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Dealing with Guilt

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. I’d like to introduce you to someone who is a real guiding light in the world of healing in Sri Lanka and beyond. Shobhna Cooke is a homoeopath yoga teacher, pranic healer, Vedic astrologer and tarot card reader. She organises holistic workshops to help people heal and reboot. There is so much in this podcast. Listen to this. 

I wanted to ask you, how exactly do you define guilt?

Shobhna Cooke: According to the Eastern Philosophies in Vedanta, the definition that I like was that guilt is a force that should come from your conscience to let you know the right path. Is there something we need to look at, something we didn’t mean to oversee? Did we hurt somebody? So there is a positive element to these gentle pangs of guilt. But then there is also a point that it can become quite damaging for us and it can really eat us within. So it’s really important, I think, for us to differentiate the difference between a healthy guilt and a guilt that’s damaging for us.

I think psychologists have defined that there are five kinds of guilt. It’s healthy guilt, the kind that when we’ve done something and it’s our conscience reflecting it back and it gives us an opportunity to correct ourselves, not blame ourselves, but to be able to look and assume a proactive attitude. Guilt for negligence, something that was within our duty of care and we oversaw. Sometimes that leads us to judge, to punish, to condemn ourselves. In that case, we must remember to recognize unpleasant feelings and to accept them and make radical acceptance. Imaginary guilt – this one is something we need to all watch out for, because this is that hyper empath or a burnout syndrome. People who have had chronic guilt, and they imagine that they are guilty because they have been conditioned to believe so in their environments; within them, the self-talk is negative. So this is the one that I really think we have to all be careful of, because we must accept our limitations. Even though we sometimes like to think we’re superhuman, we are also human and we must honour that. We must serve from a full cup, not from an empty cup. So this imaginary guilt, it comes from not feeling enough from not helping enough, not dedicating more time, more resources. If we find ourselves in this loop, it’s really important to sit down and really kick in that self-reflection, self-care, other practices, which I’m going to talk about a bit later because this point is when it takes a negative turn towards our health. Survivor guilt- like “I feel bad that I escaped the accident. I feel bad that I live in a comfortable place, all of that”. The reminder for us then is not to self sabotage, not to allow ourselves to keep in that loop, but to be grateful for what we have and to be able to serve from that place. The neurotic guilt is another one that comes in, according to an Eastern perspective, when mindfulness isn’t available to us, wisdom isn’t available, and discernment. So you feel this burden and it’s a reminder from a facilitation point of view or as a friend, to tell each other that, be objective, let’s be logical, let’s be rational. Understand your role, understand the extent of your role, the duty of care you have and exactly what your responsibilities are, so you don’t take on more than you should. So this neurotic guilt and the imaginary guilt kind of run very close. 

AB: You’ve described to me these five types of guilt, right? So you’ve said healthy guilt, guilt for negligence, imaginary guilt, survivors guilt and neurotic guilt. So the first one, I guess, is conscience, which is our inner voice, which tells us when we’re doing something wrong, but the other four can potentially be the wrong kinds of guilt, correct? 

SC: Correct. So the imaginary and the neurotic guilt, that’s where you need to jump in and put in some checks and balances and redirect that energy. I would say the imaginary guilt, the neurotic guilt, the survivor’s guilt is when you’re entering into that space. Healthy guilt and guilt for negligence can be used as mirrors. 

AB: That’s really interesting. 

SC: We’ve done our job, have we done the extent of what we were supposed to and correct ourselves? But once we start going into the imaginary and the neurotic guilt, that means we are not able to discern our intelligence, our wisdom. It’s important, I think, to identify the root, what kind of guilt you have. 

AB: So Shobhana, tell me, when you look at the brain, when the neuroscientists look at the brain, when feelings of guilt arise, which part of the brain do they actually sit in? And what part do we need to work on, from like you’re saying a Yogic perspective or any perspective that you’re going to tell us the tools you’re going to give us? 

