Researchers at the University of Washington suggest that when it comes to guilt, meditation could be the answer.
Everyone experiences guilt, that feeling of having done something wrong, which often comes with a dose of shame, anger, and regret [Read: Meditation for Regret].
Even if you have the purest soul, you’ve probably committed at least a few wrongdoings in your life. And you might have experienced guilt as a result.
But mindfulness meditation can help.
Mindfulness is a style of meditation that involves focusing on the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude.
Previous research has shown that mindfulness reduces reactivity to thoughts and feelings, including guilt. However, some studies have shown that mindfulness leads to selfishness and antisocial behavior (note that this is the opinion of researchers, not my own opinion). Hence why mindfulness meditation by itself is not the solution for guilt or shame.
There is a solution.
New research shows that when we combine mindfulness with Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta), guilt is significantly reduced and prosocial behavior is increased.
Let me share with you my best meditation for guilt. And then we will discuss the research.
Best meditation for Guilt
- Sit comfortably with good posture. Make sure your spine is straight but relaxed, and that your feet are approximately shoulder-width apart.
- Close your eyes
- Mindfully observe your breath moving through your body
- If thoughts or feelings come to mind simply let them come and go as they will, while you focus on your breath
- Notice the feeling of guilt in your mind and body. What does it feel like? Is it hot or cold? What kind of sensation is it? Is it like a numb sensation or how would you describe it? Continue to calmly observe and describe the feeling of guilt, while reminding yourself that it is just a feeling.
- Now bring to mind the person you have wronged. See them smiling. Remember good things that you have done for them in the past, and good things they have done for you.
- Tell them that you are sorry. Then once again see them smiling.
- Continue to focus on breathing for five minutes.
The Research on Meditation and Guilt
Research from The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business states that meditation can reduce feelings of guilt. But the same research, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that there are risks too.
When we meditate, guilt and similar feelings are less pronounced. We learn to accept the emotion and that acceptance reduces reactivity. In other words, after meditating, negative emotions have less of an effect on us.
This can be both a good and a bad thing.
On the one hand, when we meditate we experience less negative feelings. And of course, that sounds like a good thing. After all, no one enjoys negative emotions.
However, negative emotions exist for a reason.
“Negative emotions may not be pleasant, but they can help us navigate social situations and maintain relationships,” said Andrew Hafenbrack, an assistant professor in the Foster School who studies mindfulness.
So, practising mindfulness by itself might not be helpful for guilt. And indeed, this is a huge mistake made by many people in the West. They use mindfulness meditation exclusively.
I have written many times about why you should not only do mindfulness meditation. If this is the only meditation you do, you might experience issues, because mindfulness can cause issues like dissociation and depersonalisation.
This has long been known in the East, where Buddhist monks combine mindfulness with other methods like Loving Kindness Meditation. And indeed, it is here that we find the best meditation for guilt.
When we combine mindfulness with Loving Kindness, we reduce the negative emotion of guilt while also promoting prosocial behavior. Hence why the method I shared above is the best meditation for guilt.
Research in this article supported by Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, the Wharton Behavioral Lab, INSEAD and the University of Washington Foster School.