“Be kind to past versions of yourself that didn’t know the things you know now.” ~Unknown
When I taught yoga classes in jails in Colorado and New Jersey, I would end class with the Metta Meditation:
May we all feel forgiveness.
May we all feel happiness.
May we all feel loved.
May all our sufferings be healed.
May we feel at peace.
The women, all clothed in light gray sweatpants, would be in a relaxed yoga posture, usually lying on their yoga mat with their legs up the wall. The fluorescent lights would be full blast, as they always are in a jail or prison. Some women would feel comfortable closing their eyes. Some wouldn’t.
With quiet meditative music playing, I led the meditation with the gentlest voice that I could, taking into consideration that the noise outside the room would be loud. Often, we could hear the incessant dribbling of basketballs in the men’s gym. Someone in the complex might be yelling, and we all would have to work past it.
As I spoke that first line, “May I feel forgiveness,” their tears would start, steady streams rolling down their faces. When we would talk afterward, they said that the most challenging part of the practice was forgiving themselves.
If these inmates had been allowed to dress as they wanted, they would have seemed like any other group of yoga students.
I couldn’t tell who had murdered someone—because their life felt so desperate; or who had too many DWIs—because their addictions (the ones that they used to cover up abuse and trauma) were out of control; or who got a restraining order against an abuser, and then violated it herself—because she was sure he would be loving this time.
Now that they were incarcerated, their parents and children were also suffering the consequences.
Choices That Become Regrets
We can all understand that our personal choices have sometimes created challenges for others. Some of us were just lucky that we weren’t incarcerated for our decisions.
We have all made decisions that we wish we could reverse. We have said things that we want to take back. We neglected something important, sacred, and cherished, and there were consequences. We might have been too naive or too absorbed in principle or perfection, and there were emotional casualties.
These regrets lurk in the backs of our minds. They are like dark shadows stalking our heart space, with ropes binding our self-acceptance, keeping us from flying high. We might still be feeling the repercussions of choices made twenty, thirty, forty years ago. And even today, the shame and guilt impact our decision-making.
The mistakes I made that affected my children are the most challenging to process. The abuse in my second marriage was harmful to my children, my community, and me. The fallout took years to unwind.
When life seemed back to normal, I had time to see my part in the trauma—mainly the red flags that I ignored when I was dating him. Ignoring what went on in his first marriage and the comments that he said, that made me feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t respond to, are my hindsight, my ball and chain, dragging on my self-worth. Time was healing, but I could also be triggered by even little mistakes. Even if I said something wrong in a conversation, like we all do, I could be pulled down the slippery slope to a pile of unresolved remorse.
I have come to enough resolve not to think about those stories most of the time. I’m not sure that I will ever find total peace with some of them. I know that they still have the power to sabotage my peace of mind.
I know that it is worth the effort to come to some resolution of our regrets, even if we have to keep chipping away at them over time.
Processing Regrets Consciously
One way that I have processed regret is to write out the story. Dump it all out of my head—including the hard stuff. If possible, I write out what I would do or say differently the next time. I find that there is healing in knowing that I have learned from my past mistakes.
Writing the story out can also give me a clear picture of what amends I need to make.
Is there someone to say I’m sorry to? Do I need to muster the courage to have a heartfelt dialogue with the other player in the story? Or if I have already said I’m sorry, do I need to forgive myself? Do I need to consciously let the story go now? Do I need to remind myself that it doesn’t do me any good to dwell on the story?
I also take my regrets to my meditation practice.
One of my most potent times of processing regret happened when I was sitting on the garden roof of our stone home, early one morning in the spring. I was feeling heavy. The weight of the abuse in my second marriage, and the resulting divorce, was pulling me down once again.
Listening to the birds singing to each other, I felt a sudden inspiration to recite the Metta Meditation—the one that had brought tears to the inmates’ eyes in those faraway jails.
“May we all feel forgiveness,” I began. This time, the wonderment of my surroundings combined with the ancient familiar words to give me a feeling of release and freedom I hadn’t felt before. The sound of birdsong let me know that I could let go of another piece of my remorse over what I could have done differently. My tears welled up. My heart relaxed.
Accepting that I might not see complete harmony with my regrets is, itself, part of letting them go. I have heard this from other clients.
A common challenge for women in the second half of life is not feeling close to their children. Marcia, the mother of five adult children, regrets how hard she was on her oldest daughter. Her attempts to repair the relationship haven’t had the results she wanted. Accepting that this estrangement might or might not be temporary is challenging. She has assured her daughter that she wishes to be closer, and that is the peace that she can find each day.
We also might need to find a resolution with someone who has already passed. I came to peace with my mother, twelve years after she died, using the Metta Meditation. That completely surprised me and freed up my heart more than I ever thought possible.
Every regret, memory of shame, and overwhelming guilt are part of who we are. When we are driven by them, we might make choices that aren’t in our best interest. We might believe that we don’t merit good things or that we deserve to be relentlessly punished. If we fuel our regrets by reiterating them, we reinforce our shame and increase the emotional charge. Our spirit will continue to be fragmented, tethered to the past, and we will feel incomplete.
If we can process our regrets with tenderness and compassion, we can use these hard memories as a part of our wisdom bank.
Wholehearted living is accepting ourselves with all the mistakes that we have made. Wholehearted living is compassion for all the times in our life when we made mistakes. It is understanding that we are not alone—every single adult has regrets. When we live wholeheartedly, we can have healthier relationships and make wiser decisions in all our endeavors.