A Story of Regret

Regret can be devastating. It can feel like an explosion, yet it is often set off by a seemingly tiny trigger. This happened to me just a few days ago. I gave an impromptu, short presentation to fill in for someone else and I felt that I didn’t do the best job. Suddenly, I had an explosion of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and images. I did a “good” thing, helping out a colleague, and then I felt “bad” about it.


So what do you do with regret?


I think the first step is analyzing what goes into the emotion—or any emotion. Sit with the question. Let your eyes relax, even close. Calmly breathe in, then out. Then ask: Why feel regret? How does the emotion help me? Emotions have real uses. If you experience an emotion, you say yes to it for a reason. There is something there for you. Regret is unpleasant. Regret makes you reconsider and re-evaluate something you did or thought. Or you can regret what you didn’t do or left undone. Generally, people turn away from what they regret. Or you can get angry about it, angry at yourself or at other people. Regret can thus serve an ethical purpose, so you learn from and do not repeat an action.


How is regret different from other emotions, like guilt, remorse, sorrow? Is regret as sharp as guilt or as deep as remorse? There is sorrow with regret. The Encarta dictionary defines regret as feeling sorrow or sadness “about something previously done that now appears wrong, mistaken or hurtful to others.” The root, regreter, from the Old French means “to weep much.”


What comes up for you when you think of emotion, in general? I think first of the power emotions can have. They can be overwhelming. We say things like “I was bowled over” or “floored” by some emotion. Emotions can seem solid, heavy. But they are not solid at all. I first realized this when studying the Buddhist teaching of the skandhas, which is a Sanskrit word meaning an “aggregate” of things or elements which make up how things appear. When you mindfully attend to the elements out of which emotions are constructed, the emotion loses its solidity and sense of continuity; it dissipates.


Imagine a time that you felt regret. What does the emotion feel like? When I go into regret, I first discover this sense of me isolated from others. I notice a group of sensations, sensations of a particular type and intensity, in a specific place. When I feel sadness, for example, my head and shoulders feel heavy and drop. They turn inwards, as if forming a shell. My mouth and eyes also drop and tense. My stomach feels heavy. With regret, there are sensations like sadness or sorrow but less demonstrative. There is also a touch of anger: a jumpy quality, a tension in my hands, a churning in my stomach. There is the sense of inward pressure.


Secondly, there’s a quality to the feelings. They feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When you feel something as pleasant, what comes next? Desire. You want it to continue. You want more. But if it’s unpleasant, you want it to end. If it’s neutral, you might want to forget it. Regret feels unpleasant. When I feel it, I don’t want to be seen, or to see myself.


Thirdly, images and thoughts stream through my mind. I replay the scene over and over and try out different interpretations of what happened. This is the part I remember the most, because memories and labels get added to the feelings. In my case, I interpret what happened at school. I come up with a story to explain what occurred. I become a character in my own movie with a particular but somewhat new identity, an identity I wanted to avoid ever being. The sorrow of regret is like mourning; it is mourning the loss of an image I held of myself. I previously felt insightful, ready for anything. Now, I feel exposed as I picture people saying, “He’s not as aware as I thought he was.” I feel afraid of my image being diminished or attacked by others. I am no longer a hero in my story.


Fourthly, a mental state is constructed out of all these elements producing a way of thinking and perceiving the world. And I plan actions to end the regret. However, since all that I perceive is shaped by my emotion, how do I stop the planning? I wish I could hire a spin doctor.


The fifth skandha is consciousness, awareness, the ability to know. It is a two-edged sword. It can lead to suffering. But because I feel the pain of regret, I can do something about it. The initial pain is enough; my response to the pain is something else. Awareness allows a gap between feeling the initial elements of the emotion and doing something because of it. Mindfulness and other practices allow me to expand that gap. The gap allows a recognition that it is my own mental state and my storyline of a distinct, continuing self that is regretted; it is that story that I want to end. The regret brings my attention not only to elements of the remembered situation. It brings my attention to the image I held up in the situation as myself and the shadow cast by that me, the shadow I feared being. The regret is the recognition of that shadow. I feel exposed only when I imagine I am being seen as something I don’t like. Only because I am invested in not being seen a certain way do I care about it.


