Many people who strive to live by a moral code assume that guilt is a good thing – a help to let us know when we have gone wrong. They believe that without guilt, we would easily fall into moral chaos, both as individuals and as society. Catholics in particular tend to focus on guilt to the point that it has become a running joke. Other religions aren’t far behind.
On a lower level, there may be some point to this. There are some people, perhaps most, for whom guilt is a powerful motivator for doing good instead of evil. The legal system is even set up to demand feelings of guilt as a condition of mercy. We prefer that the criminal feel “a sense of remorse”. As we reach out for mystical union, however, we need to reexamine the role of guilt in our lives. David Hawkin in his map of consciousness puts shame and guilt on the absolute lowest rung of human emotions, with energetic vibrations at the bottom of the scale.
What is the root sensation of guilt? What exactly do we feel when we experience guilt? Guilt and shame are emotions of the lower self, not the higher Self. When the lower self feels guilt, it feels offended at its own lack of perfection. It senses the perfection possible in the higher Self and wants to claim that perfection as its own. It is closely tied to pride. Guilt is our anger and frustration that our actions don’t measure up to our own opinion of ourselves. We are upset that a person as good as we are could make such a mistake. We despise our own limitations. If only we didn’t make such mistakes, people would recognize what wonderful people we are. After all, as Wayne Dyer reminds us, one of the key ideas of the ego is: you ARE your reputation.
Slightly higher on the scale, we may feel regret for causing pain to someone else. Indeed, if we have developed any amount of universal love, we regard the pain of others as being just as important as our own. But if we truly desire to remove the pain of someone we have hurt, then collapsing into a paralyzed condition of self-loathing isn’t going to do them a bit of good. An apology, particularly if it is clear that we empathize with the pain we have caused, may help, along with helping to make good on any damage we have caused. But again, wallowing in true guilt is a largely selfish emotion. We are ashamed because of how our behavior reflects on us. We are ashamed at the people we have wronged thinking less of us, and at our thinking less of ourselves. Our guilt does nothing for the people we have hurt.
From the perspective of our higher Self, there is no guilt. We look upon our lower selves with compassion and understanding. We realize that the lower self is limited and because of these limitations it is imperfect. One of these imperfections is knowledge. The higher Self knows perfect good. The lower self easily mistakes lesser goods for the perfect good. The lower self will always choose what it thinks is best for itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really know what the perfect good is.
Does this mean that the mystic doesn’t bother trying to improve his behavior? On the contrary. With the knowledge which comes from union with the higher Self, the mystic KNOWS (not just says he believes) the perfect good. He can calmly, kindly, and non-judgmentally look at his behavior and make adjustments to line up with the perfect good. His knowledge is much more life-changing than the lower self’s feelings of guilt, tangled up as they are with pride.
But aren’t religious people told to “repent?” Doesn’t that involve guilt and remorse? Not at all. The original meaning of “repent” is to literally change your mind. To have a change of heart. To set a new course. This can be done far better without all the inner theatrics of guilt. Our motivation for behaving better should be for the highest good of all, including ourselves – NOT so that we can feel good about ourselves, and pride in our superior morality.