How to Deal Skillfully and Compassionately with Memories

We all have things we’ve done in the past that we regret, and memories of these mistakes can often arise in meditation. Here is a helpful teaching from Thanissaro Bhikkhu that explains what the Buddha said we could do when we are haunted by memories.

How to Deal Skillfully and Compassionately with Memories

“As for what you did in the past, you don’t want to carry that around as a burden, but in case there are things in the past that are burdensome to the mind, the best way to deal with them is to try to develop as much goodwill, compassion, appreciation, equanimity as you can in the present moment. Try to make these qualities as limitless as possible.

There are many passages in the canon where the Buddha said that these are precisely the qualities of mind that help mitigate memories of past mistakes, and they help mitigate the karmic force of past mistakes as well. You can’t totally erase those karmic forces, but you can mitigate them. If you couldn’t mitigate them, there would be no way anyone could get out of the cycle. It would just be one endless stream of retribution because we’ve all got bad things we’ve done in the past.

But again, when memory of that sort of thing comes up in the mind, the question is: What are you going to do with it? The Buddha doesn’t advise remorse. He advises developing the proper attitude: One, being determined not to repeat the mistake, and then two, trying to develop as much limitless goodwill as you can for all beings. Of all the activities that are said to be meritorious—giving, virtue, and the development of goodwill—goodwill is the most special. Giving and virtue provide their benefits right now and on into the future. But only the development of goodwill can work retroactively, tempering the results of bad actions in the past.

The image the Buddha gives is of enormous river, like the river Ganges. You can put a hunk of salt crystal in the river Ganges and still drink the water. It isn’t too salty because there’s so much water compared to the salt. But if you were to put that same hunk of salt into a glass of water, you couldn’t drink it because the amount of water is so small. In the same way, when you develop an attitude of goodwill without limit for all beings, it helps mitigate the impact of past actions. So there is something you can do in the present moment to mitigate past actions. You can’t totally erase them, but you can mitigate their impact.

So if that’s what’s coming up in the mind, memories of past mistakes, develop goodwill. Instead of asking, “What did I do in the past? Why did I do it?” it’s more fruitful to ask, “What am I doing about these memories of the past as they’re appearing in the present?” That actually gets you somewhere.”

from “Days Fly Past” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Click HERE to download and read the complete talk in PDF format.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

One Response to “How to Deal Skillfully and Compassionately with Memories”

  1. Wonderful blog, thank you for posting it. Forgiveness is a subject that many people including myself in the past were or are confused over. My Buddhist name is Metta. 🙂 Namaste, Metta

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: