Spiritual healing can be needed for guilty feelings. Not all that is going on in our mind is the working of a true conscience. Some of us find ourselves at times on a guilt trip. Even if we have a sound mind, we may sometimes feel guilty over the smallest thing – without rhyme or reason painstakingly worried about something we have done that really is unimportant.
One example is children who, having been trained by their parents to follow certain rules, like never putting one’s elbows on the table at meal times – feel guilty when they have grown into adulthood feeling guilty if they ever break this rule. Other examples of illogical guilt are saying `sorry’ a lot of the time and unfairly criticising ourselves. Trying too hard to get friends to like us, feeling easily embarrassed when asking for favours or doing anything that might displease them.
Many hopelessly sick people feel constantly guilty. This may result from the suspicion that their sickness and fate are self-inflicted and their own fault. Alternatively, they may assume, more or less, the role of the utterly dependent child. Some consciously apologize for the trouble and fuss they are causing. (Our Western culture fosters a sense of guilt in most of us when illness places us in the dependent role). If we are dying, we may even feel as if we are forcing the living to face the necessity of their own deaths for which we suppose they will not be thankful.
Psychoanalysis is interested in throwing light on our unconscious emotional impulses, and the conflicts between these and the demands of the real world around us. Feeling frequently guilt-ridden comes about from our worldly concerns – like wanting to be well thought of and desiring popularity. According to Sigmund Freud, neurotic guilt should be approached by working through the sense of badness and the unconscious wish for punishment. People tend in varying amounts to be troubled by all manner of false guilt feelings resulting from a distorted perhaps puritanical viewpoint of human reality – and I would say that in the uncovering of such false guilt feelings, the Freudian psychotherapists have done a good service to the general psychological health of modern people.
We can start to feel a little less uptight about our behaviour when we see the unreasonableness of some of these guilt-laden habits of thought and learn how to face up to them. For example realising that looking after oneself does not necessarily make us selfish. If we did not spend money on food and clothes for ourselves, we would not be able to do useful work. If we do not have any respect for ourselves, how can we hope to respect anyone else? If we do not look after ourselves how can we expect to look after anyone else? As I have earlier suggested, if we can better accept ourselves for what we are – warts and all – then we will depend less on being looked upon well by those who know us.
If we can learn to notice our strengths as well as our failings, we will feel less bad about our mistakes. We can let go of some unpleasant guilt feelings and illusory ideas they tend to generate.
Our True Conscience
Our true conscience is more than mere knowledge in the head – it also involves the heart. It is different from unconscious fear of the ingrained experience of parental displeasure or disappointment in childhood that psychoanalysts point to in the notion of `superego’. It is not the same as the feelings of shame triggered by social pressures about which some other psychologists talk.
Sometimes we act against a heartfelt and deep awareness of what we feel to be right – against a true conscience. We rightly feel bad about it even if sometimes we act in error on impulse without thinking.
“Anger, intoxication, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, grandiloquence, pride and conceit, intimacy with the unjust, this is what defiles one.”
(Sutta-Nipata, ii, 2,7. – Buddhist tradition)
In other words sooner or later we all do foolish things. The existential psychotherapists have pointed out that one cannot reason away those guilt feelings which come from an awareness of actual transgressions against true conscience and unfulfilled potentials. The important thing is to try to disentangle feelings of guilt arising because of a true conscience from feelings of guilt arising from other causes. For example, it may be reasonable and fair to accept guilt about the avoidable bad things that we have done. No longer can the individual comfortably rely on such alibis as `I didn’t mean it’, `It was an accident’, `I couldn’t help it’, and `I followed an irresistible impulse. Such acknowledgment of guilt arising from a true conscience is helpful if it can lead to a change of behaviour. It is easier to feel a sense of being forgiven when we change our actions for the better.
We may be being unduly hard on ourselves when we castigate ourselves for past wasted time, or unfinished tasks when we have been in a situation where we have been beset with difficult problems. It is easy to look back with hindsight and notice lost opportunities not seen at the time. The chronically sick person who blames him or herself for talents withering in disuse is listening to a mistaken conscience for no one can be expected to lead an active and full working life whilst struck down with illness beyond their control. How can one forgive oneself for such past behaviour when there is nothing one can do to make amends?