SC: From the studies done and scans done by scientists, they say that when there’s been the scans being taken, it’s in the amygdala and the frontal lobes that have a lot of activity when there’s guilt, emotions of guilt. And we must remember that the amygdala part of the limbic system and the nervous system is a place from which we respond, our fight or flight mode, but if we’re constantly functioning in that realm so let’s say there’s a lot of activity there on a constant basis then you’re looking at that adrenaline burnout, you’re looking at panic attacks, anxiety, depression. And if we use the psychologist’s method, you’ve then probably crossed the line into that neurotic and imaginary guilt and we have to correct the frontal lobes, the amygdala. But it’s the nervous system that is being affected. Cortisol released in that time is very notable. So cortisol at that scale on a long period, living with guilt then also has inflammation issues, chronic and the autoimmune issues, the anxiety loops, all of that which we can very easily and gently successfully address with. I come back to yoga over and over again. But for those of you who think yoga isn’t necessarily something you’re interested in, I would suggest you look at the martial arts, the Tai chi, Qigong, just a gentle walk, but it’s that really working with the parasympathetic nervous system. 

AB: So you’re basically saying that we need to learn how to move from our sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system and whatever way works for us, like for you and me, it might be yoga, for someone else it might be martial arts. For someone else, it might be just breath work. 

SC: Exactly. 

AB: Or going for a walk. And I couldn’t agree more. And just like you’re saying, yoga changed my life. I mean, I think, people would say that it’s all physical. How can it change your life? How can a little bit of breathing change your life? But it’s incredible. I mean, every time I come out of a yoga session, I just feel that I’ve made a little bit of energetic progress somewhere.

SC: I don’t want people to feel limited because I’m coming from an Eastern perspective with yoga as one of the tools in my toolbox. Find that practice, whatever it is, where you can change gears, as you rightly said, between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. It is so important. That I think is where the magic key lies in the ability to move between those two. 

AB: There’s one thing that actually I thought about a lot-why do people go through guilt? Is it because it’s these expectations that have been put onto us as children? Do they stay with us for the rest of our lives? Is it something that happened at school? Is it something that happens at home? Can it happen later in life? Can you talk about the origins of guilt a little? 

SC: I’ve thought about this question. Is it nurture? Is it nature? Where is this coming from? Is it in our genes? Are we predisposed to this? And I think it’s a combination of things because as I was thinking, it’s almost the same as a child prodigy. They come into this world and suddenly they’re at a level that is so much more advanced than everybody else. And is it the environment, is it the genetics who we’re not taking into account again, from that eastern worldview of the role of God, the role of karma, and how much of our learning of behaviours comes from previous experiences as souls in different realms, different places. The sensory organs, that’s how we perceive the world-the sight, the smell, the taste, the sound, the touch, the sensory organs help us navigate this body through this world. Why do I go to X coffee shop? Because I like the smell, I like how it looks, I like the taste of the coffee, and not every single place is the same. There are different sensory experiences. So I think guilt is also some residue that’s left in those sensory organs that we come with and then into an environment where it gets enhanced. But whatever it is, I feel really strongly that we are able to harmonise, we are able to realign, and we have the tools. And again, for me, I say that it’s a sadana practice, the practice of silence, the practice of reflection is very important for me. For someone else, is all this navel gazing? Like, what is all this about? But actually, in those meditation practices, in the breath work, in the silence, you create neural pathways, you create new roads for you to explore and have a mindset change. So they’re very powerful tools. They may seem very simple. 

AB: So Shobhana, before we go into tools, I want to just explore the concept of guilt a little more. I see this with a lot of children and young adults. Sometimes they’re behaving unreasonably because they’re trying to deal with their own feelings of guilt. So to the world you see them behaving “badly”, but they’re actually trying to deal with their own feelings of guilt. How do we know that we’re feeling guilt. 

SC: When we’re having such feelings, you might find people overextending, self-sabotaging, not having boundaries, not being able to take care of the inner them. Then they might be very busy on the external front because of the various kinds of guilt that makes you overzealous or overactive. There’s that, but there’s also a burnout element with that. You get anxiety, you get panic attacks. “If I’m not doing that, oh my gosh, I’m not doing enough”. So those are all signs. And it might not be guilt on its own. You might have guilt plus grief or guilt plus shock. It comes with a few more accessories to it. You’re not necessarily going to see guilt on its own. If it is children or if it is adults, it’s the same set of tools. This ability to self-reflect, this ability to sit and really take stock of where this sensation is coming from. Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? I think, journaling is an easy and wonderful tool that is very accessible without having to go into too many of the deeper spiritual places that sometimes the Eastern philosophies take us in. I think writing prompts, journaling helps us identify root causes. 

