Moving from regret to remorse

August 4, 2023

This article was originally published in Tom Cummings’s blog, The Liberal Buddhist Review. We thank Tom for his kind permission to repost this article in the SBN website,


For the most part, my daily meditation practice and my engagement with the teachings of Buddhism over the past fifteen years have been of so much value to me that I can hardly imagine what my life would be like without them. However, there was a brief span of time, some six or seven years ago, when the opposite seemed to be true, when it felt as if meditation and Buddhism were actually making my life more difficult.

In order to explain this, I’ll need to plunge into a bit of autobiography, and describe the outsized role that regret had played in my pre-Buddhist life.

Put quite simply, regret was the predominant mood of my entire early adulthood, from the start of my 20s until well into my mid-40s. These years were marked by an unbroken string of transient friendships, unsatisfying relationships, and assorted dead-end jobs. In the Buddhist vernacular that I was not yet familiar with, my day-to-day existence back then was filled with ‘dukkha’.

Deficient in both emotional and mental maturity at the time, I attributed these long dreary decades of dissatisfaction to the undue influence of the Catholic Church, under whose sway I had spent my high school and college years as a seminarian aspiring to the priesthood. Upon leaving the seminary in 1970 (and, not long after, setting aside both Catholicism and its beliefs), I entered adulthood totally bereft of my childhood friends and classmates (all of whom I had foolishly left behind upon entering the seminary eight years before), completely inexperienced in matters of dating and intimacy, and utterly without a clue as to what I should do with the rest of my life.

One of the more unskillful coping mechanisms I adopted in those years was to indulge in a continual stream of ‘if only’ fantasies: How wonderful my life would have been … if only I hadn’t been in the seminary all those years … if only I had attended a co-ed high school where I might have enjoyed normal teen-age dating and party-going … if only I had gained entrance to a respected university where I might have gone on to earn an advanced degree and become a tenured professor … if only, if only.

So much self-justification, so much self-pitying. Once again, using the Buddhist vernacular I still had yet to encounter … so much ‘self’.

By the time I finally did discover Buddhism, sometime around 2008, my life circumstances had changed significantly for the better. I had been happily married for nearly twenty years, our then-14-year-old twins (a son and a daughter) had just begun high school, and I was enjoying a fledgling dual career as a personal coach and a mindfulness blogger.

Yet, despite all the gratification my actual present circumstances were bringing me, those pernicious ‘if only’ fantasies about my imagined past continued to manifest on a very regular basis. I felt hopelessly perplexed by these strange bedfellows in my psyche – deep contentment with a present I hoped would never change, and festering resentments about a past I would have done anything to change.

The beginnings of a breakthrough came one Sunday morning as I attended the weekly session of my meditation group on Manhattan’s upper west side. During his dharma talk, our guiding teacher Allan Lokos, whose chosen topic that week was forgiveness, offered this thought to his listeners … ‘Forgiveness begins with accepting that you can never have a better past.’

Allan’s linking of forgiveness to this recognition that one can never have a better past landed deeply for me, and it pointed me toward a resolution of the battle being waged by my competing mental bedfellows. As I internalized the truth that of course no one can ever have a better past, those ‘if only’ fantasies began to make less frequent appearances, and when they did show up, they no longer cast their familiar alluring spell over me.

At the same time as the fantasies were loosening their grip on me, I started delving deeper into Buddhism’s teachings about the interconnectedness of all beings and the complex array of causes and conditions in which we all exist and interact with each other. And before I knew it, I had begun to develop a radically different perspective on my past.

At first, this new perspective was painful, because it was forcing me to recognize that, where I had long taken comfortable refuge in my perception that I had been victimized by the extreme limitations of my adolescent experience in the seminary, I now had to own up to the role I had actively played in choosing that experience, and to see unsparingly my self-absorption and lack of concern for others through all the years I was attempting to recover from that experience.

This new self-awareness was not at all easy to accept. But it was undeniably true.

And so, at one point, during a weekly class that Allan conducted for a small group of interested students from our larger meditation group, I mentioned – only half-jokingly – that meditation and Buddhism were actually making my life more difficult! It hurt to view my past experiences through the lens of Buddhist ethics.

