Practicing With "Mistakes"


Earlier this year my adult son was having a difficult time. I made myself available to him in various ways, but ultimately I could not cauterize his pain. I felt very bad about what I believed were the selfish, thoughtless mistakes I made as a mother; mistakes that seemed formative in my son's ability or inability to meet these difficulties.

I felt shame for not having been the person I wish I had been and had a strong urge to get together with my son to tell him I was sorry -- to give him the opportunity to castigate me. But, even that was selfish. It was more about me than about harm to my child. Ultimately I wanted the mistakes I made as a mother to go away.

For the past several months I have been looking for a way to understand how to hold these thoughts and feelings, and have been asking, "How do I apply my Zen practice to this situation?" What is starting to become clear is that there is a difference between "shame" and what I will call "regret" -- which represents to me the balanced way to acknowledge missteps, without needing to change anything.

Regret is an awareness of a misstep in the practice of the precepts and our Bodhisattva vows. These vows are based on the proposition that none of us are sole operators, that we are all in this together.

Shame has the aspect of evaluation and is a negative, paralyzing emotion, based on non-acceptance of oneself. It is self-reifying and it can be paralyzing.

Here is a story: A friend told me that he was in the kitchen at the Tassajara mountain monastery one fall. He spent quite a bit of time cutting and preparing the tofu for the community meal the next day. As he was carrying the full hotel pan of cubed tofu to the walk-in refrigerator, it slipped and fell from his hands, landing the tofu on the well-trod floor. Horrified, and unable to think, he scooped up the tofu with his hands, placed it in the pan, left the pan on the shelf and went to his cabin. He could barely sleep. Entering the kitchen the next morning he knew he had to face the Tenzo (head cook). With head held low, he admitted his mistake, sure that he would be banished. The Tenzo stood still for a moment, and then said, "Let's just spritz it off in the sink." My friend saw how his shame had kept him from thinking clearly -- how his involvement with his "personal" mistake and concern for the consequence of being seen as less than perfect had overridden everything. He told me that he has had quite a different, and softer relationship with mistakes since that day.

Shame may be so strong that we could tend to not even acknowledge mistakes, or underestimate them. To want the mistake to go away is a not exactly a mistake -- it's just an impossibility.

Shame does not make things better. It can lead to depression and frustration rather than change or improvement. It is usually a negative focus upon oneself: "I am an BAD person. I can't bear myself. I am unworthy." While this response may LOOK LIKE humility, it is often a subtle form of self-deprecating laziness. Laziness in the same way that working too hard is a form of laziness -- overdoing as a way to control the pain by increasing it. Shame is an obstacle to overcome on the path, because it keeps us trapped in our self-centered melodrama entitled "How Bad I Am."

Regret for past unwholesome actions is appropriate. Regret realizes that we erred; its coolness makes it easier to rededicate ourselves to refrain from acting like that in the future. We regret the circumstances, which include our intentions and our ignorance -- but know that we are not just our individual action. We are intimately connected to everything, and the causal conditions of our life are infinite. This does not mean that we are not responsible, but rather we are encouraged to meet what we can with eyes and heart wide open, knowing that we can not control the world -- merely respond from where we stand.

How can we encourage the diminution of shame, and transformation of shame into regret? One way is to recognize that the person who did that action no longer exists. You are different now. Is the person who did that action five years ago the same person you are now? If she were exactly the same person, you would still be doing the same action. The present "you" exists in a continuum from that person but is not exactly the same as her. Look back at the person you were with compassion. You can understand the suffering and confusion she was experiencing that made her act in that way.

We have an opportunity right now to practice ethical action, to practice the precepts with the person who is feeling shame. Give to her, don't take anything away. Tell her the truth. Be humble. Don't hate her, or the actions that were taken.

The Bodhisattva vows are aspirational. We aspire to our vows, but do not judge ourselves or others about whether or not our actions are aligned.The precepts are guidelines, not inviolable statutes. We aspire to be compassionate to whatever thoughts or activities are happening. We aspire to be present and not distracted. We aspire to practice giving, and ethics, and enthusiasm and patience and concentration and wisdom. For the benefit of others. When we regret without sharp judgment we are participating in the growth of compassion and wisdom.

This doesn't mean that regret isn't uncomfortable. This discomfort is helpful in developing our ethics. It does not mean that regret is passive. It is important to recognize past mistakes for what they are, and to make amends whenever possible for any harm we have done to others or pain we may have caused them. But we do not dwell on past mistakes, whether they be our own or other people's.

If the shame takes over, and turns into a knot -- practice ethics right now! Be kind to the tightness. Don't try to get rid of it. Say thank you -- but not in order to loosen the tightness. Be careful with it, and patient with the pain. Restrain the impulse of going to another less painful place. Something good is growing alongside it -- precepts are being practiced. If it the knot of shame is really strong, practice concentration and be with it in a calm, relaxed way. This will help you, and it will show others how to relax with their pain. Then apply the wisdom teachings -- and open to what the knot really is. After all, aren't we ultimately mistaken about everything?

Use the precepts to relate to having broken the precepts or forgotten the wish. The most we can do is to use the precepts right now to relate to having forgotten the precepts.