AB: Now we’ll come to the tools that you were talking about because people expel a lot of energy, as you know, because of guilt, The point where they know that they’re feeling, say, guilt and grief or like you were saying, guilt and shock, can we talk about some tools that will help them stop? 

SC: Yes. So the beauty of these tools from sort of a yogic toolbox, it works across the board. It works if it is guilt plus grief, guilt plus shock. I’ve seen incredible results just in my own personal life, that has been that sadhana practice. The ability to be able to go within myself, to reflect on a scripture or a poem or a reading prayer, do my yoga poses. 

AB: I want you to explain yoga nidra before we carry on. The yoga nidra is the gem of your yoga practice. It’s not standing on the head. It’s just to be able to take your place into that quiet spot, getting into that parasympathetic mode, to be able to rest and digest. So Yoga Nidra, you’re in a Shavasana position, lying down, and they systematically take you through shutting down the sense organs, and it takes you through until you can come to this quiet, calm place. And in that space, it’s almost like a fertile ground where you can plant new seeds, new thoughts. You are not this body, you are not this mind and you connect with the source. And then we come back into this world, we guide it out back into the world, and then we go on in this body and do the work we have to do here. So many things get reset in that place. So you sort of go into it with the world and you come out of it and you somehow shed all that noise. I might just want to add here that some people find it difficult in Yoga Nidra. They get really angsty, they get bored. They want to skip that part. It’s the boring bit. But it’s where the mind resets happen, it’s the neurological pathways. It’s the most special part. And I urge you then not to give up, but to do a short Shavasana. Just shorten it, enter it with three minutes. 

AB: So Shavasana is when you’re lying down, going inward, not moving. 

SC: So ideally with a live teacher, because when you’re doing these things online, there is no one to see that you’re struggling, to pull you out, whereas in a live class or a one on one session, you can see if the individual is not able to go into this Yoga Nidra, you can shorten it and you individualise it. That’s the value. And the other one is an extension of our yoga practices. And it’s the Mauna practice of silence. And it always reminds me, and I’m going to share this story-I once went to a yoga retreat, and I was having a lot of stress about something, and I was going to meet my teachers and I was going to meet people who were at the administrative level of this yoga school. And I had a lot of complaints and I had so many problems from the world that I wanted to share. And I travelled very far and my teacher was looking forward to seeing me. And when I got there, she said, “oh, welcome, but we’re going on a silent retreat for the next week. I’m so glad you’re going to be here”. I said, what do you mean? I need to speak to these people. I can’t be on a silent retreat. At first, I was so frustrated because I had so many things to talk about. And then I did this whole silent retreat, and at the end of it, when it was time to come out of it, a few days later, she said to me, “oh, what was it you wanted to talk about?” Anshu, there was nothing I wanted to say. It had been dealt with and I was really at peace. I really invite everyone to be able to explore that silent space. 

AB: So you’re saying Mauna or Maunavrat as some people call it, which is basically a silent retreat. So you don’t speak in these retreats, you don’t engage in reading, or you try and engage as little as possible outwardly, correct?

SC: I recommend where, let’s say, you want to watch TV, have a short list of the things you’re going to watch and keep them into universal truths, maybe some talks with the enlightened teachers that we’ve all have, more spiritual food than intellectually stimulating documentaries. 

AB: And the interesting thing that you said, Shobhana, which I just want to repeat for everyone listening in, is that you don’t have to jump into a three-day one straight away, or eight-day or a ten-day one. You can start with a couple of hours a week, 3 hours a week. Build it up slowly if you want. Because sometimes the idea of not talking, for some people for three days can be really intimidating.

SC: Start where you’re at. Don’t be so ambitious about the practice that you set obstacles for yourself. Just begin very gently and then add on minutes as opposed to hours. Add on little bits to it. 

