There is a certain meme floating around in the collective, suggesting that guilt is a kind of positive influence, as opposed to shame, for example, which is portrayed as negative. The sense of taking personal responsibility for an offense, and the accompanying feelings of remorse, are considered to be the beneficial and desired outcome of the assumption of guilt. Judges in the penal system, for example, look to see if the criminal has accepted a sense of personal guilt for their crimes, and exhibits the necessary regret required to be returned to society after serving their sentence.
However, I would offer that there is a difference between recognizing unskillful behaviors, and granting reality to a self-image in the form of some self-imposed blame, which is my understanding of the concept of guilt. It may seem a matter of semantics, but no matter how we slice it, psychological guilt still amounts to a fixation of identity. In other words, a target must be present for guilt to land, but if there is no target, nothing can be attributed to it — positive, negative, or neutral.
A “guilty conscience” requires an owner. By projecting a sense of solid and enduring self, we then have a narrative story, the story of “me”. “I have sinned, I am guilty, I must change, I must improve my-self, I must become liberated, redeemed, saved, etc, etc . . .” Consequently, a war with oneself has been justified, and yet, it is a war which can never be won, despite the fervent aspirations of neurotic self-mortifiers down through the ages.
Alternately, if instead of perpetuating the ambivalent story of the “me project”, we begin to seriously question the whole premise of the story itself, then we may eventually find that it is fundamentally empty at the core — a bundle of thoughts and memories with no basis for the establishment of an actual guilty “person”. Indeed, we may discover that all of our fuss and bother, all of our self-concern and busy efforts to modify, blame, forgive, and perfect ourselves, has been based on a case of mistaken identity. The direct recognition of the emptiness of the personal self is a great relief, liberating us from the endless “me-project” that has so occupied our life and infected our relations with its insistent demands for confirmation and feeding, praise and blame.
Such a direct recognition will typically have a profound effect on behavior, by greatly loosening the contraction in the being centered around any identity fixation. If we stop and inspect the sensation that arises in the body with the experience of guilt, we can recognize immediately that its influence is contracting. Alternately, we can experience a sense of liberating expansion with the release of guilt — a genuine relief and even an immediate renewed availability to life and love.
Of course, the religionists may fear that such a recognition — the emptiness of the imagined self — would create an amoral personality, a sociopath in other words, and indeed there is the possibility of aberration if one stops and clings to just half of the equation: “Form is empty”. One may indeed fall into a kind of imbalance. It is rare, but it has happened. Witness, for example, the kinds of atrocities sanctioned by certain Japanese Zen Masters, as documented in the book “Zen At War”, by Brian Victoria.
However, for those who also are able to realize the other half of the equation — that “emptiness is also form” — a higher synthesis will then pertain in which spontaneous compassion is born, and “doing the right thing” is not a matter of fulfilling some man-made dictum, but simply a natural result of the liberation that comes with recognition. Whatever is in need of change in life and relations will happen spontaneously, without the superimposition of a make-believe doer to complicate life’s flowing functioning.
Indeed, it is only by seeing through and surrendering all of our previous identifications with the body-mind-self (as well as its need for validation, preservation, and perpetual enhancement) that we are finally able to relinquish the internal war with ourselves and be changed by the universal intelligence which is our true nature, love itself.
“One of your biggest misdirected energy focuses in physical life is self-judgement and guilt. Guilt, while it has its uses, is a very destructive energy which seeds deeply into the soul. Instead allow yourself the love, compassion and freedom to make mistakes; to be imperfect; to do bad things which later illuminate who you truly desire to be. You are a child of the universe, allow yourself to be one.”