of our actions, and by feeling guilty we perversely believe we are meting out a just form of discipline. Of course, this doesn’t happen at the conscious level. No one in their right mind thinks, “Hmm, that wasn’t good. Let me try feeling guilty as a way to cope.”

Freud, one of the first to truly understand this insidious coping mechanism, believed the impetus for guilt stemmed from tension between the ego and superego. And while he understood the dynamics, he wasn’t quite right on the agency.

By holding on to guilt, we mistakenly believe that we can atone for our mistake. We presume (quite insistently, though subconsciously) that we are deserving of punishment, and guilt enables us to preferably take matters into our own hands.

Yet, as the younger monk painfully discovered, the least effective way to get rid of something is to hold on to it. By carrying the enormous weight of guilt, we relive the painful experience over and over and over. An inner form of self-flagellation causing the deepest of wounds. As Freud said of guilt: “the most powerful of all obstacles”.

How much more helpful to recognize the choice for guilt, acknowledge its harmful effects, and gently set it down.

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the maladaptive consequences of guilt and how we can practice the sage guidance of the older monk. I look forward to seeing you then.

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