Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

The Plus and Minus of Regret

Question — I have been doing quite a bit of reading lately, and in one book, Letters That Have Helped Me by W. Q. Judge, I ran across the statement: "Regret nothing." Frankly, that disturbed me, because I had always believed that the moment you realized you had done wrong you should regret it sincerely, and try to do better. What deterrent is there to hold a person from doing wrong if he isn't ever to regret?

Comment — Your confusion may come from isolating the two words "regret nothing" from the surrounding thoughts. This is a rather risky thing to do, because it often distorts the original meaning. The essence of thought behind the phrase is probably this: don't waste precious time and energy in useless and vain regret.

Question — Well, I can see that. But the statement was simply "regret nothing" and that bothered me. I was thinking of small instances in everyday life. If I were to offend someone thoughtlessly, and then later realized I had, I would regret it and my impulse would be immediately to say: "I'm sorry, I was thoughtless." Somehow that would help to reestablish a feeling of harmony between us. But if we are to regret nothing, how will we ever let the other person know that we are sorry?

Comment — Let us not be too limited and literal in our application of this thought. Obviously in our daily relations with others we should follow the natural rules of courtesy and conduct. If we offend another, or are thoughtless, of course we should feel sorry and the first thing we should do, if we have the opportunity, is to say so and thereby attempt to amend any infraction of harmony. If we ignore the rules of common decency, and attempt to hide behind this axiom "Regret nothing," then we will be making a far graver mistake than the original careless act.

Do you have the book with you? Good. Let me read the full paragraph:

The Past! What is it? Nothing. Gone! Dismiss it. You are the past of yourself. Therefore it concerns you not as such. It only concerns you as you now are. In you, as now you exist, lies all the past. So follow the Hindu maxim: "Regret nothing; never be sorry; and cut all doubts with the sword of spiritual knowledge." Regret is productive only of error. I care not what I was, or what any one was. I only look for what I am each moment. For as each moment is and at once is not, it must follow that if we think of the past we forget the present, and while we forget, the moments fly by us, making more past. Then regret nothing, not even the greatest follies of your life, for they are gone, and you are to work in the present which is both past and future at once. So then, with that absolute knowledge that all your limitations are due to Karma, past or in this life, and with a firm reliance ever now upon Karma as the only judge, who will be good or bad as you make it yourself, you can stand anything that may happen and feel serene despite the occasional despondencies which all feel, but which the light of Truth always dispels.

Let me try to explain this from the standpoint of man's nature: as soon as the human soul feels regret for some transgression, that feeling is impressed upon the consciousness and begins from that moment on to strengthen and build up the conscience. Thus regret is a necessary stage, but it is only a stage. That former wrong act may not have been done in this life at all, for the time element is the least important factor. It is the quality of our action which was impressed with indelible sureness upon our soul, and it is that which warns us now, through the voice of conscience, when we tend to follow a course of thinking or action that we should have outgrown.

Question — Don't we have to feel regret in order for our conscience to work?

Comment — Again let us not take any statement or rule of conduct too literally and miss thereby the spirit of the thought. If we judge everything we read solely by the words used or apply them out of context, we are being as dogmatic as the most orthodox die-hard. "The letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth and giveth life." Naturally we must feel something, we must experience a reaction to wrong action done, else how would we learn? Once this reaction is registered, then is the time to apply the "regret nothing" rule, because regret from that point on, harping on our mistakes, feeling sorry for ourselves on account of the errors we have made, will yield but more sorrow. Learn the lesson; then go ahead, using our energy to strengthen other aspects of our nature, and to imbed the right attitudes of thought and feeling into our consciousness so that we build rather than destroy.

In order to better understand this concept of non-regret we must view it from the standpoint of many lifetimes. In fact, we should properly stretch our perspective to take in the whole gamut of our experiences from the Garden of Eden period on — from the moment we became individual men and women, with self-consciousness and the free will to choose what to do with our newly acquired knowledge of good and evil.

Question — Well, if you're going back to the time of the Garden of Eden — how many thousands or millions of years is it? — I guess we've done all sorts of things we wish we hadn't! Do you suppose we felt regret, way back there?

Comment — As soon as we recognized we were doing wrong, hopefully our conscience needled us sufficiently to make us want to change. But probably most of us have repeated the same mistakes many times. Yet those errors once recognized, far from holding us back, became stepping stones to future success. The physical act is not half as important as the quality of consciousness that brings it into being. Change the quality of our thinking and feeling, and the quality of our acts will inevitably follow suit.

Question — Supposing you do a really bad thing, and don't realize how serious it is at the time; but later you wake up with a shock and feel dreadful. Can you erase that deed by sincere repentance? Is there such a thing as being "forgiven our sins"? I mean, if you are in dead earnest and want awfully to undo the wrong done, can you erase the error by remorse?

Comment — Once an action is done, it cannot be undone — all the tears and lamentations and repentance in the world will not make the slightest difference in life's ledger of debits and credits. However much we may wake up later, we cannot undo the past. What is done is done, and the action, whatever its quality, will inevitably, as day follows night, have its corresponding reaction. There is nothing cruel or arbitrary in this. It is simply that nature's law is inexorably just and — viewed in the light of the soul's growth — is immeasurably compassionate. For it is by the pain of reaction that we grow, and grow strong inwardly, and thus are able more fully to express the quality of the divine spark that is at the heart of each one of us.

So let us not be discouraged: the very recognition, however late in the day it may come, will work its magic of transmutation in our character. When the time comes for us to face the reaction of our error, we will have so strengthened the fiber of our nature that we can meet whatever the effects may be with courage and a new vision.