With encouragement from Allan, I continued to struggle with this new awareness, and as I did so, I felt all the more distaste for my past regrets. They now registered as the conveniently selfish deceptions that they in fact were. My ‘if only’ fantasies – always all about me, me, me – which had once offered solace, now brought shame.

As I released more and more of these old regrets about my past, I began to experience a newfound sense of remorse for it. Whereas regret had felt like a blindfold wrapped tightly over my eyes, restricting my vision to myself and my resentments, remorse was like gazing through some kind of magical magnifying lens, opening up to an infinitely expanding field of vision – one that included just about everyone I could remember from my past, and allowed me to see each of them in my mind as I might have truly seen them in actuality, had I not been so utterly self-absorbed at the time.

And with this new expansive take on my past, with the replacement of regret with remorse, meditation and Buddhism stopped making my life difficult, and once again they helped to make it more easeful and more meaningful.

To be sure, there is indeed some similarity between regret and remorse, in that remorse can also carry a tinge of ‘if only’” sadness that things were the way they were, and not otherwise. But the significant difference between the two, as I’ve experienced them both, is that the sadness of regret has a secret agenda of wanting the past to have been different for one’s own selfish sake; the sadness of remorse has no such agenda, but simply acknowledges how the past as it actually unfolded included a certain amount of unavoidable sorrow and disappointment – and not just to oneself, but to many others as well.

In the Buddhist vernacular with which I am at last becoming somewhat conversant, remorse elicits a response of compassion and caring, as opposed to regret’s call for anger and resentment. Remorse releases us from the grip of self, while regret locks us in. Both bring us face-to-face with our past sorrows and suffering, but only remorse invites us to step through our own dukkha and settle into a space of equanimity and caring.



6 Replies to “Moving from regret to remorse”


Thank you Tom for your heartfelt piece and for bringing clarity to the differences between regret and remorse. Great food for thought for all of us who face these emotions.

Thank you, Colette! I’m always so appreciative of your caring and thoughtful comments.

Deborah McGuire

Relevance is a teacher of timing…thank you for this. I am processing estrangement from my child. Many months are passing, as my righteousness feels ‘real’ and also too, the anger, hurt, and emerging regret array around the break. Continuing to consider the break episode, which has branches from many contributing episodes, now I look at forgiveness. Should I? Not fully. Can I? Yes some. It is a shared episode, our interrelationship formation, not mine alone. Am I ready? Yes… and, moving to regret, with its stings, is now moving toward remorse, dipping into compassion via metta practice. Letting go, compassion, remorse seem to be ‘later stages’ of processing these conditioned states for which most of us are ‘victims’ and inheritors. Still, we can climb out and without the extra mud of shame, regret, self pity :-)… Reaching compassion, for self and for other and for all us mortals! Ah what fools and magnificent beings we are 🙂 With many thanks for wisdom teachings, for this path and its many awakening companions.

I’m very moved by this account of your personal journey from regret to remorse as you process this painful estrangement from your child, Deborah. I agree with you that “letting go, compassion, remorse seem to be ‘later stages’ of processing”, and fully embrace your pronouncement of “what fools and magnificent beings we are”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Deborah McGuire

Thank you Tom. May I add, today I finished a 35 page booklet for her. As I immersed in metta practice recently, the tug of discomforting emotions began to weaken. Through creating the booklet, I offered my experience from an intention of lightness, sincerity, much humor via New Yorker cartoons I’d been collecting, some poems, and declared my unconditional love for her and commitment to her well-being.
I looked at apologies/forgiveness/compassion/surrender and rather than any formal statement of my view of the collision [& several contributing crashes], I included the parable of the 6 blindmen and the elephant, to acknowledge both right/both wrong/no one right or wrong 🙂 Just Views, perceptions, conditioning. The process of expressing through these forms of images and words, tangibly on paper, has a wonderful sense of wholeness & completeness today. I mailed it with wave. No expectations. Yes a peace toward her regardless of the ‘future’. Should death suddenly take either of us, no regrets.

Sounds to me like very wise, skillful speech/action on your part, Deborah! Best wishes to you …

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