Both my sisters claim to have no regrets about their lives. I do. It’s not so much that I regret specific things that happened to me in my life or even some of the particular choices I made although both the “happenings” and “choices” are a result of a larger regret. Nor do I spend much time going over it all in my mind. I don’t believe that listing all the “if onlys” and ruminating about “wrong turns” is productive.
Some people interpret the happenings in their lives as only positive. If X hadn’t happened, then I would not have Y (a good thing). Well, maybe, maybe not. Or, they are convinced that because a particular incident occurred, they experienced Z (another good thing). Is that particular incident a necessary precursor to the important and valuable Z experience? How can we know? And does that mean that those things leading up to Z cannot be regrettable? By and large, it seems we’ve come to a place in our society where the things that happen in one’s life are ultimately constructed as positive.
There are, of course, those people who wring their hands, negatively obsessing over all the “happenings” in their lives as well as the “choices” they’ve made. However, we have a plethora of pithy sayings floating about that are used to put a positive spin on what some perceive to be negative occurrences. We hear, “Everything happens for a reason.” (We’re supposed to be comforted by that.) “Keep your chin up. Life isn’t as bad as it seems.” (Sometimes it’s worse.) “If someone puts you down or criticizes you, just keep on believing in yourself and turn it into something positive.” (How does this even make sense?)
I have regrets, but perhaps the anecdote that best sums up my sense of regret is a story that has come down to us about the Buddha–the son of a Brahmin priest who became enlightened, eventually finding a way out of suffering. I am not Buddhist, however, I find myself embracing the Buddha’s succinct and “tell it like it is” manner. When the Buddha was asked, “Are you a god or a magician?” the Buddha replied, “I am neither. I am awake.”
My overarching regret is simply this: I was not awake for much of my life.
What does it mean to be awake? In Herman Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha, the main character, Siddhartha, finds a fatal flaw in the Buddha’s teaching and says to the Buddha, “…[y]ou have reached the highest goal…by your own seeking…through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings [emphasis mine], and so I think…that nobody finds salvation through teachings.” Essentially, the Buddha found his own way, forging an effective salvific path, albeit one that was at odds with his society/culture.
Teachings (doctrines) cannot give us the needed experience to effectively navigate the world. Siddhartha tells the Buddha that even though he could never find a “better doctrine” than the one the Buddha teaches, what’s lacking is “…the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced.” Siddhartha then announces he will “…leave all doctrines and all teachers and…reach my goal alone–or die.” I cringe here as this line reflects a stereotypical masculinity. Strong, determined, male figure goes off alone to achieve his goals. Of course, as the book progresses, we note that Siddhartha receives much help (food, warmth, friendship–even sex) along the way in spite of his bravado. Nevertheless, this particular line resonates with my own experience.
At a certain point in my life (and I regret that it was later in my life than earlier), I had to stop believing the “truth” (doctrines as the “be all and end all”), handed down to me by my parents, my faith community, as well as the wider culture. Waking up entailed understanding the necessity of living my life as though what I thought, felt, and experienced mattered. What I think, feel, and experience may not (and doesn’t have to) matter to other people, but I had to get to the point where all of my efforts mattered to me–enough so I could act on them–going at it alone, if need be.
It’s quite easy and even sometimes fashionable to focus on somebody else’s chosen path especially if we perceive their path to have few, if any, pitfalls. We may even somehow “believe in” their chosen path. Many people attempt to follow gurus, sheiks, pastors, and priests, copying the path these people (almost always men) have taken in order to insure their ultimate salvation.
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (This saying is attributed to Zen Master Linji Yixuan, founder of the Rinzai sect in 12th century Japan.)
To kill the Buddha on the road means we need to realize that no “truth” or “meaning” that we “take on” from a source other than ourselves brings ultimate peace and satisfaction. That kind of peace and satisfaction comes from within one’s own self. Again, I cringe here with the metaphor of killing. I would rather the saying read, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, don’t allow him to entangle you.”
I wonder, though, as I write this essay, if perhaps I am guilty of becoming entangled with the Buddha “on the road,” regretting the “lost” years of my life because I did not understand what I understand now, and believing that my life could have, would have, should have been better–whatever “better” is. Maybe the most productive thing I can do is step aside, let the Buddha pass, and not entangle myself with my construct of what I perceive could have been a “better” life. Living authentically–being in touch with one’s self–in the “here and now” is more than enough.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.