So, when the regret lives on beyond its usefulness, intervene. Go to the gym or do breathing exercises. Get a massage. Or end the storytelling directly. Enter and sit in your own theatre of mind. Watch the play without pretending to be a critic. Recognize that the actor on that stage who bears a resemblance to you is just an actor in a play. Enjoy the show as much as possible. Thank the Shakespeare inside you. And this is really important, although not easy: appreciate even what you think you don’t like in you, even the shadows. Only then will you be able to perceive clearly enough to learn from whatever happens and let it go. So notice what is there for you. And then let it go. Or: breathe in, notice what it feels like to breathe in, notice whatever arises as you inhale. Then breathe out, let go, and return your attention to the breath.


Note: I made a correction in an earlier blog after it was published but did not point this out. Sorry. The mistake was in describing the location of the insula or insular cortex of the brain.

The Magical Construction of No. And Yes.

No. Just say it. It sounds so powerful. No. Some people have trouble saying no, whether it be to a desire or to pressure from others or even to something that might hurt them. Others say it almost all the time. Think of children in their terrible twos saying it like a mantra. No is necessary for you to exist and taken too far it can kill you. It can feel good or horrible. And it can disappear like a passing cloud. So, every once and awhile, analyze the sense of no so you don’t hold on to it too tightly. Here is one analysis.


For the two year old, no is a necessary element of the maturation of a sense of independence, a sense that you can influence the awesome power of your caregivers. It does this by distinguishing “me-here” from “you-there.” The philosopher Ken Wilber said that any identity is a circle drawn so that what is inside is me and outside is all others, or not-me. No makes a me who stands up in the world and demands recognition. “You must listen, to me.” It creates the impression that the power to act independently is dependent on a sense of a distinct, acknowledged self.


The power of no is enhanced by how, and how much, you are cared for and can receive the care. Love can confer power, value, on an identity. If parents/caregivers tie love to acting or being a certain way, a further boundary can develop and the child’s sense of self gets smaller. The parts not accepted by the parents are not accepted by the child and pushed outside the circle to hide them away. Carl Jung called what was hidden the shadow.


When parental love isn’t clear, the child can be confused. He can go around putting a no in places just to demand a love to arise. Or she can fear no as if it were the magic or curse that drives love away. So, who you are and how powerful you feel is sculpted by love.


And then there’s yes. Every boundary line is both no and yes. No is the shadow of yes. The self is a me you say yes to bounded by a no. Do you say yes to your eyes? Hands? But who says yes to their nose hairs? Between no and yes there is and must be some pushing and shoving going on. In yes you give back and enjoy. In no, you push away and deny. The two are dynamically one.


Could you touch others if you didn’t have a boundary? Without your skin, there wouldn’t be any touching. If the bottom of your feet didn’t push against the earth, how could you walk? Ken Wilber also pointed out that a border is a place of contact. So, to think of the skin as only a boundary is to mistake its very nature. To think of the self as only “me, in here” is to mistake its nature. How you think of your boundaries has a lot to do with how you relate to the rest of the world.


These yeses and nos are not just ideas. You can mistake them for reality. You can feel them strongly. As a student you might say yes to listening to music and no to studying math or social studies. You can forget that what you think of as your self, your likes and dislikes, is a response to a particular situation. It changes. When you bring yes and no to awareness, you have the possibility of letting them go. Practice the following with yourself, and then, if you’re a teacher, with your students.


Close your eyes for a second and let your attention go to your inner world. Just take a breath in, and out. Notice if there is any tension as you breathe in or out. Where is it? Go there. What is the quality or feeling of the tension? Is it painful, stiff, scrunched up—a ‘no’ of some sort? Or a ‘yes’? Or neither? Notice how tension arises– or how it is just there. Then notice any gaps or lessening of tension. Notice how it changes and dissipates. The no dissolves into something else.


With clear attention, the gaps in any sensation are noticed and extended. Letting go is easier. It is helpful, especially when you are relatively new to mindfulness, to move attention around to different areas of the body.


With your next inhalation, go to somewhere else in your body. Notice the pressure as you inhale. As you exhale, notice how you let go.


As I meditate, I notice a tension, a pain across my chest. It pulls strongly on my body. When I attend to it, the pain at first seems clear, sharp. The no—and yes—can feel like absolutes. As I breathe in, I feel the history of where yes becomes no, of how I was first loved and cared for. The shape of my boundary, my sense of myself, is the shape that my felt capacity for yes, for love, creates. Yet, I rewrite this with each breath. The pain dissipates. How big can you allow your yes to be? Can you say yes even to no?


As I stay with the pain, accept it by attending to it without saying no, or saying anything, it softens. It feels almost aerated, bubbly, and then it’s gone. There is no sense of boundaries, of me and you. Only awareness.



