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May 21
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On Regret and Reconciliation

Letting go, photo by David Whitehorn

Letting go, photo by David Whitehorn

COLUMN: Aging in Enlightened Society
A Personal Reflection

by David Whitehorn

In an interview a few years before his recent unexpected death at age 77, the masterful Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, when asked whether he had any regrets in life, answered with an immediate, “No, I wouldn’t change a thing.” The following personal reflections arose from his response.

Getting older, with more and more life spread out on the time line behind, there seems to be a tendency to recall and contemplate what has happened. Some memories are touching and uplifting (the birth of a child), some are profound (time spent with a spiritual mentor), and some are disturbing. It is the latter category that raises the question of regret and reconciliation.

In my experience, some disturbing memories have to do with life changing decisions. Looking back, these decisions seem to have contributed to a current situation that is, in some ways, difficult. An example might be a career choice made decades ago that resulted in reduced earnings.

Other disturbing memories are related to interpersonal situations. In these cases, something was said or done that disrupted a relationship and, importantly, resulted in another person experiencing pain and distress.

From the perspective of warriorship in old age, how can we relate with these kinds of memories and the feelings of regret that arise with them?

To begin, it would seem helpful to use the skills developed in meditation to observe and become familiar with these memories as they arise and dissolve. Experiencing the memories and the emotional sense of regret that comes with them in a space of curiosity and acceptance could provide a basis for further work with them.

A further step might involve deeper reflection on the process of cause and effect. For example, in her recent talk to the graduating class of Naropa University, Ani Pema Chodron, a revered wise woman elder of Shambhala, discussed the nature of failure, what happens when things don’t go the way we would like them to. She noted, as many have before, that sometimes events that seem at the time to be highly negative can, over a longer period of time, turn out to have quite positive ramifications (and vice versa).

The relevance here might be that an event from our past that we remember as negative may have, in the years thereafter, contributed to a sequence of events that resulted in something positive and uplifting. We may have no knowledge of these subsequent events.

As well, there is no way for us to know what would have transpired in our lives, and those of others, had we not made the particular decision or action that we now remember as negative.

Following these logics we might be able to relax and appreciate the complexity of how life unfolds, and be less concerned about whether we have, in the past, done something that was ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

At the same time we may need to be alert to the possibility that we are using our meditation skills and knowledge of cause and effect to bypass our actual experience. The path of warriorship, with its emphasis on engaging with the world and creating good human society, would seem to call upon us to relate more directly with how we interact with others and the consequences of the choices we make.

In that context could we experience a sense of ‘regret’ without indulging in shame or blame? Could we simply acknowledge that our actions have contributed to pain or difficulty for ourselves or for others?

From this point of view we might also recognize that it seems impossible to go through life without, in many ways, causing problems or harm to ourselves and others. Nonetheless, we could ‘regret’ doing so.

Perhaps more directly, we could acknowledge disturbing memories and a sense of regret on the spot, and consider how to go forward with the intent to clarify and purify the situations.

Reconciliation is a word that could be used to point toward a process of relating with disturbing memories and the situations from which they arose. Reconciliation, for me, brings forth an image of engaging with the people involved in these past events in a way that tends to lead them, and me, to a sense of acknowledgment of what happened.

This could be viewed as a form of apology. Recently, another wise woman elder in Shambhala, Nancy Porter-Steele, pointed out to me the key elements of an apology.

Winter thaw, by David Whitehorn

Winter thaw, by David Whitehorn

First is a clear statement of what I did (or failed to do) that was, in my view, not okay. Second is a description of what was going on with me that caused/resulted in my doing that, and third is an aspiration as to what I will do if a similar situation arises in the future.

With regrets of past events it is often impossible, and perhaps inappropriate, to actually communicate with other people who were involved. Nonetheless, these steps can be used as a framework for contemplation, and can support an internal process of apology.

This kind of contemplation offers an opportunity not only to provide some sense of clarification and purification, but also to learn from past experience, and particularly in step three, to influence future behavior.

Finally, the entire process of contemplating on regret can reveal that it is ‘me’ – the constructed self- that is creating the sense of regret. It is ‘me’, looking back and trying to tidy up my sense of how my life has unfolded. At the same time, the events and decisions that now appear as disturbing memories were carried out in the context of creating a sense of self, of trying to navigate through a fluid world of phenomena from the perspective of a separate, and prioritized self, of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

With all of these reflections in mind, I continue to wonder what it means that Alister MacLeod had no regrets. As so often is the case, Sakyong Mipham illuminates the issue, in this case with a short quote from his book Ruling Your World:

It is said that if our intention is to help others – even if we are unable to follow it through – we will never have any regret. Regret is a result of trying to make “me” happy.
~ Sakyong Mipham.

What I have heard about Alister MacLeod as a human being, from his friends and family, would seem to support the conclusion that he was a person who always had the intention of helping others. He was cheerful, inquisitive and thoughtful, with a penetrating sense of humor. No doubt there were times when he could not follow through, but nonetheless his intention seems to have always been there. What a wonderful example of basic goodness and an inspiration for aging warriors.

Note: The intent of these rambling personal reflections is to encourage fellow warriors to look more deeply into their own experience of regret and reconciliation and to study the profound teachings that offer guidance on the relevant view, practice and action. The writings of Alister MacLeod, steeped in his life-long connection with Cape Breton, are a lasting offering that all warriors will surely appreciate.

To read more articles in this Column, please click here.

David WhitehornDavid Whitehorn
is 72 years of age. He served as the first chairperson of the Shambhala Working Group on Aging and recently represented Shambhala in a forum on aging in Buddhist communities published in Buddhadharma Magazine. He has previously written about his experience of being ill: click here to read the article. With Ann Cason he did a Shambhala online presentation in January 2013 entitled “The experience of illness in old age”.

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2 responses to “ On Regret and Reconciliation ”
  1. Thank you for this article. Well done!

  2. David-Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on regret. Awareness seems to be the place to start.

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