On the Healing Power of Remorse

It is my experience that remorse is a straight and narrow pathway to an open heart. Referred to in Buddhism as contrition, it is understood as a gateway to the awakening. Yet it is an emotion most of us ignore or avoid–tending to get distracted by guilt or shame instead. Guilt and shame are more familiar to most of us than genuine remorse. And unfortunately, guilt and shame will always keep us stuck in hurtful stories– Shame is “I am a bad person” rather than “I did something I regret.” Guilt is often “I should not have done that/said that/felt that” and the ensuing story of blame and recrimination and resentment we have toward ourselves, and probably also others, following that feeling of guilt. Guilt and shame come and go. We entertain them. We push them away–only to have them return unbidden. But remorse is different.

Remorse is the gateway to an open heart because when we fully allow it, rather than reinforcing our sense of our “selves” as “bad”, it actually releases us from story about ourselves, it releases us from ego and connects us back into our shared humanity. Remorse is the forceful and purifying river of feeling that had been dammed up behind the shame and guilt and distraction and numbing out. It comes when we are willing to turn toward ourselves. When we are safe enough to fully allow ourselves to feel the depth of suffering that our actions or words have caused, when we allow deep empathic understanding of the suffering of another, and of our own suffering, to fully penetrate us such that our bodies want to get low, to fall on the floor, to weep. And the tears do come.

Remorse comes when we are strong enough, when we want deeply enough to heal, when we are brave enough to speak without qualification or story into a crucible of compassion the suffering we have caused: “I was abusive to this person who is dear to me.” or “I got angry with my baby.” or “I have held hatred toward my husband.” When we are able allow that the things that we feel the most ashamed of can be brought out into the open and confessed within a safe container, the power of remorse to open the heart and reconnect us with our true natures is profound.

The power of remorse is at the heart of the Five Element Emotional Healing System of the Shan Ren Dao, which has so deeply informed my personal healing and the work I do with my clients. Each of the Five Elements has a way of going out of balance emotionally and a key to coming back into balance, but remorse is the throughline. Remorse holds the power to reunite us with our own light. And our own light is a light that is deeply shared. As such, we come to know that every one of us has something we feel remorseful about, and every one of us is, in our true natures, only light.

Deeply felt remorse sometimes brings about a healing response from the body. During one Shan Ren Dao retreat, I witnessed a participant allow remorse for how much hatred she had held toward her parents start profusely bleeding from her nose. Because of the power of her remorse, through that nosebleed, her body was spontaneously releasing the toxins of hatred from her body. In allowing remorse for and releasing my own rage and disdain, I have witnessed my body mobilize and let go of those emotional toxins through intense but short-lived bladder infections, or ear infections, or fevers, or headaches. Our bodies are wise. The toxins from stuck negative emotion will fester under the radar and in time can turn into much more advanced disease. But allowing powerful remorse to move through us can trigger important physical expressions that, while sometimes intense, are usually quick and complete.

Sometimes remorse comes easily. We can allow it on our own. Particularly if we can summon connection with someone we revere, someone we hold as sacred and deeply compassionate, like Allah or Buddha or God, or a person we highly respect, like Martin Luther King or John Farmer or Sojourner Truth–someone who stood deeply in their integrity–and we imagine confessing what we feel remorse about, or we actually do confess it out loud, to this being we’ve called into our hearts, we can powerfully access remorse. Sometimes, we need the presense and containment of a healer who knows how to hold us in our light and who knows how to make space for us to go to our emotional depths. Sometimes we can give our confession and remorse to the river or to an ancient redwood or to the vastness of the sky.

What I have discovered from letting in remorse as a major aspect of my own healing journey is that there is no darkness in me that I can’t turn toward with compassion. There is no stone that cannot be turned in my own heart. And when new stones appear, I approach with care. I seek the support of my own healers. I sit with them until they’re ready to be turned. I know that the stones–the places of resistance, of stuckness, of frozenness and afflictive emotions–aren’t who I am. They are just wounded parts that need time and compassion and proper containment. Sometimes those places are ancient: generational trauma, generational rage and grief, generational abusive patterning. Knowing that the power of remorse is vast and ultimately impersonal, and that my small mind does not have to make sense of all that moves through my body and my heart, I do my best to surrender, to let the tears in, to give myself to the light.

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