Of course, its not just love that shapes us, nor is simply wanting enough to reshape us. Insight and self-awareness practice is needed. A person needs not just love—or genetics. Just think how your neighborhood, economic class, gender, or wars, a tornado, polluted water, a falling comet, the sound of birds affect you. It takes a universe to raise a person.




Teaching With Love: A Meditation

I was sitting in a chair in the living room watching a television program I had no initial interest in. My wife, who was sitting near to me, wanted to see it. It was a television program featuring songs and songwriters. At one point, I looked over to her. She was running her fingers through her hair, absorbed in the music. And then my whole sense of the program changed.


When we allow ourselves to feel that this other person is, right then, feeling, just like we do. When we do something as simple as that– no thoughts, just feeling. Just sitting there, looking at him or her, letting them in. I think we let in so little. We let in labels. We let in little pieces. Not the reality that this person is breathing with you.


Love is like that. To let someone or something in, you must be at least a little vulnerable. You must tremble a little, let go of your normal defenses and ways of filling time. You must let another person write who they are directly on your heart. Or it can be a pet. My cats write frequently on my heart. They also step on it, drop dirt and ticks on it. I am constantly floored by the way that “my” two cats, brother and sister, choose to sleep on top of each other. Who said that cats are just walking bellies? Walking pillows for each other, maybe.


With this openness and vulnerability you allow yourself to feel the terrible possibility of loss, yet you do it anyway. When you love, fear of loss is always there. Love and loss go together. To value someone means not only that you experience their beauty, inner or otherwise, but that you don’t want to lose them. The possibility of loss energizes the bond. To value in this way, you tremble with life and joy. You feel the breath of another as your breath. So breathe in.


All emotions incorporate contrasting emotions. Think of anger. Who do you get most angry at? Why get angry if you don’t care? Or joy. What is it that you overcome in joy? Isn’t there an overcoming or a letting go of fear involved, a relaxing of the impulse to hold too tightly?


It is so important for students to get a chance to discuss love in an honest way, yet it is a difficult subject.  There is so much hype, distortion and expectation that teens can easily get confused and even cynical about the possibility of a loving relationship. To introduce the discussion, try the following experiential exercise on the role attitude plays in perception. This is more easily done if you have already introduced mindfulness in the class. Start by walking through the room with a basket filled with simple objects like stones, leaves, and pinecones. Let students choose one from the basket and put it on the table in front of them.  Then say, with a calm voice:


Now, close your eyes partly or fully, or just soften your focus so you allow your eyes to relax and be at ease. Gently, allow your attention to go to your breath. Just breathe in, allowing yourself to feel the inhalation; and breathe out, letting yourself settle down. With each inhalation, bring your focus to the breath. Notice whatever arises for you. Maybe a thought will come up, maybe a sensation, maybe a sense of quiet. Then, with each exhalation, allow your body to settle down. Feel the natural tendency to settle into the exhalation and let go of any thoughts or feelings. Return your attention, gently, yet with clarity, to your breath.


Now, can you imagine maybe a pet, a kitten, a puppy? Something small. Something you could care for and want to protect. Just watch it—watch it play, run around, or sit in your lap. Just take in this image. Notice how your expression, your facial muscles soften, shoulders relax.


What do you feel when you see this young being? Just feel the image and notice your response.


The purpose here is to bring up a caring, open feeling or mental attitude. An emotion is not just in the heart but the eyes—and nose, ears, etc.. Once a person has this caring mental state, they will more likely perceive the world more gently.


Now open your eyes and simply look at the object that you chose earlier. If you can, look at the object as you looked at that kitten or other animal or baby. Instead of staring, just breathe it in with a gentle or soft focus. Then place the object in the palm of one hand. Move it closer and further away. With a soft focus, take in the colors, shape. Are there patterns to the object? 


Feel it. Feel the weight, the texture of the object–is it smooth or rough? Soft or hard? Feel whether its warm or cold. Now turn it around and look at it from different perspectives. 


Study a small detail of the object keeping that gentle focus. Study its texture, shades of color. How does the small detail fit in the whole? Study another detail.


Then close your eyes. Visualize the object in your mind. Visualize the shape, colors, size, texture. Look at it from different angles.


Open your eyes. And look again. Feel the life of the object. What did you not remember or not feel in your memory that you feel now?


Now put the object down. Close your eyes. How do you feel when you look at something with a gentle or soft focus? Just sit with that gentle, open feeling for a moment.


