Of Gifts and Guilt

The sense of guilt is pervasive in the West, and when we feel fundamentally undeserving it’s difficult to accept good things into our lives – this can apply to presents, relationships, and experiences. I’m sure we all know people (perhaps quite intimately) who simply can’t allow others to do nice things for them, or to accept gifts of any sort.

Practice itself is in many ways a gift – opening experiences and kenshos are certainly gifts – and if part of us feels we don’t deserve such things, we may either refuse them in the first place, or if they do slip in, may respond by shutting them down – saying we haven’t done well enough, or that we’re not good enough.

This is an interesting dynamic, one that may carry particular implications for Buddhist practice in West. One thing that can happen when certain powerful opening experiences are experienced, and then fade, is that we spend years chasing after them in an attempt to recreate some past ‘happening.’ Another kind of response, addressed in koan–based Zen training through some of the subsequent koans, is the pridefulness, and narcissism, that can paradoxically arise after a breakthrough experience. However, as far as I know, there are no teachings, or koans that deal with the reverse phenomena – the rejection and denial of a particular experience. Sometimes, for some people, there’s a kind of knee jerk reaction to distance from it – in the blink of an eye we shut it down, push it away, minimize it, or deny it; sometimes, with a deeper experience, this rejection may take some weeks before it manifests itself, and people are left wondering what it was that actually occurred?

For most people, when we’ve actually done something wrong, at least a part of us wants to get caught and suffer the consequences – and we do this in order to free ourselves from the guilt.1

Likewise, when we harbor unconscious guilt (related to unconscious feelings and impulses), it can be incredibly difficult to open up because we’re afraid of what we’ll find (or what others will see). There’s that implicit internal understanding that not only don’t we deserve good things – we deserve to suffer and fail. This can play itself out over and over again, and in my experience no intensity of concentration, or depth of practice, really resolves these kinds of unconscious issues at their core – it calls for dealing directly with the repression.

And as long as these hurtful kinds of feelings and impulses remain unconscious, they function as if we had actually acted on them. They can hold the compelling reality of an intense dream, which colors our whole dream-world until we wake up.  When these feelings and impulses do break into consciousness, and we see they are only feelings and impulses, they lose their captivating, self-punitive imperative.

  1. Interestingly, the following was an article that appeared in the Huffington Post on 7/31/2012 as I was working on this page:  Case Of Man Murdered Selling His Car Unsolved For 20 Years
    22-year old Randy Soderberg left his wife and daughter so he could sell his Mustang, only he never returned. His murder and the case that went unsolved for twenty years… was the story on this week’s “Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets” (Mon., 11 p.m. ET on ID).
    His body was ultimately found, but for twenty years the police couldn’t solve the case. They’d even interviewed the man who bought his car, Marcus Everett. He was presumably the last man to see Soderberg alive, but authorities could find no evidence to link him to the killing.
    But two decades later, Everett was arrested for stealing gas, and inexplicably confessed to killing Randy Soderberg. His reason for the confession?
    “I desperately want a relationship with God, and I can’t do that knowing that I’ve murdered somebody.”
    Everett detailed how he killed Soderberg by bludgeoning him with a rock. He’d committed the crime because Soderberg reminded him of his troubled relationship with his own father.
    (As a personal comment – this brief article graphically conveys the haunting power of guilt, the fundamental wish for intimacy and spirituality, and this kind of ‘unconscious echo’ that reveals so clearly that the intended victim was the father.)