A couple had recently fallen in love and got married. They were sublimely happy. But tragically within weeks of the wedding, the woman was given a diagnosis of cancer and soon found herself needing a mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She became bald due to hair loss, developed mouth sores and painful bowel movements and had to face the devastating likelihood of an early death with no chance of having a child. In order to be with his wife through her ordeal, her husband, who was a writer of world renown in his field, chose to stop writing and generally turned his life over to her fight against cancer. This was an emotionally draining responsibility. He assumed he could not voice his own needs because of her suffering. Not surprisingly she came to take his support for granted.
In the middle of this, he himself went down with a medium-term debilitating illness of unknown origin. Due to exhaustion he even stopped his daily meditation – a spiritual practice that had previously given him huge benefit. For over a year he completely submerged his own interests, his own work, his own life. Up to that period, writing had been his life-blood. He defined himself by his writing and when that suddenly stopped he was suspended in mid-air, so to speak. In other words, his mistaken conscience was dictating altruistic but psychologically unhealthy behaviour that could not last indefinitely.
He was to say that he would have done all this again unhesitatingly under the same circumstances but would have done it differently with more of a support system for himself in place. The grinding role of a full-time carer takes a devastating toll unless this is available.
The need for one to find a balance between one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family or one’s work is quite a challenge these days with so many pressures to withstand – let alone the extra pressure of being a full-time carer. It is a mistaken conscience that gets us to perform our useful caring roles without setting aside any time for ourselves – for our recreation and other personal needs.
Although caring for oneself may be important, sometimes underneath our actions are mixed motives. We may do things ostensibly for others when our real motivation is also looking for what we gain in the situation for example the good regard of others or an escape from criticism. This is a phoney conscience at work. Cynics call this `enlightened self-interest’. Spiritual teachers instead urge that we do not act wisely and well from the thought of reward and concern only for ourselves.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.”
“Let right deeds be your motive, not the fruit which comes from them.”
(Krishna. Bhagavad-Gita, ii, 47. – Hindu tradition)
There even comes a point when self-love amounts to vanity and narcissism. Are we worried about not shopping for the latest cosmetic? Perhaps a false conscience is at work. A true conscience would encourage us to care for ourselves – doing our own thing – as long as this does not totally ignore the needs of loved ones, or the values that give our life deeper meaning.
We may try hard to put the past behind us and forget about what we feel ashamed. However, the past keeps coming back to haunt us so that we may end up feeling miserable. This can happen especially when throughout our upbringing we have been repeatedly blamed for any sign of self-centredness and pleasure seeking. Freud has shown the damaging impact of those traditional religious doctrines that support an account of God in terms of a persecutory superego that looks down upon mortals, judging and often condemning their behaviour. Instead of finding a sense of self-acceptance that enables us to move on putting the past behind us, we may instead feel we deserve condemnation or even punishment before this can happen.
Sometimes we may want to be punished in the hope that this will put things right. Perhaps we yearn for God’s forgiveness but cannot experience this because we believe we deserve only his judgment. Many people hold – what I believe to be a mistaken view – that he is keeping a little book totting up our sins as well as our good actions so that we can be rewarded with paradise or be punished with hell-fire depending on which list is longer. They believe that they and others deserve to be blamed when they are bad. Instead, I believe our destiny depends – not on past behaviour but rather on our future character. Those who become considerate, compassionate and kind-hearted – no matter what terrible things they may have previously done – are destined to continue enjoying underlying heavenly peace and joy despite any circumstantial trials and problems. On the other hand those who never progress beyond a self-orientated self-serving attitude are destined to continue suffering underlying miserable states of mind despite any enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment.
We need to make a distinction between the experiencing of temptation and whether or not we succumb to it. After all, good and bad impulses and thoughts arise from what we see and hear on a daily basis from television and radio, from what those around as at work and home say in our hearing and from what we read in newspapers, books and magazines. They stir up associations in our memory. Without realising it, although inspiring or alluring images and ideas may stir us up, nevertheless we can take no responsibility for their rising up within us.
We should not take the credit for any originality they may inspire – only perhaps for the effort and work we put in to turning them into something worthwhile. Neither should we take the blame for any shameful desires they excite in us; unless we dwell on their fantasies, act them out and then justify to ourselves our indulgence in them.
