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Restlessness and regret

The fourth of five hindrances to concentration

This talk was given during the White Tara Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • How restless energy manifests
  • Antidotes to restlessness
  • Regret comes from confusion over what is our responsibility and what isn’t
  • Examining our motivation

White Tara Retreat 27: Concentration hindrance of restlessness and regret (download)

So far of the five hindrances we’ve talked about sensual desire, we talked about ill will, and we talked about dullness and drowsiness. The fourth one is restlessness and regret.

Restlessness we know very well, don’t we? Sometimes our body is restless; sometimes our mind is restless. I remember years ago when I did my Vajrasattva retreat, it was so hard to sit still and I had so much pain in my legs and I finally realized it was due to the restlessness energy. It wasn’t really due to my legs hurting; it was due to just so much restless energy. When you have a lot of physical restless energy, it’s good to do some exercise and qigong and yoga and tai chi and these kinds of things. Sometimes just gentle breathing meditation can calm your physical restlessness, as well as your mental restlessness.

Then there’s regret, as the second part of this fourth hindrance. Regret here means that you’re worried that you should have done something you didn’t do or that you did do something you shouldn’t have done. It’s this kind of uneasiness in your gut, “Oh, I should have done that,” or, “I shouldn’t have done that.” It also often brings a lot of confusion, such as, “What should I have done?” And that can keep us gone for a long time, can’t it.

What’s very important, and what I found in my practice really essential, is to discern what is my responsibility and what is somebody else’s responsibility, because I think a lot of this thing about regret is being confused about that. What most of us do is we take responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility and we don’t take responsibility for things that are our responsibility. So we take responsibility for other people’s emotions when we had no intention to cause those emotions. But we think we have to fix them or we think that we’re bad or we worry about how other people react even though we can’t control it. Here I’m talking about if we spoke or acted in a good way with a clear conscience, so our motivation was clear but we’re still kind of taking responsibility for their reaction. Then at other times when our motivation is unclear and our motivation is rotten and selfish, we don’t take any responsibility for it. Other people are miserable and unhappy and we just say, “Oh tough luck that’s their problem,” and dismiss it. So, both of these attitudes have a lot to do with this thing of regret.

I think in any situation to really sit down and say, “Okay, what was my motivation,” and to be as truthful as we can. Sometimes our awareness of our motivation is not very clear and it takes years for it to become clear, but we do the best we can. Then based on what our motivation was, we either take responsibility or don’t take responsibility. If we acted with a clear conscience and a good motivation, then there’s nothing to worry about. We can’t control other people’s actions. But if we acted in a deceptive, deceitful or pretentious way, then we should definitely regret that and not just sit around and regret it with guilt, but do purification practice. Because if we do purification, then that cleanses that mental tightness, as well as the karmic seed, and then we learn from the experience and we can go on.

Audience: It sounds like there are two meanings to the word regret, and I’d like some clarification.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, there are two meanings for the word regret. Actually, there are multiple meanings. When you look at the mental factors, regret is one of the changeable ones, the variable ones. Because while regretting our negative actions is definitely good, sometimes we regret our virtuous actions, and that’s not very useful for Dharma practice, to regret our virtuous actions.

Audience: I get tangled up…

VTC: We get very tangled up. Like you go and do retreat, but then you come home and a family member is unhappy. So then you say, “Oh, I’m so selfish for going on retreat. I’m so bad. What am I doing this for?” You regret going on retreat, which you did with a good motivation, and at your retreat you created virtue, but then you start getting filled with all these wrong kinds of regret. Whereas when we’re angry and we tell that same relative off, we don’t have any regret; we should regret that. Sometimes there are things that we didn’t do that we feel like we should have done and we regret those and we get tangled up there too. Sometimes we didn’t do that thing for a selfish reason; other times, we didn’t do that thing because we felt it was best not to do it, or sometimes because we didn’t even know about it.

Audience: I was wondering, in the Pali there are two different words that we translate as, both of them as regret, do you know?

VTC: I don’t know. Maybe you can check, okay? Perfect. Yes, I can’t remember.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.