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Unfriending Guilt

9 months ago / by Sweta Vikram

When disturbed by negative thoughts, we must cultivate the opposite mental attitude to be happy

Dystopian photomontage of a distressed woman

Last week, after six or seven years, I attended a writing retreat. I spent a week in Rhode Island close to the ocean but not too disconnected from human civilization (I am a very urban person at heart).

I was with a writer friend and was working on my new book. We stayed at an Airbnb, cooked meals, went on walks, discussed world politics, practiced yoga, talked about book strategy, brainstormed story arcs, inhaled the ocean air, supported the need for new stationery amongst other things. It was a week to be with words.

I recently signed a book contract for my 14th book! It’s very exciting, and I am extremely grateful. But writing needs singular vision. Doing dal tadka while planning weekend commitments and simultaneously messaging someone in India while packing your gym bag and segregating weekly laundry is not the conducive headspace for writing.

Seeds of Guilt

Writing a book is a demanding and lengthy process, even more if you aren’t a full-time writer like me. Meaning, you have either a job or a business aside from your writing to juggle. You create pockets of time in your life to write. So, I took the week off from work, clients, the doctorate program, and home commitments. I packed my suitcase filled with ideas, books, inspiration, yoga clothes, travel spices (most of us writers love to cook!) and writing accessories as well as new stationery.

All of this reads like mindful and intentional actions, which I needed to take. But I felt guilty making these decisions, you know? In Sanskrit, guilt is called a dosha, which means that which pollutes the mind. I read somewhere that it is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita that guilt had polluted Arjuna’s mind and made him so weak that he became impotent, physically as well as mentally.

Guilt #1

This writing retreat meant I wasn’t going to be home for Holi. The festival of colors is my New Year. We have friends and family over for a Holi meal and celebrations. It gives me the chance to recreate my mother’s traditional recipes for malpua, dahi vada etc. There was no pressure from my husband whatsoever to be home for the holiday. But my inner voice asked, Am I abandoning our annual tradition by going away? This was the only week my friend and I were both able to take time off from work and the beginning of March is also a cost-effective time to travel to New England. Coincidentally, my husband had a work trip come up the week of March 6, too. All of a sudden the narrative inside my head shifted. He won’t be home either, so I don’t feel bad.

Guilt #2

The day before I was supposed to board the train to Rhode Island, my father-in-law ended up in the ICU in India. I didn’t want my husband to be alone, so I changed my plans. I left a day later — after my husband’s father had stabilized. But a part of me wondered if I should have stayed home. Weirdly, my in-laws live in Mumbai, not New York City. My husband was going to be traveling for work. Until such time I was available to them and within phone call reach, how did the location matter?

Guilt #3

I pride myself for being a woman of my words. I felt so awful about reaching the retreat a day late despite having a genuine reason for doing so. My friend in Rhode Island was so wonderful; she drove 30 minutes to pick me up from Kingston station because there are no trains from NYC coming into Newport. I insisted I would Uber it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I felt terrible about being a bother, even though I didn’t ask to be picked.

Guilt #4

As a small-business owner, I am part of certain business groups, and one of them had a meeting while I was away. I had initially planned to be there virtually, but I was in such a good writing place that I didn’t want to disrupt my thought process or change the direction of my brain or have other people’s voices inside my creative brain. I must have contemplated 10 times before emailing the group moderator that I would miss the meeting even though you aren’t expected to attend every single one of them.

Guilt #5

If you know me (even through my work and writing), you know how much movement means to me. I continued doing my daily 60 minutes of yoga, pranayama, and twice a day meditation. And went for walks and hikes in the unappealing New England breeze. But at the end of the day, if my Apple Watch didn’t show that I had walked at least 5 miles, my inner New Yorker voice kept nudging me “You are slacking.”

Guilt #6

Writing or reading or researching for a book is a very intense and overwhelming process. You are tired, vulnerable, emotional, directionless (sometimes). Some days you stare at the book map or the screen; other days, you crank out 5,000 words. It would make most sense to not bother about any chores and focus on the writing life and some movement to release stress and stiffness. But the domesticated and health nut in me made sure groceries were in place and there were two balanced hot meals every day. But didn’t I tell you that I went to the writing retreat to not be distracted by anything but writing?

On this trip, I got a lot of work done on my book and connected deeply with my friend. Having the freedom to schedule my day was a gift. But I carried some guilt with me. How and why did the guilt come about? I had no one at home telling me what to do or not to do. Writing is a big part of my career. Is guilt related to fear of punishment from some authority or society? Guilt is a hidden cultural imperative, says one of the gurus. Well, the starting point of all the guilt is in the mind. It makes up stories and berates you. I also believe guilt is attached to judgment. And I do think guilt steals away happiness.

The Way of All Guilt

There are two truths: (1) I would be described as someone who is mostly happy. (2) Women take their empathy and turn into a self-destructive habit called guilt and battle it constantly. Without the guilt, I would have made time to rest and recuperate. Life in New York is busy and demanding. But I used every minute to be a doer, and remained productive.

So, how do we manage guilt, so it doesn’t come in the way of our happiness? Newsflash: You didn’t learn to feel guilty overnight, so you won’t break the habit in an instant. Truth is that freedom begins with awareness. You start by noticing your triggers and how you jump into the guilty-path. And, when you notice yourself losing yourself, you start catching yourself. How does one do that?

The “Yoga Sutra” of Patanjali offers us a simple yet profound solution to this syndrome that can be deeply transformative when put into action on a sustained basis: pratipaksha bhavana. Yoga sutra 2.33 recommends that when disturbed by negative thoughts, cultivate the opposite mental attitude (Vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam). The actual meaning of Pratipaksha Bhavana is cultivating positive thought every time a negative thought enters the mind. Pratipaksha means “opposite” Bhavana means “emotion/ sentiment.”

This International Day of Happiness, which falls on March 20, I urge you to become an active participant in shaping your happiness and changing the narrative you tell yourself about life and yourself. When guilt creeps in and takes the shape of an ugly and hurtful voice, practice pratipaksha bhavana to empower yourself.

Guilt isn’t always a rational thing … Guilt is a weight that will crush you whether you deserve it or not.” ~ Maureen Johnson