Knowing Regret

Regret is a form of clinging that can be penetrated and released with mindfulness.


Many of us are haunted by regret yet aren’t fully open to experiencing it. But when you practice vipassana, you can use mindfulness to treat regret as simply one more experience that can be known.

Regret can be triggered by something you did or didn’t do, something another person did or didn’t do, or some combination of these. You may be clinging to memories of something bad that happened to you or to regret over some action you took. Bad memories or deep sorrow do not have to lead to clinging. In his book, The Art of Happiness, (Riverhead Books, 1998), the Dalai Lama speaks of a regret from his own life: “It’s still there. But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn't associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back.”

When you experience that quality of heaviness or being pulled back, it is a symptom indicating that you are clinging to something in the past. Living life in the spiritual dimension means letting go equally of past and future and being present for each moment as it arises. It serves no purpose to judge yourself or to wish to undo that which has been written in the sands of time.

Regret often manifests as an unpleasant feeling, which you may not recognize at first. Start by just knowing regret for what it is so that you’re not swept away by it.

Stay with the experience as it comes. Say to yourself, “This is regret. I know this is regret. I’ve known you many times, Regret. Here you are again.”

Explore how regret shows up in your body. Do you experience it as tightness in your belly or throat? In doing this, you break down the solidity of an experience that is, in fact, not solid.

Over time, you may discover that you go to regret because there’s something underneath the regret that is even more difficult for you to face. Or perhaps there is some sort of attachment to regret because you identify with being the one who is right or the one who is wrong.

Ask yourself is the experience that caused the initial regret here now? Probably not. So what is this suffering? In this way, you start to recognize what’s present versus what’s past.

When you cling to the past or future, you are denying what is sacred about life. Your life, with its unique pains and joys, can only be reconciled by surrendering to the truth of your experiences as they arise one moment after another, never fixed, always moving.

For your reflection:

  • Why does regret come when it does? What triggers it?
  • Does regret come to you as a memory, a fantasy, or a need to do something? Try to understand and identify how it manifests.
  • Reflect on and examine your regret. Allow regret to come into full bloom. Keep naming it and fully experiencing it in various ways and then start to notice how the mind shifts. You may find it doesn’t stay on regret. Sometimes it will start thinking about dinner! Realize the mind is not always on regret although it seems like it is.


For further study:

Listen to Phillip’s talk: What Might Have Been

Read: Compassion Practice