Lessons from the Dojo #2: Moving Beyond Regret

See the first post here.

Religion and guilt go hand in hand for many people. We often assume that true repentance and transformation can only be come from feelings of shame and remorse. But in my experience, guilt can all too easily become debilitating. It leads to stagnation and depression, not growth. In fact, lasting spiritual progress generally comes from a posture of optimism, joy and openness.

The attitude toward guilt and remorse is a second point of connection I wish to draw between the Hasidic tradition and my training in martial arts. Both of these paths seek to lead the practitioner out of the morass of guilt, liberating him or her from becoming trapped in feelings of remorse. Of course, both Hasidic spirituality and martial arts underscore that you must always take responsibility for what you have done. Constant reflection is an essential part of how we improve—we must acknowledge our failures in addition to embracing the things we do well. But it is a very thin line that separates this type of positive reflection from the paralyzing ruminations of remorse.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the first Hasidic master, was greatly bothered by the fiercely penitential, ascetic spirituality he saw around him in Eastern Europe. He taught that someone who sins, and then becomes drawn into a web of shame and guilt, has actually performed two transgressions. The first is the sin itself, but the second, and even more problematic transgression, is the obsession that follows. This latter stage lasts much longer than the initial sin, and is so dangerous precisely because it can lead one toward despair and eventually apathy. Why should I try again, we think, if I’ve failed a hundred times before? A paradigm of guilt sullies the next positive action we undertake as well.

The practice of martial arts demands a very high level of presence in every moment. During a kata (a defined series of motions), and certainly in the middle of a fight (whether real or in practice), there is simply no time for regret. Every motion must be performed with total commitment and concentration. A mistake must immediately be left behind, since bringing it into the next movement will ruin the chances for success there as well. Errors are not forgotten or suppressed, of course. We can either learn from the mistake immediately, quickly absorbing the lesson and subsequently changing our actions accordingly, or we can reflect upon it at a later time. In all but the rarest of circumstances, guilt is actually a smokescreen of self-obsession that obscures true growth.

A similar dynamic governs the art of prayer. If so far I have not been successful in cultivating the desired level of focus and intention, what the Hasidic masters refer to as kavvanah, becoming ensnared in feelings of guilt will only prevent me from doing so in the next part of the prayer service. Moreover, this attitude paradoxically holds me back from striving for self-transcendence, a state of openness—and vulnerability—necessary for the encounter with the Divine that is the heart of the quest of prayer.

My karate teacher often asked us to perform an entire kata by doing only the first move. This exercise forced us to enter into a single motion with the full intensity and conviction of an extended fight. For the martial artist, every movement is a complete lifetime. The Hasidic masters taught me that I can pray an entire service, pages upon pages of liturgy, in a single word uttered with true courage and presence. Each letter of prayer is a world unto itself, brought to life by a single moment of total commitment.

Before and after each workout in our dojo, I remember our teacher asking us, “What does karate teach you about?” “Ourselves,” we replied, “to know our strengths, and work on our weaknesses. Together.” He was reminding us of the importance of both of those elements. We acknowledge our abilities and talents, considering them together with our imperfections and flaws. The journey of spiritual progress and personal improvement is one that is never complete, and both failures and successes will continue to accompany us to the end of our days. Guilt, not unlike apathy or complacency, stalls this quest for growth. Honest reflection, presence and courage, not shame, drive the real engines of personal transformation.

Image courtesy of Google Images.

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