There’s a story I heard about the first time Goenka visited the Dhamma Surabhi (The Vipassana centre in Merritt, B.C.) Everyone was getting ready for the first meditation with Goenkaji, which I imagine would be exciting, or tiring, considering his energy is so high that I would probably pass out meditating next to him. Right before the sit, a girl somehow accidentally slammed the meditation hall door into Goenka. Immediately she began to apologize, expecting that he would be upset, or simply because she held the golden statue image of him in her mind as this great Vipassana teacher who you wouldn’t want to hit with a door. Hit anyone else, but not Goenka. To her surprise, he responded with, “Don’t be sorry, be happy.” Since then it’s been a favourite line of mine and there are lots of opportunities to use it, because people waste their sorry’s.
I attended a friend’s backyard party not too long ago, and I remember a young girl who came up to a table a bunch of us ‘adults’ were standing around. She came up in between us all and grabbed something off the table. Then, over our conversation, she preceded to yell at her friend on the other side of the yard. Moments later, she left the way she came, squishing in between us as we chatted. She was basically ‘in our space,’ but she wasn’t, because she didn’t make a big scene about it. She didn’t talk about how she was disturbing us, so it wasn’t a disturbance. You could say it was obnoxious, what she did, but because she didn’t assume it bothered us, it was simply another part of the interaction we were having. It was impermanent. It lasted a few seconds and she was gone again. Her lack of apology kept it integrated in the moment rather than excluding it and seeing it as a negative thing. As an adult, she would have said sorry at least three times on the way in and a couple more on leaving.
That’s not to say that saying sorry can’t be useful. Apologies have their place, but don’t waste them. Over-using something is just like not using it at all. You lose all the meaning when it’s a habitual response, and so often with the word sorry, it is. It’s highly noticeable while working in the restaurant industry, but it’s not limited to that. Sorry’s pop up more and more, which is alright, because it is fun to say, “Don’t be sorry, be happy.” People have varying reactions to that. Sometimes they laugh or get confused. Others respond with, “I am happy,” but if they’re genuinely sorry that has to be a lie. The main synonyms of the word sorry are unhappy and sad. It is impossible to be sorry and happy at the same time, so don’t contradict yourself. When you tell me you’re sorry and then say you’re happy, it proves that your apology was entirely out of conditioning, habitual reaction and lack of awareness.
Most of these apologies come out of thinking that you should or shouldn’t be doing something. This is obviously not experiencing life as it is. It is rolling in thoughts and reacting to them. It’s assuming that you know what another person is thinking, which is a crazy thought to believe. Doing a single meditation you can experience the truth of that. It’s also telling that person that you think they are as ignorant as you. Like this quote from Don Juan says, “Every explanation is a hidden apology. When you’re saying that it went this way or that way, you’re really apologizing for your shortcomings, hoping that whoever is listening has the kindness to understand them.” You’re assuming that they will be as upset and un-equanimous as you are with yourself. Stay with the awareness of your breath, and don’t make up the idea that they’re in discomfort or distress because of you.
As I continue to discover and experience more peace in my life because of this technique, all I want is for others to experience the same. As Goenka says, “May all beings be peaceful.” Not, may all beings be sorry. Another noble person you may know said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You can choose to be an example of sorry or an example of happy. Like everything, this is all about awareness, equanimity and our understanding of anicca. There is no need to apologize as much as we do for the little things that occur when we know that they’ll only be there for a second and then move on somewhere else. Save your sorry’s, so they have power when you sincerely do want to use them. You might want to keep the real definition of sorry in your vocabulary instead of a worn out version, for the important apologies in your life. Those are impermanent too, but at least they’ll have meaning. In the meantime, be happy.