How to Change the Way You Ruminate Over Past WrongsNone By Sharon Salzberg
In our 5-part series, Sharon Salzberg, a world-renowned meditation teacher and author of the new book Real Love, answers your questions about how to truly connect with others.
Question: What strategies can we use to learn how to let go when ruminating on what we (or our significant others) did wrong in past relationships?
I would like to focus on how to cope when we think we did wrong. We start with mindfulness of what we are feeling in our body. It's important that we center ourselves and investigate how recollecting that action makes us feel. The body is the truth teller. When you think of the action that upsets you, focus on the heat on your skin, your heartbeat. Are you are restless or listless? The energy of the body is a guide to how much this action affected you.
Then take a moment to reflect that the word ruminate means to take the time to really chew over an incident in order to see it from different angles. Yet when we think we’ve done something wrong to someone we love, we often get stuck on one part of the story. We may tell ourselves that we are failures or losers, incapable of love. Holding on to these past disappointments starts to define our view of ourselves, freezing our identities around that mistake. Of course there is loss, and feelings of failure at a problem in a relationship—but a thorough rumination would also include the good moments in the time we spent with the ones we loved to provide us with a more complete picture of the past.
Then there is this: In Buddhist psychology, we make a distinction between remorse and guilt. Remorse is the pain we feel when we recollect something we’ve done that did not reflect our values. We do not need to go down this path again. We can take the lesson and go on. Guilt is when we add to that remorse a judgment that we are idiots, that we can never change, never be any different. We can beat ourselves up forever.
There is always a possibility of change. Making mistakes is a human condition. I do not hold this ability in isolation. Learning how to deal with this guilt, or to handle it as remorse, is an important skill. When we celebrate the ways we now do things differently, we can learn the lessons in our mistakes—we don't have to let them define us. Change is what is true.
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and NY Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the