On the Futility of Regret
When you fall into a fault, in whatever matter it may be, do not trouble or afflict yourself for it. For they are the effects of our frail Nature, stained by Original Sin….Would not he be a mere fool who, running at tournament with others, and falling in the best of the career, should lie weeping on the ground and afflicting himself with discourses upon his fall? Man (they would tell him), lose no time, get up and take the course again, for he that rises again quickly and continues his race is as if he had never fallen…. —Miguel de Molinos
One principle of Buddhist philosophy that I have really taken to heart in life is that regret, or remorse, or feelings of shame and guilt over deeds done, is always bad. Using Buddhist terminology it is “unskillful” or “bad karma”; that is, it always has negative effects and makes matters worse than they already are. In short, regret over the past takes one farther away from wisdom and happiness, let alone Nirvana.
Even some veteran Buddhists, including some senior monks, have been disturbed and/or indignant at my refusal to feel or acknowledge remorse over acts they considered to be misdeeds on my part. A striking example can be found in the comments to my notorious post “Let This Be a Lesson” on the old blog. Even though I had freely acknowledged that I had learned my lesson and had no intention of repeating the experiment (which involved breaking a few relatively very serious rules), I was informed that some senior monks were “creeped out” by my attitude, if I remember the phrase correctly, and one German monk who actually was relatively sympathetic toward my self-revelation went so far as to compare me to Hermann Goering defending himself at the Nuremberg trials, and to a pedophile (the latter presumably because many pedophiles insist that they are innocent of any wrong and are simply acting in accordance with their nature). It apparently was the opinion of some good Buddhists that I should suffer, and it was clearly the opinion of a few that I should, if not because of past deeds then because of their present hostile verbal attacks. But I did not really regret my actions (which did not involve war crimes or pedophilia), and still don’t; and to apologize falsely with the magic formula “I’m sorry” would have added dishonesty to my list of misdeeds. And besides, as anyone with an ounce of sense knows nowadays, backing down and apologizing to an outraged mob on the Internet is one of the stupidest mistakes one can make. Like regret itself, it also makes things worse.
The technical term in Pali for regret and similar mental states is kukkucca, often translated into English as worry or anxiety. One can experience kukkucca with regard to the present or future as well as the past, such as worry that something bad might happen, or fear of being caught, or worry that someone already knows what the person has done. This kukkucca is always a negative or unskillful mental state, regardless of its object, or its tense.
One might argue that remorse and “repentance” may have the positive effect of discouraging similar misconduct in future; after all, there are many people in this world who have become better people from having to change themselves, because they felt like dirt and could hardly live with themselves after doing something bad or harmful or wrong. Nevertheless, using feelings of guilt as a behavioral modifier is rather like pounding nails with one’s fist—one may get the nail hammered down, but it hurts the hell out of one’s fist in the process. If the nail really needs to be pounded and the best one has to pound it is one’s fist, or rather if remorse is the only way to motivate a person to become better, then so be it. But even so, it could be called a left-handed path to take, regardless of the great value attributed to repentance—accompanied with tears and chest-beating—in the Christian Bible. I may as well add that the famous and very strict old monk Pah Auk Sayadaw once told me that vinaya kukkucca, or worry about whether or not something is against the rules, may actually be good. But I assume that what he meant in that context is that it is the lesser of two evils; experiencing remorse which inspires one to clean up one’s act, or just to avoid unnecessary rascality in future, may really be the lesser of two evils. But it is still an evil, at least according to ancient Indian Buddhist philosophy.
Although kukkucca or anxiety is considered always to be akusala or “bad karma,” and should be avoided if feasible, there is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that you made a mistake, and sincerely determining to try to do better in future. But moral scruples should be entertained BEFORE one does the deed, not after. The kinds of moral scruples which arise before one perpetrates an act of naughtiness are called hiri and ottappa—meaning something like “modesty” and “prudence.” Both of these are declared to be skillful mental states, or “good karma”; in fact the Pali texts refer to them as a person’s great protectors in life.
Regret is essentially a case of wanting the past to be different from what it actually was—which of course isn’t going to happen! Wishing you had done things differently may be doubly unrealistic and futile if you wished you had done something you couldn’t realistically have done anyway, like knowing in advance of some unforeseen consequence, or having had a different nature and attitude in general. If you fall down, get back up, brush yourself off, and continue moving forward; don’t sit on the ground lamenting over having fallen and wishing that you hadn’t. If you hurt someone else, or just royally pissed them off, do whatever is appropriate to rectify or lessen the severity of the situation; although it’s better not to resort to dishonest apologies—saying you’re sorry if you’re not sorry. And of course Buddhism says you shouldn’t be sorry anyway.
The whole purpose of Dharma is happiness, or at least the absence of its opposite, and all we really have is the present moment. If you are miserable now, you are failing now, and again, now is all we’ve got. So cheer up and be happy, regardless of all those nuns and orphans you accidentally killed fifteen years ago. That was then, and this is now.