Question — Can we ever get rid of the "ball and chain" of karma? If I do something wrong and regret it later, will it return upon me again and again, cause and effect, cause and effect, with each effect making a new cause, enchaining me in its effect, so that I can never escape?

Comment — That is a totally erroneous concept. This "law of Compensation," as Emerson termed it, the law of balance, is not a merciless round of cause and effect with no hope of escape from the "Wheel of Existence," as the Hindus call it. True, it is like a wheel in that causes set in motion are bound, just as the wheel rotates, to return upon us as effects. But life is not a closed circle — the evolutionary pattern is spiral, and at each revolution there is opportunity to move either upward or downward on that spiral.

Once an action has worked round to its corresponding reaction, once a cause has manifested its effect, that originating cause is dead — it ceases to be, unless by an improper attitude toward its effect we give it new life and force it to become a new cause for future reaction upon us. It all depends on how we meet the effects. That is what many do not realize, because they have the idea so firmly fixed that since every cause has its effect, that very effect has a life of its own apart from what we give it by our reactions to it. The tragedy is that too many of us allow this to happen because we are not willing to meet our daily karma head on as it comes. Thus by our very shilly-shallying we enmesh ourselves further, revitalizing those effects so that in truth they do indeed generate future causes, which again we will have to meet as effects until the lesson of the particular experience is learned. It is our attitude towards the effects of our karma that will generate new causes for new effects — nothing else.

It behooves us therefore to avoid "over-regretting" and cut the doubts of our true strength with the sword of spiritual knowledge. The past is gone; the present is; and since the future is the fruit of our present actions it is what we do now that is most important. We can see how detrimental to the soul it is to spend energy and time in vain and unfruitful regret; for instead of allying our forces with the side of growth, we delay our progress, doing no good either to ourselves or to others. Once the recognition of wrong is clear, and the correct route seen, then let us turn our face to the sun, and march onward into the future. In this way we will have strength and perhaps a little wisdom to meet the effects of the countless causes we have set in motion in the past.

Question — I don't suppose we have made only bad karma. Haven't we made some good karma too?

Comment — Of course we have. Man's continued existence through the eons is in itself testimony of his divinity, and of the receptivity of the soul to the divine promptings. But karma is neither good nor bad — it is strictly impersonal, the impersonal working of the law of balance, which manifests as attraction and repulsion, as love and hate and cause and effect. Like the sun or the rain, it shines or falls upon the just and the unjust, warming and nourishing the soul in its upward climb. The meeting of the effects of our past thinking and feeling, acting and resolving, is therefore neither good nor bad; it is all opportunity, a wondrous opportunity for experience and growth.

Question — I am still thinking about that phrase: regret nothing. Do you suppose we are being warned not to regret in order to ward off the danger of becoming so immersed in regretting things that have happened that we become blinded to the very cause of our difficulty?

Comment — Everything is double-edged, and from one angle the fact that we do feel regret shows where our allegiance is, for unless we felt concerned over our mistakes we certainly wouldn't be on the higher road. It is the staying down in the mire of regret that is warned against, for an unhealthy repentance is contrary to nature's purpose. Moreover, there is a type of remorse which is nothing other than self-pity, when one feels so terribly about a mistake that it becomes an obsession. This is highly dangerous, because such a state of depression can become a habit and, if not checked, lead to that pernicious type of self-indulgence which is the first step toward mental unbalance.

That is one reason we shouldn't waste vital spiritual energy in remaining regretful. All of us are liable constantly to error, in judgment and even in motive. But that is nothing to be alarmed about. It is all part of evolution. If we had never made a mistake, if we had never had to face and conquer temptation, how strong would we be? When we do wrong, nature compassionately reacts and we suffer accordingly. "Even as gold must be tried in the fire, so must the heart be tried by pain."

Question — May I ask a question here? It is very simple, but it is important to me. How do we learn? Actually to put the principles of ethics into practice seems to be so difficult. How can we be sure we aren't fooling ourselves and thinking we're spiritual when we may really be quite self-centered?

Comment — That's a very practical question. Spiritual attainment comes about as naturally as the night becomes the dawn. It is the inevitable outcome of right thinking and right action, not forced by rigid unnatural methods, but the result of the faithful performance of our one-pointed duty. The open sesame to true progress is living — not in one or two dramatic moments, but throughout twenty-four hours of each day. We learn both from our successes and our failures. The failures often prove our greatest blessings, because they shock us out of our complacency. So never regret the failures, for they burn the truth deep into the soul.

It is the interplay of action and reaction, of the natural working of the law of balance from lifetime to lifetime that makes us what we are today. We are now the sum total of all of our past, and the immortal part of us, the reincarnating element, is today attempting to utilize the very circumstances of our associations and environment to help us learn the lessons we need. The so-called good karma is often far more difficult to handle, strange as that may seem, than the so-called bad karma. When we have unpleasant circumstances to face we naturally check up on ourselves to see wherein we might have failed, or where our character might need a bit of strengthening; and the more painful the karma, the more sharply defined will be that quality which needs straightening out. If we meet it with fortitude and intelligence, real progress can be made. But when the karma is pleasant, too often we take it for granted and let down our guard, tending to slide both in our attitudes and aspirations. No wonder Jesus remarked to his disciples: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And he wasn't pointing only to the riches of this earth — he was trying to alert us to the need for vigilance all along the strait and narrow path.

That is why we are here on earth so that hopefully we may learn how to read the signposts of the unfolding script of our daily experiences and see what the higher self is pointing out for us to accomplish. As we succeed, the divinity at the core of our being will find opportunity to bloom more fully in our lives and we shall the better share with our fellowmen that which we have rightfully earned.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition