Our first episode of 2021 is a guided meditation on “purification”: a healthy way to let go of regrets from the last year and make a realistic path to being our best self this year through forgiveness and self-acceptance.
During the first week of the year gym memberships explode, yoga classes are packed, and fresh fruits and vegetables get depleted at the grocery store as people follow through on their New Year’s resolutions.
You’ve likely already made some of your own New Year’s resolutions already around food or exercise or maybe even meditation. I’ve made my own already too: to try and be as good a person at home with my wife and daughter as I pretend to be as the host of this meditation podcast!
Even as I share this, I can feel a little bit of guilt and shame in my resolution, which you may also feel in some of yours. And that’s why I wanted to share a gentle Buddhist approach to a process of self-forgiveness that I’ve found effective for letting go of any pain or regrets from the past and establishing new good habits.
This meditation is called “purification.” A practicing Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition usually does this meditation at the end of each day to appreciate all the good we did, and to forgive and let go of any pain that we might have caused.
Some Buddhist retreat centers do an extended version of this practice at the end of the year to fully let go of the last year’s regrets, rejoice in all the good we did, and gently establish beneficial habits and plans for our future. These end of year retreats can last an hour, a day, a weekend, or even a whole week, with a “purification retreat” where you do this practice all day long.
An important note about this purification practice is that it shouldn’t be confused with puritanical notions that we are fundamentally flawed, or that we are bound by circumstances and conditions that limit our potential.
As we have explored in previous episodes, Buddhist and Western psychology show that we can transform our minds and open our hearts in ways that are both profound and unbounded. At the root of purification is the firm notion that we can open ourselves to a highest potential that forgives and lets go of any pain that we caused others. This practice also removes the obstacles to seeing our own positive potential for unbounded goodness and even joy.
Today’s episode, our first of 2021, is a guided meditation on this healthy, self-accepting way of practicing purification. Our approach is specifically geared toward secular meditation practitioners who are non-religious, or even those of a different faith from Buddhism like Christians or Muslims who’d like to integrate meditation practice into their own life. It’s a psychological approach that anyone with common sense and curiosity can practice and doesn’t require any belief.
The practice of purification can be thought of as a combination of forgiving and rejoicing: forgiving ourselves for the things we regret, and rejoicing in the things we feel proud of. It helps us open up to our potential to transcend mistakes by realizing that we can accept and transcend our regrets without bypassing or denying them, and without punishing ourselves into feeling further pain.
In the English language versions of this practice, people have started to call the steps of the meditation “the four R’s” which is a catchy way to remember the steps.
We’ve adapted theses four R’s of purification for a secular audience:
- Rejoicing. The first “R” is rejoicing. We begin by rejoicing in all of our own best qualities and good deeds and the good qualities of people we know and admire. Rejoicing expands to also rejoicing in our own unlimited potential for good, as shown by the example of those we admire, and by those that support us in being our best self.
- Regret. Then the second “R” is regret, where we sincerely regret anything we’ve done that hurt ourselves or others; without shame or guilt, simply acknowledging that these actions caused pain, we would have preferred not to do them, and we wish to avoid doing them in the future.
- Remedy. The third “R” is remedy. This is where we go into a deeper meditation that harnesses the power of concentration and visualization to let go of any pain or guilt or shame; to forgive ourselves.
- Resolve. And then the last “R” is resolve, where we resolve not to do that harmful action again, for some reasonable amount of time that’s achievable.
Once you know the practice, it’s easy to remember and to do it on the cushion or in bed, or even out on a walk at the end of the day: rejoicing, regret, remedy, and resolve.
But today, let’s do this practice together in a special way that reviews our whole year; where we can let go of anything from the year that’s causing us pain, and move into the new year with our best intentions and our best self.
Settle yourself into a meditation posture. You can also do this practice lying down or out on a walk, but meditation posture greatly enhances your ability to focus and stabilize your mind. If you are sitting for your meditation, take your seat on a chair with your feet flat on the floor; or cross-legged on the floor, seated on a cushion with your legs crossed. Either way, place your hands palms-up in your lap, one atop the other, and leave a little space between your arms and torso.
Straighten your spine, tilt down your head, half close your eyes, and release any muscle tension in your shoulders, face, arms, and back by letting your mind gently move to those parts of the body and release stress and tension.
In this first week of the new year, I can start with a motivation to make the most of this next year on earth. I’m so lucky to be alive and to be relatively healthy. If I’m lucky enough to have a place to live, friends, family, a job, or even some of these, then that puts me well ahead of some billions of other people on earth who don’t.
There’s nothing better I could be doing with myself right now than spend this time going inward to more deeply understand myself and the causes of a happy, meaningful life. And I do this not only for my own well-being, but to be a great friend, family member, partner, employee, boss, teacher, student and the other roles I play in my interconnected relationship with humanity. Through meditating may I become more present and kind and helpful in everything I do.
Now, let’s focus on our breath for a minute, to stabilize our mind. Try and turn down the volume from all your five senses so that your mind goes inward. And then also try and turn down your sixth sense, your mind’s mental activity.
You don’t have to eliminate the mind’s activity, but try and see your thoughts and feelings and perceptions from a distance as if you are observing them, but not caught up with them. Without needing to pull them close or push them away, realize that each mental experience rises and diminishes on its own, and that you can gently put your attention back on your breath without getting caught up in thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions.
