‘No regrets’ may be a fine name for a song but it won’t work in real life. To live is to accumulate regrets. What gives regrets their sharp edges is the belief that we could have made things work out differently if we had made different choices and it’s too late now. If I had made this choice I could have spared that person some pain; if I had made another choice I could have brought myself more happiness; if I had thought to say ‘No’ or ‘Yes” back then, everything would have been different and so on and on.
It’s useful, indeed necessary, in life to look at the lessons we can learn from our regrets and to take what’s useful from them for our future behaviour. The problem is that having done that we often go on regretting and sometimes that too is inevitable. However, it drags us down without achieving anything useful for ourselves or others. It’s these kinds of regrets, the ones we can do nothing about, which we cannot go back and fix (sometimes we’re lucky and we can, but not always) and from which we’ve already taken any useful lesson they can teach us, that the rest of this article is concerned with.
So, since regrets are inevitable, how can mindfulness help us to deal with them in our lives, after we have learned what we can from them? The philosophy behind mindfulness suggests three steps: first, we accept the pain we have to accept; second we drop the tendency to re-live the pain; third, we accept that regret is a fact of everybody’s life.
Regret is made up of physical sensations, memories, recurring thoughts (“how could I have been so foolish, blind etc.”) and fantasies (what might have been). When I take a mindful approach I am willing to experience the physical sensations (for instance a tightening of the stomach, a shortening of the breath) but I allow the memories recurring thoughts and fantasies to pass by. They may arise but I don’t follow them, I return to that physical sensation and allow them to pass. In other words, I let them be.
Think of the old Buddhist metaphor of the two arrows. If you were struck by an arrow you would be in pain, no doubt about it. But if you dwell on that experience by going over and over it in your memory or by entertaining revenge fantasies for years afterwards, then you are shooting a second arrow into yourself.
That sudden awareness of regret, that comes now and then – maybe very often – is the first arrow. Wallowing in memories, fantasies and recurring thoughts about the regret is the suffering we add on. To let the thoughts pass, to let them be, is a skill worth learning and you learn it through practice in the moment: the regret arises, you allow yourself to experience the physical sensation that accompanies it and you return to awareness of your breath or of whatever you are doing right now in the moment.
As I said at the start, to live is to accumulate regrets, so you need to handle it in a way that respects what happened but allows you to avoid wallowing in it, so speak, again and again.
(This post appeared in a short form in my newsletter in 2013)