AB: Even in yoga, don’t they just say, don’t push your body to the extent where you’re in pain the next day? Go gently, the path will open up for you. Now, I have a question for you which is very close to my heart. I have two daughters, and I wanted to ask you, do you have any advice for parents so that we don’t riddle our children with guilt as they grow up? 

SC: Children need parents, and parents need children to go on this journey. But I think it’s that awareness, what you give them are tools as opposed to your baggage. I think it’s very important for parents to be able to have their own personal practice so they can then share from that place, as opposed to speaking to them like “We do this in this family because this is how we’ve done it.” Whereas if you have your own practice that’s been handed down to you in your family of let’s say evening prayer and say “this has worked for me. I have found peace with it. I’d like you to try it”. The family unit is that microcosm. So if we can work out a lot of conflict resolution, a lot of things within that, we just have to then expand it. So the tools and sharing, honest sharing of “I feel XYZ when you speak to me like that” is important. I would say open discussion and the ability to also say to your child, “I made a mistake”. 

AB: So now I have a question for you about open discussion. Isn’t there not a very fine line between open discussion and making the child feel guilty? 

SC: It depends. There are some topics that I think might not be with your parents that you want to have those discussions. If we can come to it with our own authentic human experience, then we’re not putting on guilt for someone else, that you have to do it this way, you did it wrong. That honesty has to be there. Have you found that when you’re speaking with your girls, when you’re aware of things, and when you’re mindful, the delivery is different, right?

AB: Yes, 100%. 

SC: So I would say it’s that mindfulness is what we need to bring into all our interactions. 

AB: So I have two daughters who are very sensitive, and I see a lot of the younger generation, they’re just very sensitive, they’re very connected, probably a lot more than a lot of our generation was. But what I find is, with kids who are very sensitive, then they also guilt themselves very easily. So, I mean, as an example, my older daughter, she will wear her clothes till they tear and even when they’re torn, because she doesn’t want to put pressure on the Earth. She feels like she’s putting a lot of pressure on the environment and where the Earth is today. She doesn’t want to take resources from it. So she guilts herself a lot about what’s happening to the world. 

SC: She’s almost hyper aware. She can’t take that whole burden of the Earth on herself. Ultimately, our collective effort that tips the balance, we must not overburden ourselves. We have to do within our limit. Like, this is what I can do. And if my best friend is buying so many things and I feel guilty that she’s buying things, I can’t compensate for her. She’s someone then, who’s a very sensitive, empathetic person who feels so much. So she needs to have some boundaries because her energy otherwise is going to leak and her energy is going to dissipate. 

AB: I wanted to ask you one last question. Do you have any last bits of advice? 

SC: My last bit of advice would be don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself some space. Give yourself some time. Process your emotions. Take that time to feel the sensations, to understand where the sensations are within the body, within the mind, to find that place to respond from and take time and take space. Interesting. I also really believe that we’ve come on this human journey to almost refine our souls. We must approach all these experiences as lessons. It’s a poem that’s been written by Bhakti yoga guru Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. He wrote many songs, some of which show that the deepest feelings of guilt can help reconnect us to the absolute truth. And this poem is called Forgetting You – “O Lord, I’m came to this material world where I have experienced a host of pains and sorrows. Now I approach your lotus feet and submit my tale of war whilst still bound up tightly in the unbearable confines of my mother’s womb. O Lord, you once revealed yourself before me, appearing only briefly, you then abandoned this poor servant of yours. At that moment I thought, after my birth, I will worship you. But alas, after taking birth I fell into the entangling network of worldly illusions. Thus I possessed not even a drop of true knowledge. As a dear son fondled in the lapse of relatives, I passed my time smiling and laughing. The affection of my father and mother helped me to forget you even more. And I began to think that the material world was a very nice place. Day by day, I gradually grew into a young boy. I began to play with the other boys and I diligently read and studied my school lessons every day. Proud of my accomplishments, my education, I travelled from place to place and earned much wealth, thereby maintaining my family with undivided attention I forgot you, O Lord. Now in old age, this Bhaktivinoda very sadly weeps. I fail to worship you, O Lord and instead cast my days in vain. What will be my faith? Now we’re on a little adventure, so I hope we take the time to really connect and merge with that source energy. 

AB: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.