A Place of Rest: Remorse and Redemption as Practice

“Man is capable of care as much as he is of destruction.”
–– William O. Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court justice and leading environmental voice.

On the first Saturday of this month, Valley Insight prison volunteers were, as usual, in Berlin, New Hampshire at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Institute, sitting in meditation and reflection with our sangha of incarcerated men there. We’ve been focusing on the topic of Five Hindrances to Clear Seeing this fall, and in December our topic was Restlessness and Worry, which includes the subject of remorse. The Buddha’s teaching on remorse is clear and simple. You pause to reflect on what you have done to cause harm––to be aware of it, to be honest; you check in with the person, other being, or place you harmed; you make any repairs or adjustments that you can; you make a strong commitment to never do it again; and then––you let it go. You do not worry or perseverate or carry it further. We all know how hard this can be. All of us have done harm at some point in our lives––intentionally and unintentionally. Some of us have committed, as I have, a grave “mistake that cannot be undone.”

I think that this teaching can give us another perspective on, and perhaps a fuller way to understand, the First Noble Truth: dukkha (harm, stress, unsatisfactoriness, vulnerability, and so on) happens. Not only does harm happen to us, it also happens to others––and sometimes we are the ones involved in doing the harm to ourselves or to others. Before we can stop doing it, we have to realize that we are harming. This takes practice, not turning away, and a steadiness of heart.

So, maybe you can imagine how painful it was for these eight imprisoned men in our Berlin Sangha to collectively touch their remorse for the serious crimes they had committed, offenses that carried sentences of fifteen or more years, and even, for one, life without parole. One man, who has already been in prison for close to twenty years, told us a story of recently calling a friend and being caught off guard, surprised by unexpected stories of the harm, the pain still reverberating in his community from his actions so long ago. The deep shame and unbearable pangs of remorse that were triggered in him were experienced like an actual physical blow. He could hardly stand up, he just wanted to curl up in a corner. Another man told us of his life intention being atonement––every day of his life, he has committed to doing some good for another human being. He gives any holiday gifts he receives to a food pantry in the area. The waves of remorse can still arise.

All of these men have been working very long and hard on their own redemption, on developing a sensitivity to enacting inherent kindness and care as the basis of community. The man thrown back into remorse by the phone call works in the prison as a nurse’s aide in the medical unit. He also acts as a hospice volunteer there and has helped ease the death of many and supported their families in the awkwardness of a prison setting.

We recalled the teaching on impermanence (anicca) and reminded one another that the feelings of remorse and guilt are not always there. They rise and fall due to certain causes and conditions. Together we also took time to practice calming, and we paused to reflect on and feel the joy of our own goodness, to rejoice in the benevolence all around us––without losing sight of the challenges of prison life.

There is a Dharma story of a murderer, Angulimala, who with the help of the Buddha, realized the terror he was causing for others, and he found the agency, the spiritual power in himself, to stop killing. He listened to the Dharma and joined the sangha, and eventually became a renowned disciple of the Buddha. Amazingly, he developed remarkable skills in helping women in childbirth––somehow calming them and easing the pains. But often when he would enter a village where he had killed someone, people would throw stones and mud at him. Once when this had happened, Angulimala went to the Buddha for advice. The Buddha simply said, “Bear it nobly.” Feel it, stay curious about it, accept it, and understand it as a teaching of the fact that what we do in this world will have effects. Those effects may continue even after we have changed, redeemed ourselves. Perhaps we can think of the “rocks and mud” that are sometimes thrown at Venerable Angulimala as being like the pains of remorse experienced by our friends in the prison and, at times, by all of us. They are not always there, but when conditions give rise to their appearance, they are almost unbearable. The Buddha is saying, yes, know these unpleasant, painful feelings and their causes, but don’t get lost in them. Stay clear in your intention. Stay rooted in mindful awareness. Don’t get distracted by these hindrances––stay calm and know that they shall pass.

There are clearly reverberating messages here––insights into the power of pausing; into mindfulness as offering us a moment of choice; into the power of kindness and care; into beginning again––as well as insights into dukkha. We are vulnerable. Anything can happen at any time. There is no possibility of perfecting our lives, but we can navigate the flow of our own life force in this world that we share and co-create with others. This little Gatha poem by Larry Yang reminds us of the power of wise intention in this matter.

May I be loving, open, and aware in this moment; If I cannot be loving, open, and aware in this moment, may I be kind; If I cannot be kind, may I be nonjudgmental; If I cannot be nonjudgmental, may I not cause harm; If I cannot not cause harm, may I cause the least harm.

On the day after our prison visit, Sunday, December 4, I read an editorial in our local Valley News, celebrating the return of eagles to New Hampshire and Vermont. These majestic birds had been on the verge of extinction due to the use of poisonous DDT and habitat destruction by humans. But Rachel Carson spoke up about this in the 1950s, and a collective effort began to save the eagles. The editorial pointed out that because of this awareness and commitment, the situation has changed: “There were 100 eagles in New Hampshire at last count in 2020, including 25 in the vicinity of the Connecticut River. In contrast, single-day midwinter counts in the 1980s registered just five to 10 statewide.” In Vermont, “the first breeding pair in the state was spotted in 2008; by 2020, 64 chicks were fledged out of 37 breeding pairs.” The article continues, “To be sure, that is a remarkable success story. The fact that human agency was able to counter human folly.”

As I read this reflection on the power of human actions, I found myself smiling, thinking of the men in Berlin, thinking of all of us. It is the Buddha’s teaching on specific conditionality–– how we act ourselves in this world has an effect on the course of its life as well as on ours. As the year ends, as the sun almost leaves us, we can see more clearly what our effect is on those around us and on the earth––moment by moment. We can choose to change––to begin again, to “cause the least harm”––to radiate and enact kindness over the entire world, through thought, speech, and action.

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