The Power of Regret

A transcript I made of this featured audio content from the Waking Up app by Sam Harris


What is the point of living an examined life? Why practice meditation? Or refine one’s ethics? Or spend any time at all trying to implement a philosophy of life?

Well, one answer is to live without regret and I think this does frame the project pretty well.

Of course, most of us can only aspire to feel that we are using our time that wisely.But we should. We should keep this aspiration in mind and it should guide us.

The more you experience your mind at its best, at its most open and clear, the more you’ll notice your failure to truly live from that place.

Even with the people you love most, life can begin to seem like a nearly unbroken string of missed opportunities. The distance between who you are by tendency, moment-to-moment, and who you want to be, who you know you can be, indeed who you truly are, can be very painful to experience. But I would encourage you not to get stuck in that place.

Regret shouldn’t become a sinkhole in which you merely contemplate your failures to no good end.

You need to use regret to strengthen your commitment to being free.

Yes, you failed a moment ago. There was that awkward conversation with your sister about how she’s raising her kids. You probably didn’t have to go there, right?

But, you really are free to begin again in this moment. Even while she still has that look on her face, you are utterly free to begin again.

As though waking from a dream. Just drop your reactivity entirely. Become weightless. Like you just jumped out of a plane. Free fall through yourself through the energy of awkwardness and contraction. Just rest as consciousness in this moment.

And then when you seize up mere moments from now… “why did you make that dumb joke, no one laughed, literally no one…” and now completely surrender again in this moment. Just give up the war. This is how you free your attention.

At the level of experience there is only consciousness and its contents. And the practice is simply to recognize that, again, and again.

And recognize too that everyone is merely striving to be happy. All the while chattering to themselves in such a way as to deny happiness any place to land.

Just for a moment feel compassion for this whole catastrophe. This next moment is as good an opportunity as you’ll ever have to truly accept life as it is.

Regret can be like contemplating death. It can make you morbid. Or it can energize you and help you get your priorities straight.

Regret can seem unrelated to gratitude or even seem like it’s opposite but they’re really connected. In fact, regret can be a springboard in to gratitude in nearly every moment. You can actually feel grateful to see your missteps and learn from them, and you can feel grateful to have a chance to start again in this moment. And you can feel this immediately.

This really is a game of attention. Use attention well and you’ll experience real tranquility and ease of being. And if you didn’t experience it a moment ago you can experience it now. But use attention foolishly and you’ll be miserable even when everything is good.

Again, you have this moment.

And this.

Enjoy the process. Commit right now to enjoying the process. That really is the only goal. The goal is now. And to do this you need to forgive yourself every failure. Even now you’ll be borne away by thought. Recognize it. And keep practicing. Not just in formal meditation or when listening to this app but in every other moment.

And notice those moments where you taking a little extra care actually mattered. Where you caught a fleeting look on someones face and asked a question that took the conversation in a new direction. Notice when you were able to pause for just an extra beat or two before vomiting your ill informed opinions about trade with China all over your friends.

Notice the incremental gains in wisdom. And self awareness. And free attention. And enjoy them. Even when they reveal signs of your mind that are less than flattering.

The truth is living an examined life is one insult after another. You have to maintain your sense of humor. And realize too that you aren’t just practicing for yourself. You are practicing for others. To be better company for them in the other. You want to be a better spouse. Or parent. Or colleague. Or friend. Or all of these things. The growth of wisdom is not a solitary endeavor.

So you know you want to minimize regret. You want to minimize the distance between how you are living and you will wish you had lived at the end of each day. And week. And month. And year. And at the end of your life.

And the point is no one can do this for you.

And what’s more you must decide to do it because you’re very unlikely to do this naturally. Habitually. By tendency.

And when you lose sight of this project because old habits have totally taken over your life you must decide to engage it all over again.

Living in the general vicinity of the present moment isn’t good enough.

And sort of maintaining your deepest values isn’t good enough either.

How could it be?

There really is no reason to hedge your bet here. The future doesn’t have to be uncertain. I mean ask yourself, do you think you’re going to brush your teeth every day for the rest of your life? Barring some crazy emergency you will, right?

Can you make the same decision about meditation practice?

Of course the goal with meditation isn’t to become a meditator or have a meditation practice. It’s to recognize the way the mind always already is and to have the whole of one’s life permeated by this recognition.

But if you aren’t tending to do this when you’re working or watching television or talking to your friends then you need to train deliberately until recognizing the nature of mind becomes effortless.

And there really is a danger of fooling ones self here. Especially when one has made some progress in the practice. It’s entirely possible to imagine that one is somehow beyond the need for practice.

When you can recognize the nature of consciousness anywhere, anytime, and often do it, it’s still possible to imagine that one is doing this much more than one is, in fact. And to get lazy. And to have old habits re-assert themselves. And then to squander your attention in a thousand ordinary ways. And in ways that you will live to regret.

The greatest teachers I ever met, who spent decades on formal retreat, still practice meditation in their daily lives.

The greatest athletes still practice their sports. If LeBron James still practices basketball how likely is it that you have gone beyond the need of practice?

So ask yourself:

Will you commit to doing this until there really is no difference between your clearest moments of insight and tranquility, and the rest of your life?

Please answer this question for yourself.

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