“My religion is to live and die without remorse”– Milarepa –
Yes, the final breath, to die at peace with your life with no regrets. We are the choices we make, and we will leave an imprint of who we were and what we did, into the next generations when we pass. Think of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so many lives were touched by one, that is the closest to real “reincarnation” that we can prove to have, our karmic legacy. People remember us for our warmth, conduct, love or… harm. To live a life without regret, requires that now when we are alive, to sit back and reflect, and think about what’s most meaningful to us. Meaning must come from within, not from what our society, family or even our religion or what those in religious authority, tells us is our value.
I’ve worked with a lot of seniors and heard when people are dying, the most important thing to them at the end of life are the people that they loved, the quality of their relationships, and regret for people they hurt and didn’t resolve conflict with. You’d think it would be about their faith, the promise of some afterlife, God, heaven, angels, Buddhas or the next life, but people’s minds are really focused on love and relationship. For most at the end, it’s all about the depth of our awakened heart and love.
One of my teachers Chokyi Nyima said “if you can fix it with someone you must, you will feel better and they will feel better.” This is in our traditional 37 Practices of a Buddhist Bodhisattava as well, the practices of compassion, forgiveness and non-harming. Sometimes we don’t want to have contact with someone anymore if we think that they’ve hurt or betrayed us. Sometimes it’s hard to face how we treated others and we’d just rather forget and ignore our mistakes. The problem is, is that these moments of pain and conflict stay in our mindstreams and hearts we don’t really forget, even by silencing another or being in no contact. People just polarize, hold resentment, and each one blames the other. These are the seeds of human warfare, even hatred, so we must do better. We really don’t always have skills for conflict resolution, problem-solving, dealing with pain and misunderstandings and finding way to learn from each other to have resolve. Many of us just let relationships with family, friends or associates go by the wayside and hold a life of eternal resentment rather than venturing into the bravery of really healing.
The 12 Nidanas- Actively Cutting Karma
In our Buddhist Tradition, we often refer to a teaching called the 12 Nidanas. It’s a complex deconstructed system that literally means the chains or links of interdependent origination, that result in us creating a karmic circle. Imagine Jacob Marley’s hard forged chain in the afterlife. Basically in layman’s terms it’s a map of how people re-create patterns of suffering and how we stay in these patterns. We find it really difficult to cut the momentum and redirect ourselves into a more open, karma free way of relating to our lives. If we meditate and become more mindful, we can catch ourselves before we get upset, react or create a moment of karma. It’s particularly destructive to have negative karma and hurt the hearts of others and cause damage to ourselves or to our world. In order to remedy this process, we have to take a rigorous and honest look at ourselves and train ourselves to not act on impulse, to take a deep breath before we do something that we might regret.
Of course everyone makes mistakes, conflicts arise, feelings get hurt, misunderstandings are part of what it is to be in existence with people with different views and emotional propensities. So the compilation of these deeds that we’ve done, out of passion, aggression or ignorance become the building blocks of us being unenlightened and hurting others. If we reflect through our lives we can see that maybe we burned a bridge or two, estranged a friend or family member and done and myriad of things that we really regret. This is a similar process to the fifth step in Alcoholics Anonymous, you admit to yourself and to another, anyone that you harmed and you make amends to them wherever possible. A lot of the times we think too much time has gone by and it’s better to not bring up an old wound but in this system, if the person is still alive, we should make every effort to clear and heal any and all of our negative karma.
I wanted to tell you a story about clearing karma from two personal relationships that I’ve had that are going pretty well. The first is an exceedingly difficult relationship I have with my mother. It’s always been a struggle between us for various personal reasons, but I’ve never given up on her no matter what has transpired. Many people had dissuaded me from having her in my life, but I know her traumatic past and when you love someone, you understand and forgive. We have moments of great pain, difficulty and conflict. Even if I believe that I was in the right and she was in the wrong, I often will put my pride aside, reach out to her and tell her that I always care about her and I want to learn and move forward.
Her personality type is not one that’s great for self reflection and apology so I have to create a workaround in order to have relationship with her. We have learned to take a deep breath when triggered, set boundaries if things get heated, redirecting and quelling any type of negativity before it escalates. My mother has cancer that it is currently in remission so I would regret if I allowed the conflict to put a wedge between us such that I never get to see her or tell her that I love her for this entire life. Even though the relationship has been difficult ever since I was born, I don’t want to sever the ties with a primary relationship and me continuing to reach out and forgive and yet, still set boundaries has worked really well.
I have another situation with a Dharma friend who I’ve known for 30 years. We’ve gotten into a number of conflicts about various issues over the years and at times we were not speaking to each other because of that. Most recently, I felt really brave and decided to discuss with him exactly the root of why we have this conflict and in the simple way, touched a few of the key issues. I did not blame or confront him perse, I used the traditional “I messages” and spoke from the heart in a very clear and not particularly emotionally heated way. Like my mother, I told him that I cared about him and that we had decades of a long and close friendship and I really valued him always. I’m happy (even joyous) to report that in both of these instances with a high conflict propensity and emotionality, these powerful steps of clearing up hurt and negative karma have been successful!
I think we all feel so much better when we have harmonious relationships and if we make mistakes we correct them as soon as we see what we’ve done. In this way I think our lives can be meaningful and we can understand how to love ourselves and others in a real and genuine way and with hope, even have this life be of benefit to others. The Buddhist analogy says that people are fundamentally good, like the sun always shining behind the clouds. The clouds (our flaws and mistakes) are temporary and do not define us.
5 Powerful Steps to Clear Negative Karma
- Honestly reflect on anyone you have harmed with body, speech or mind.
- Make a list of those names of friends or family from your past who you have hurt, and be honest about what your part was in the difficulty.
- If they are still alive even if 1, 2 or 20 years have gone by, contact them in a gentle and noninvasive way. Reach out to them and communicate by phone or email and just tell them that you regret what happened and you wish them well, or if it’s a family member, be brave and tell them that you love them. If they have passed, forgive yourself and them mentally.
- This process is not to be a rescuer, codependent or doormat toward people who’ve been abusive to you. If you try to make excuses for someone who has been abusive, then you’ve enabled that karmic seed to be re-created in them and that’s not helpful. If you need to explain why you got angry or hurt or what you think caused a disconnect, explain it without blaming, just use “I Messages” and tell the person in an honest and authentic way what you felt and what you think you both might be able to do differently next time.
- I think we are hardwired to want to forgive each other and learn and grow in this life. We are all imperfect and make mistakes and hurt each other, but we can also grow, grow up and heal even when very difficult things arose.
Live and End Without Regret
If you’ve hurt someone that you care about, we can correct it today, reach out to someone who you held grudges for- release and heal all karma you can. And for our family and friends, tell them and show them that you really love them, listen to them and be there for them. For me, clearing karma whenever possible has made all the difference in the world. Sometimes, people will not forgive you, we can only do our best. If we take these steps, I think our life will be profound and meaningful. It’s not about hours and years of renunciation and arduous meditation practice, value for me, is about becoming a really kind, present, authentic and loving person.
If we clear our karma, heal conflicts and love well, we will have no regret today, in our future, or our very last precious moment.
*Jetsun Milarepa was a famous Tibetan Buddhist Saint that, with great tearful regret, attained enlightenment, even after he had caused the deaths of others.