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”
(Matt 15, 11)
In other words, it is not the having of bad ideas and impulses arise in us, but how we respond to them that begins to shape our character.
Swedenborg says that anything that is genuinely good comes from God and heaven and so we can claim no merit in ourselves for it. This is at the centre of the correct religious attitude. The trouble is this idea has been misused to justify the notion we should focus on our religious belief rather than try to do good and useful work. Actually although I believe God is the power of goodness itself and the source of all virtues such as patience, tolerance, and kindness, nevertheless we human beings should do our best to take on board these divinely inspired qualities. Leave us to our own ways of doing things, and we would not act well. However, divinely inspired goodness and light can shine through our actions. Turning in the right direction towards God, we act as a channel for heavenly influence on earth and we become suitable vessels to receive spiritual gifts that enrich our lives and help us to gradually grow in love and faith. What many Christians call being reborn. The religious person is saying that the motivation for all that he or she does that is good comes from heaven.
Some of us tend to feel guilty believing all the bad things we think come from ourselves. Yet, only extremely vain conceited individuals make a mistake in claiming credit for every good idea they happen to have. Surely if it is mistaken to attribute all virtuous impulses to oneself it is also an error to believe that we are responsible for all bad things we think? Can we really be blamed for all the shameful desires that pop into our hearts if we neither entertain them for long nor fall for their tempting allure?
For me the answer is simple. Is not the hidden influence of hell the source of all vice such as malice, cruelty or condemnation? All we can do is try to avoid hells way. If we do not, then what is bad will stick fast to us and we will find it rather difficult to wash ourselves clean from all the dirt.
Swedenborg taught that God is the source of pure compassion. Loving us as he does, he puts aside our faults and blemishes. Such a picture of the divine is one that accepts us fully regardless of any of our past flawed actions. Although God never condones our wrongdoing, it is an image of a forgiveness. For our experience of living is one of temptation to put self before other people and bodily pleasure before principles of what is right and good e.g. to act greedily, deceitfully, or unfairly. God is just as much concerned for the cruel and evil-minded person as he is for the good person. In giving honest criticism to those in the gospel accounts who behaved badly, Jesus Christ encouraged them to change their ways and he revealed an inner attitude not one of contempt, but rather of concern and forgiveness. For example in speaking to the woman caught in an act of adultery – a crime punishable by death in her culture – he explicitly said that he did not condemn her. (John 6:11). Likewise to the Samaritan woman he met at the well, who was living with a man not her husband (John 4:10), instead of criticism he offered living water.
He wants us all to be able to freely choose good over bad, sense over foolishness, rather than becoming or remaining enslaved to the powers of darkness. For this reason God entered into the material plane of life to overcome the forces of ill-will and malice by responding with love and forbearance. By his doing this, he preserved our inner freedom.
Ideally, we would always adopt good impulses and illuminating ideas. Nevertheless, there are many times, when we abuse these spiritual gifts, by indulging in the bad desires and illusory notions that keep impinging on our hearts and minds. In other words, it is we at times who often distance ourselves from the divine by acting out base urges and following mistaken or self-centred notions. One example is when we continue to hold a grievance or feel resentful towards someone who has wronged us rather than adopting a forgiving heart. How can we expect to experience the forgiveness of others or to be able to forgive ourselves – let alone the forgiveness of God for our own wrongdoing, if we do not develop a forgiving heart towards those who do us ill. It is we and not God who creates our resulting unhappiness.
What is bad in our behaviour brings it own reward. If we drink too much alcohol, we suffer cirrhosis of the liver and may lose our livelihood. If we go round, being nasty to people we soon will not have any friends and will become a social outcast. Bad behaviour results in bad consequences. It is we who tend to guiltily condemn ourselves for any wrongdoing. A God of love and wisdom cannot condemn anyone but only continually try to help us in the predicaments we create for ourselves.
Only by responding to the still small voice of our inner conscience can we hope to resolve to change. Swedenborg concludes that what is needed is acknowledgement of error, heartfelt repentance and sincere resolve not to repeat the error. We can experience a guilt-free state of peace and contentment if we, like little children, innocently allow God to lead us in all we do instead of primarily following our own agenda and own misguided self-interests.
“There is divine, that is, infinite love; and there is divine, that is, infinite mercy… (that) continually excuses, and continually forgives.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 8573 2)
Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy