Questioner (Q): When I am not able to complete a task or meet a deadline, I feel the need to punish myself. I will maybe skip a meal, or if I have planned to do something with my friends, like going out or cycling or something, I will skip that; or if I made plans to watch a movie at night after work, I will cancel it. I feel the need to give up on things that I like to do in order to do things that are more important, like studying for a test or making up for the missed classes by watching the recordings. It does make me more productive, but I feel that punishing myself is not the right way of achieving this. Kindly throw some light on this issue.
Acharya Prashant (AP): See, punishment must be productive in nature. Punishment must be effective and corrective; that is the purpose of punishment, is it not? We don’t punish ourselves and others just to satisfy our revenge lust, or do we?
Q: No, that makes us sadists, I guess.
AP: Makes no sense either. I mean, you are punishing yourself or others, and that is bringing about no correction in the punished entity. Makes no sense.
So, punishment is good, punishment is a great thing, especially if somebody is honest enough to punish herself. But what is the quality, the dimension of that punishment? Ask yourself, “I have been punishing myself so often—has that resulted in correction, in elevation? If I need to punish myself for the same thing again and again, is the concept of punishment even working for me? Maybe this kind of punishment is just helpful to somehow placate my sense of guilt. I did a bad thing and I feel guilty; to get rid of the guilt, I punish myself.”
You can punish yourself and get rid of the guilt, but that would not be effective in making you a better person. You will find that you are ridden with guilt once again very soon, and then you need to punish yourself once again very soon. Hardly helpful.
Remember the characteristics of real punishment: you do not just punish the action, you do not just punish the moment, you do not just punish the event; you punish the doer herself, you punish the doing tendency. And what is the punishment you met out? The punishment is non-existence. If you are somebody who keeps delivering unwanted results, then you tell your erring tendency: “I do not deserve to exist. I will have to go, I will have to change.” And the ego, the one we are—we do not want to change.
So, that is the real punishment, that is the useful punishment—change. Do not remain the same person who made that mistake in the first place. Do not empower the same tendency that wants you to keep erring. “I am no more the person in need of punishment”—that is the best punishment you can inflict on yourself. Because you know the ways of the ego: it wants to do what it does and then it wants to get punished. It is a strange thing. It wants to keep doing what it does and then says, “Please, punish me! Please, punish me! I did a bad thing.” And the more you punish it, the fatter it becomes.
The ego is a cat that gets fat with the punishment, and it does what cats do—all kinds of mischief. So, when you punish it, you are actually feeding it; I am talking of the normal kinds of punishment that we give. You need to give an exquisite punishment, and the exquisite punishment is change or non-existence: “I will not allow myself to remain the same person who is either lazy or careless or unconscious or unloving or inattentive, whatever the mistake is. I will no longer remain the same person.”
And that will need you to go deep into yourself: “From where is the mistake coming? Is it even a mistake, or is it the normal pattern of my functioning? I am calling it a mistake only because it did not deliver the right results. Otherwise, this is the way I anyway usually operate.” That is what you will find when you go into yourself.
‘Mistake’ is not even the right word to use. We call things mistakes only to relieve ourselves of guilt. We say, “Oh, I didn’t want to do it, it happened by mistake!” It is not a mistake, it is a part of your normal algorithm; that is how you are. Why are you calling it a mistake? And if that is the way you are, irrespective of how much you punish or condemn yourself for that mistake, you will continue making those so-called mistakes because you will continue being yourself. You are the mistake.
So, the punishment is: Do not remain who you are; otherwise, the mistakes will remain as they are. Use your guilt to your advantage. When you really, sincerely feel guilty, then that guilt is transformational, then that guilt catalyses a deep change in yourself. And I think it is a matter of dishonesty if one keeps saying, “Oh, I am guilty, I deserve punishment!” but still does not change.
So, investigate. See where all your misplaced actions come from. Do not be too quick to condemn, because if you condemn too much then you will not be able to approach the thing with objectivity. You did something and that something was something you didn’t want to happen, and you are immediately full of scorn towards yourself: “Why did I do this? I am such a bad girl.” If you are too quick to reject and condemn, then you will never know your inner truth.
So, instead of very quick declaration of guilt or condemnation, like a scientist, figure out why a certain thing has happened. Go to its genesis; go to its original mother. See where it is coming from. Sit down without feeling hurt, without feeling aggrieved, without feeling the emotional need to quickly revenge yourself on yourself. Sit down and peacefully observe, observe the process of the so-called mistake. And when you observe that process, you will find that its root might be the thing that is yielding a lot of benefits as well.
Mistakes are coming from a point, and that point is giving rise to not only mistakes but also to a lot of so-called nice things in life. And because those nice things are dear to you, so you want that root to remain, as from that root come nice things. And because that root remains, those mistakes also remain because from the same root arise both of these things—the so-called bad things and so-called good things. And you might discover that if you want to get rid of the bad things in life, the things you punish yourself for, then you have to, first of all, get rid of the good things because they come from the same root.
And that will also tell you why you need to frequently punish yourself: because the root is not going anywhere. The root is in fact being nourished and watered by you. The root is the root of all good things, and then you will discover that the good things may not be so good at all. That will require an overhaul in your inner system. That overhaul, we are saying, is the real punishment. Do not go for superficial treatments.