This isn’t quite teaching love. But it’s a step.


Now, breathe out. 




Creating A Compassionate Community

Mindfulness and compassion practices are extremely important to teach to students, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school. Schools must make it a priority that students and staff, instead of feeling distant from others or powerless, care for others and feel that others care for them. They feel responsible for what happens at the school and even what it looks like. They have a sense of justice and power to make changes.


Schools could consider institutionalizing empathy into graduation or promotion requirements. In my old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, for example, there is a sixty hour community service requirement. It was originally 30 hours but students voted to expand it. Service in this case means taking action with the intent to directly learn from and thus be able to help others. It must be mutual; they not only help but are helped in the process. Students work in kindergarten and elementary schools, senior centers, animal rescue shelters, and juvenile detention centers. The emphasis is on long term commitments so trust and empathy can develop over time. For example, the school has worked with the Akwesasne Freedom School for around twenty years. The teacher who administers the program, Jon Raimon, leads by example, caring for the welfare of his students so they, in turn, will care for others. He spends half of his day arranging, supervising, problem-solving. Combine that with teaching three different courses and he’s always busy.


Community service is often cited by students as one of the most meaningful parts of their education. One student made a video about the importance of service and the lasting impact it had in his life. He spoke about a week long trip he took with other students to work in the 7th Ward in New Orleans. They repaired houses of people neglected by different government agencies after Katrina. He spoke about service turning him into a self-motivated learner, excited about his own education and committed to standing up in the face of a wrong.


Another unusual graduation requirement is analyzing and taking action to end some form of bias. The student can choose the bias. It can be racism or sexism or anti-semitism. It can be countering an obvious bias, such as about gender, or more intellectual, such as scientific materialism (the view that only what we can touch, feel and measure can cause things to happen in the world).


The school is relatively small (about 310 students) and democratic. There are three major aspects to this democracy: The All School Meeting, a committee system, and family group. Once a week, the whole school, students and staff, meet to discuss and vote on proposals introduced by anyone in the school community. Instead of simply taking an academic course on democracy, students get to actually practice it. Students get to help figure out and vote on meaningful issues, like graduation requirements, school trips, how to spend fundraised monies. This develops a sense of commitment and responsibility– and some patience with the fact that a community is made of many individuals with diverse ways of perceiving and thinking. Of course, there are days students couldn’t care less about the meeting and spend their time whispering to friends or secretly texting. However, I remember meetings where sixth graders stood up to defend a position even in the face of twelfth grader opposition. I remember a meeting where a student with autism took a period and a half to describe how his condition influenced his life and perceptions. Everyone was attentive, sometimes laughing with him, sometimes crying. At the end, the entire school gave him a standing ovation. Such learning experiences are priceless and no single teacher can create them. It takes a community. These meetings are a powerful lesson on the transformative power of giving students a voice.


Students meet twice a week to serve on one of twenty committees which help run and maintain the school. There are committees to welcome and mentor new students, to help clean the school, plan all school meetings, learn about and plan environmental actions, and a student court. The court is not only about getting a student perspective on how other student’s actions affect them and the community; it is about restorative justice replacing automatic punishment. If an action disturbs or harms the community, the court tries to figure out what could be done to restore the sense of safety and trust.


What’s crucial in developing empathy and compassion is the relationship between staff and students. To develop a caring relationship, it is helpful that students and staff learn about each other in contexts other than classes, so teachers are not only “teachers” and students are not only “students.” One way to facilitate this is to give each student an in-school family group led by one or two staff members. The family group acts as a support group and an intermediary between home and school. If a problem occurs, it is the family group leader who often contacts the parents or caregivers. The group helps plan a student’s schedule, do check-ins and discuss school issues. They go on trips, fundraise and, on occasion, eat meals together.


The aim is to create a true community, a community of learners where people know and care about each other. The school is not always successful. No school is perfect for everyone. But this one tries. It is a second home to most. This sense of a second home extends way beyond graduation. Students often stay in touch with friends—and staff. Because the school acts as a compassionate second home for students, they take that home out into the rest of the world with them. They work to make the world a safer and more compassionate place.



A great video that I recommend is called My Teacher Is My Hero, by Devin Bokaer. Many teachers all through the world are heroes of compassion. Here are suggestions on how to do it.


Thanks to LACS staff and students, Sarah Jane Bokaer, Sam Frumkin, Hayya Mintz, Tommy Murphy, Jon Raimon, and Chris Sperry for giving suggestions for this blog.