Have you ever made a mistake, and then you keep replaying that mistake in your head, feeling really bad, sad, embarrassed, or remorseful about it? Perhaps you think, “If only I could go back in time and undo that mistake.”
I’ve been there many times. Sometimes, it’s a small mistake, like forgetting to bring my wallet when going out. Sometimes it’s an embarrassing mistake, like when I was drinking tea once, and then I choked and coughed tea all over the person in front of me. Sometimes it’s a horrible mistake, like saying hurtful words to a loved one.
In the past, I used to think that apologizing was enough to make up for my mistakes. But I still kept replaying them in my head. And if I repeated my mistakes, the other person wouldn’t forgive me. I was also frustrated at myself for making the same mistakes again. So how can we truly move on and free ourselves from the shackles of past mistakes?
There’s a Chinese saying that goes,
“We are not sages, so how can we not have faults and mistakes? But if we correct our faults and mistakes, then there is no greater good than this.”
(Original Text: 人非圣贤，孰能无过，过而能改，善莫大焉。)
There’s a similar English saying that goes,
“The best apology is changed behavior.”
This brings me to a great story I heard from the Buddhist Master Venerable Jing Kong.
Once upon a time, there were two brothers who studied Buddhism. The elder brother studied Mahayana Buddhism, while the younger brother studied Theraveda Buddhism. When he was young, the younger brother publicly slandered Mahayana Buddhism, saying it was inferior to Theraveda Buddhism. Later, the younger brother realized he was wrong, and he felt great remorse.
He told his elder brother, “I was wrong for slandering Mahayana Buddhism in the past. To repent for my mistake, I will cut off this wicked tongue of mine.”
The elder brother replied, “Given that you used your tongue to slander Mahayana Buddhism in the past, why not now use your tongue to praise Mahayana Buddhism?”
Suddenly, the younger brother understood what is meant by ‘true repentance.’
Feeling bad about making a mistake is a sign of good conscience, but we shouldn’t be overly harsh and do something irrational (like cutting off your tongue in the case of that younger brother). True repentance is when we promise to the other person or to ourselves that we won’t make the same mistake again. And then we keep our promise.
A great way to help us avoid the same mistake is to proactively practice the opposite virtue. In the story above, the younger brother had the fault of criticizing others. To fix that fault, he can practice the virtue of praising others’ good points. This way, our past mistakes actually serve as a valuable stepping stone for us to become the best version of ourselves. Then, we won’t agonize over our past mistakes but rather be thankful to them for helping us grow.
The Japanese term “kintsukuroi” is a great analogy for this. Kinstsukuroi is the act of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver and understanding that it is now more beautiful after being broken and repaired. The same is true for mistakes in our lives. The act of repairing with gold is to learn from the mistake and improve ourselves.
When I learned this idea, I suddenly felt really happy and hopeful. I made many mistakes in the past, and I finally knew a way to make up for them: by changing my behavior and avoiding the same mistake in the future.
But like many people, I often repeat my mistakes. Why does that happen? After I made a mistake, I felt bad, so why would I make the same mistake again?
I realized it’s because I never took the time to reflect on why I made that mistake and how I can prevent it in the future. Although doing this reflection process does not guarantee that I won’t make the same mistake again (because our habits are so strong), it greatly reduces the chance. And if I do make that mistake again, I do the whole reflection process again. Eventually, I will eliminate that fault.
Remember those three examples I mentioned before? Here’s how I’ve moved on from them:
- I forgot to bring my wallet once, and that one time, my Apple wallet didn’t work, so my friend had to pay for me. The next time I went for a meal with that friend, I made sure to bring my wallet and pay for both of us.
- I choked on tea and coughed over the person in front of me. I apologized and thanked her for her tolerance. Next time I drank slower and sat with proper posture. I have not repeated that mistake since.
- I said hurtful words when my mood was bad. Many times after, when my mood was bad, I remembered to keep my mouth closed and ask to discuss later when everyone’s mood is better.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been keeping a daily journal. Every day, I reflect on my behavior, note down my mistakes, reflect on why I made that mistake, and write down how I can prevent the same fault next time or cultivate the opposite virtue.
Here are some examples:
- I used to criticize my mother a lot because I always focused on her faults. Now I look for her good points and praise her every day.
- I used to have unhealthy habits like eating junk food and sleeping late, which made my mother worry. Now, I don’t want my mother to worry about me, so I am learning Chinese Medicine and applying the teachings to improve my health and my mother’s health.
- I used to be jealous when other people had better fortune than me. Now, I know it’s much wiser to be happy for others’ fortune, so I actively try to help others have the best fortune they can have.
- I used to waste a lot of time on games and TV for no good reason. Now, I use my free time to learn and share wisdom, which brings long-lasting happiness.
- I used to rush eating, which is bad for my digestion, and sometimes I end up biting my lip, which leaves a painful mouth sore for the next few days. Now, I remind myself that if I can do the small things carefully, then I will naturally do the big things carefully, hence I need to eat slower and more mindfully.
Many of these faults are bad habits, and habits take time and determination to change. If we truly feel remorse, we will have the motivation to change bad habits. I have not fixed all these mistakes completely, but I certainly have noticeable improvement, and thus I don’t agonize over past mistakes. The past is past. I can relax because I made good use of the past to create a better future.
As human beings, we all make mistakes. The important thing is what you do AFTER you make a mistake. Disregarding our faults would lead to us making the same mistakes and nurturing bad habits. Agonizing over them is unnecessary suffering. If we want to repent and move on from mistakes, we need to change our behavior and cultivate good habits. Mistakes are only mistakes if we don’t learn and improve from them. If we learn from mistakes, they become lessons; If we improve from them, then they become treasure.
What are some mistakes that you feel bad about? How can you learn and improve from them?