’No regrets’ may be a fine name for a song but it won’t work in real life. To live is to accumulate regrets. What gives regrets their sharp edges is the belief that we could have made things work out differently if we had made different choices and it’s too late now. If I had made this choice I could have spared that person some pain; if I had made another choice I could have brought myself more happiness; if I had thought to say ‘No’ or ‘Yes” back then, everything would have been different and so on and on.
Since regrets are inevitable, how can mindfulness help us to deal with them in our lives? First, we accept the pain we have to accept; second we drop the tendency to re-experience the pain; third, we accept that regret is a fact of everybody’s life.
Regret is made up of physical sensations, memories, recurring thoughts (“how could I have been so foolish, blind etc.”) and fantasies (what might have been). When I take a mindful approach I am willing to experience the physical sensations (for instance a tightening of the stomach, a shortening of the breath) but I allow the memories recurring thoughts and fantasies to pass by. They may arise but I don’t follow them, I return to that physical sensation and allow them to pass.
Think of the old Buddhist metaphor of the two arrows. If you were struck by an arrow you would be in pain, no doubt about it. But if you dwell on that experience by going over and over it in your memory or by entertaining revenge fantasies for years afterwards, then you are shooting a second arrow into yourself.
That sudden awareness of regret, that comes now and then - maybe very often - is the first arrow. Wallowing in memories, fantasies and recurring thoughts about the regret is the suffering we add on.