So for one minute, focus on the breath, either as it goes in and out of your nostrils, or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
(meditate silently on the breath for one minute)
We begin our new year’s purification practice by rejoicing. Relax into your meditation and invite your mind to recollect, from the start of the year to the end, all of the things you did that you most admire in yourself: the people you helped, the growth in your family and other relationships, the good work you accomplished, the causes you supported, compassionate conversations, conflicts you healed, and even the everyday kindnesses you shared as you were out in the world: kindness through smiles and hugs and simple hellos and words of encouragement as you went about your day.
Rejoice also in all those who support your unlimited potential for growth and good, either by their example from their own admirable life, or by their support through their teaching or mentorship.
So for a couple of minutes think through everything you are proud of from the last year, all the good you did in the world. And rejoice in those things, feel good about yourself, proud of yourself for them.
(Meditate silently for two minutes)
At the end of this rejoicing, you can also gain the sense that your natural state, below the everyday agitation and frustration and wounds is also good. That, free from stress and trauma and pain, in its relaxed natural state your mind innately moves toward its best nature, toward qualities of kindness and gentleness and humor and generosity and simple contentedness.
Science hasn’t fully validated this idea of our natural goodness, but for now take this idea as a hypothesis and see what it does for your mind today: that disturbing thoughts and emotions are fleeting and that my fundamental nature is good.
In support of this, you can think about other people in the world: famous people, or people you’ve encountered in your own life who demonstrate these qualities, who progressed in their own lives toward greater goodness, kindness, and generosity, and be encouraged by their example.
(Contemplate for a moment)
Now we move to consider our regrets from the year. From the beginning of the year forward, what are our actions that we regret? There may be standout moments of conflict or craving or aggression that you recall. Or there may be daily habits and routines that didn’t make you feel good.
Without feeling shame or guilt, let yourself review the things you regret from the year with the simple thought, “I’d rather not have done that.”
Instead of self-punishing thoughts like I’m a bad person, or feeling guilt and shame, see if you can stay with this healthier sense of regret: that those actions caused some harm to myself or others and that I’d rather not do them again. So for two minutes now, move through the year’s regrets like this.
(Meditate silently for two minutes)
And now we move to the remedy for our regrets. This is a deeper meditation with a visualization that helps us let go of those things we regret. Of course, if there are ways of addressing some of the harm we did in real life, we can consider later making real-life amends. But the purpose here is to forgive ourselves, to let go of the lingering psychological pain from those actions we regret.
To do this, imagine that a bright sphere of light appears above the crown of your head. Within your mind you can see it glowing, and even feel a warmth coming off that sphere.
Imagine that the light of the sphere is infused with healing and forgiveness. We each know that feeling of being forgiven, of being unconditionally loved. Imagine those feelings emanating from that sphere of light.
And then light starts to coarse down from that orb into our body, a liquid light. As it penetrates the crown of our skull we may even feel a tingling there.
Then we feel the light pushing down our regrets and pains as if they are a darkness pushed down by the light.
As the light moves down your body, imagine that you are letting go of pain and regrets, and that these pains and regrets even manifest visually in your mind as a kind of gooey darkness pushed out of the bottom of your body, replaced by light from top to bottom.
Do this quietly for a couple minutes, until you picture whole body filled with this light energy. You gradually release and let go of each regret. And you feel renewed and energized by this light.
(Meditate silently for 2 minutes)
Now we move, think for each of the actions that stand out among your regrets, what you could have done instead. Pause at each one and imagine a better way of handing that situation, whether in thoughts, words, or deeds. And then picture yourself actually handling the situation that way.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
And now, being gentle on yourself, thinking about the various things you regret, and what’s a reasonable amount of time to refrain from them? This is more sustainable than a New Year’s resolution.
Because maybe it’s only for a few minutes that we can refrain from some of our challenging behavior, and that’s okay. But then for other behaviors, perhaps even a lifelong commitment may be possible with habits that we’ve turned our back on for good.
When we do this meditation on a daily basis, often it’s done right before we go to bed, and so a skillful commitment is to say that I won’t commit these actions again until I wake up the next morning.
So think about what’s a reasonable, sustainable amount of time to refrain from your various regrets from last year.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
As we come out of the meditation, we can feel a balanced, healthy attitude toward last year and the coming one. We gently regret the actions from the last year and skillfully consider how we can improve in the next.
We’ve forgiven ourselves in a way that lets us let go of shame and guilt and focus more on productive ways to improve our happiness and relationships to others. We fully rejoiced in all the good we did last year, so much more good than our few challenging moments.
And we go into the new year knowing where we can improve our actions and words and thoughts, with a reasonable approach of small commitments, going day by day rejoicing in the good, regretting where we fall short of our aspirations, being gentle on ourselves and seeing the good in others; and spending a little bit of time in meditation to deepen our understanding and control of our own minds.
Finally, Stephen and I here at A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment wish you a very Happy New Year full of the true causes of happiness and warm connection with those around you! Have a beautiful day.
I would add something that acknowledges that purification should not be confused with any puritanical notions that we are fundamentally flawed, that we are bound by circumstances and conditions that fix our potential. As we have explored in previous episodes, Buddhist and western psychology show that we can transform our minds and open our hearts in profound ways. At the root of purification is the firm notion that we can open ourselves to potential that transcends any pain we caused others or regrets that prevent us from seeing that potential.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio