Guilt vs. Empowement

If you want to have truly enjoyable sex then stay away from religion. That’s according to Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown’s “Sex and Secularism” survey. They claim that atheists have far better sex lives than religious people who are plagued with too much guilt to have any fun fornicating. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists have the highest levels of guilt, while Catholics and Lutherans are at the lower end.

I don’t know where Buddhists rank in this, if at all, because I didn’t download the full study. To do that you have to sign up for whatever it is Darrel Ray is selling. Apparently, he is a noted psychologist and atheist who may or may not have some affiliation with the University of Kansas (his assistant in the survey is a student there). I should also mention that this was an online survey (of 14,500 people, it’s claimed) and as such I don’t know if it passes the muster for academic surveys, which I  assume is what Ray is purporting it to be.


“I saw my parents as gods whose every wish must be obeyed or I would suffer the penalty of anguish and guilt.” – Natalie Wood

Still, I think there might be some truth there. Certainly religion is not the only cause for guilt. Yet, there’s no escaping the fact that for thousands of years, guilt and religion have seemed inseparable. At least, here in the West.

All of us experience feelings of guilt from time to time. Some folks more than others. Research suggests that guilt settles in around the ages of three to six. Some psychologists believe that guilt can be healthy stimulus to change our behavior for the better. Buddhism doesn’t see it quite like that.

We often see guilt defined as a “feeling of responsibility.” Actually, though, it is a form of feeling. In Buddhism, guilt is viewed as a negative emotion, a form of self-loathing. It’s just another suffering.

The Buddha encouraged his followers to face their problems with clear and calm minds. Acknowledging one’s faults and errors and taking responsibility is crucial, as is repentance. According to Wikipedia, “Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong . . .”

[By the way, a few months ago I wrote about confession and repentance in Buddhism. You can read it here.]


“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” – Henry Miller

This is what Buddhism asks us to do: change our thoughts. Buddhism never encourages us to be passive. There is always some action to be taken. A change in thinking can lead to a change in behavior. The self-pity and shame that accompanies guilt is not constructive. What is constructive, however, is to make a determination to not want to do it anymore.

“Want” is the key word here, because guilt, I believe, is a choice. Some people want to feel guilty, they want to feel bad. They subconsciously seek out negative experiences (or create them) and, as in the repetition compulsion Freud talked about, they repeat behaviors that produce feelings such as guilt. Or, they assume guilt needlessly.

Life is too fleeting to remain trapped in negative cycles. Every situation we face is an opportunity to gain wisdom. Guilt gets in the way of that. It’s a dead end street. I don’t believe it is a natural consequence of having a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong, which I think is more akin to a crossroads. Because we know the difference between right and wrong, we can make the choice which way to go in the future. Lamenting over the past just wastes the time that could be better spent learning the lesson life is giving us and accepting our responsibility to change the situation by changing ourselves.

This approach is not unique to Buddhism. Just yesterday in Joplin, Mo., where no doubt some people are dealing with “survivor guilt”, President Obama said these words:

We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike or where or the severity of the destruction it may cause. . . .We can’t know why we are tested with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime. These things are beyond our power to control but that does not mean that were are powerless in face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control, and it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”

Not all the storms of life are caused by weather, natural forces. We can create storms and the devastation they wreak is not always physical. And, just as there is not just one form of suffering, there is neither a single solution or single path for overcoming suffering. However, because of the emphasis on inner-directed contemplation and motivation, I feel that Buddhism offers rather effective solutions, which pierce directly into the heart of these storms.

In some cases, guilt is an indication of low self-esteem. Guilt and low self-esteem are mutually self-destructive, because for a person who already feels bad about themselves, adding on guilt only compounds the problem.

This is why the Dalai Lama, during his first visit to the United States in 1973, said this:

In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence . . . Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.”

When we talk about the “self” in this way, we are not referring to the fictional self of ego and soul, the Big Me. Rather we are referring to self in the relative sense, i.e. our distinct individuality, our personal characteristics, the consciousness of our own identity or being.


“There was guilt in her smile, but nothing you could call remorse.” – Nick Charles, ex-Private Eye

As I’ve written several times recently, the practice and study of Buddhism should leave us feeling empowered. I’m not sure that message always comes through in Buddhist discussions, so I don’t feel guilty about repeating it.

Buddha told us to be like a lamp so that we can see light in a world of darkness. So that others can see the light. We are the light and knowing that should give us strength to persevere in any situation, to persevere in spite of ourselves. The light we shine also illuminates our way, keeps us from stumbling over the stones of such things as guilt.

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