Talking Dharma – Talking Forgiveness
Our ability to forgive allows us to express the actuality of the inter-relatedness of non-separation as a lived experience of compassion. But it seems that forgiveness for many is not that easy. When there is a perception that we have been harmed, hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or abused, forgiveness is often the last thing on our mind because we are caught up in the worry of the experience and are in self-defence mode. This can often result in a want for revenge or what we think is justice. Yet, if we are to develop and maintain peace of mind we have no alternative but to find ways to forgive otherwise or we will be unable to let go and move on from the unhelpful mind states that are causing the mind to worry.
Imagine for one moment what the world would be like without forgiveness. Imagine what it would be like if every one of us remained attached to every single perceived hurt, every single resentment, all the anger that arises in so many different ways when we don’t like what someone else says or does. If we just keep clinging to it and never let it go, the mind can never be at peace with itself, others and the world around it. Without forgiveness, we’re forced to carry the worrying mind of the past moment into the current moment and then project it into the next moment. Forgiveness is about letting go of the past. It is not really about your perceived harmful behaviour of someone towards you. It’s about your own relationship with your past. When we begin the work of forgiveness, it is primarily a practice about and for the benefit of ourselves, that then benefits others.
The practice of forgiveness releases us from the power of fear and allows us to act on the basis of kindness and compassion. First we need to understand what forgiveness actually is experientially. Then we need to learn how it can be expressed as a lived experience of it. Then it is practiced as an on-going journey of forgiving ourselves and others as we learn to accept things as they are by reducing judgement of ourselves and others. In an ancient text we find the Buddha saying words to the effect: “If it were not possible to free yourself from entanglement and greed, ill-will, fear, and confusion, I would not teach you or ask you to do so.” On the Dharma journey we undertake to try and do the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourself, others and the world around us. To assist this we develop the awareness of kindness meditation practice. Forgiveness is a significant part of engaging with that practice because it allows us to be open to the inter-relatedness of compassion. Our ability or even our potential to forgive allows us to make space for our ability to meet our own worrying and the worrying of others with kindness.
Forgiveness does not collude or gloss over what has happened in an inauthentic way. The practice is not about having a false smile on your face that says “It’s OK. I don’t mind.” It’s not a misguided effort to suppress our worry or to ignore it. If there is a perception that you’ve suffered harm as a result of the words or actions of another, forgiveness may be a long process of mixed emotions, many of which will initially be unhelpful. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our Dharma life. It recognises the grief, the betrayal, the hurt. It does not deny it. It takes time and effort for the fruits of the practice of forgiveness to ripen into the freedom to forgive authentically. An important first step is acknowledging with integrity that we ourselves are not infallible and it is more than likely that we too have said or done things that may have caused harm to others. We’re not always just the victims. Sometimes we also may need to be forgiven or to seek forgiveness from others without doing the old guilt trip thing of beating ourselves up for being a bad person.
There are three different aspects to the formal sitting practice of forgiveness that then become expressed as a lived experience just as we do with the awareness of kindness practice. There is the forgiveness from others, forgiveness for ourselves and the forgiveness for those we perceive have hurt or harmed us. You begin by sitting comfortably as you would in preparation for any other sitting practice. Allow the eyes to close and the breath to be as natural as possible. Go and look for any physical, emotional or psychological resistances, any fear and breathe kindness and acceptance into the experience to assist a release of the tension. These resistances arise because you have yet to forgive yourself or others. This is why you are here. This is the aim of the practice. Don’t reject the experience but be aware of it as it is with acceptance and a willingness to transform it.
Stage one: Forgiveness from others. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging, with integrity, that there are many ways that you may have hurt or harmed others. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them. Allow yourself to remember the different ways that you may have betrayed, abandoned, or caused harm, knowingly or unknowingly, out of your own pain, fear, anger, or confusion. Let yourself remember and visualize these experiences in full and then ask the person forgiveness. Take as much time as you need to picture the unhelpful memory that you still cling to and as each person comes to mind, just gently say, “I ask for your forgiveness or please forgive me” And only if it is genuine tell them you are sorry. When you experience some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved bring this stage to an end.
Stage two: Forgiveness for ourselves. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Begin with an acknowledgement, awareness and acceptance that just as you may have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that you have also hurt and harmed yourself. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging, with integrity, where you may have betrayed yourself or abandoned kindness for yourself by what you thought said or did, knowingly or unknowingly. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them. Let yourself remember the ways that you have harmed yourself. Begin to extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Actively forgive yourself for the ways that you have hurt yourself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion. With each memory resolve to let go, to move on, to forgive by repeating to yourself “I forgive myself” until you notice some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved and then bring this stage to an end.
Stage three: Forgiveness for those who may have hurt or harmed us. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Become aware how harmful it has been for to carry the worry of non-forgiveness for so long. Acknowledge with gratitude of allowing yourself to seek forgiveness from others and to forgive yourself and then extend that opportunity to those you think may have hurt or harmed you. This in itself is an act of kindness. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging them with integrity. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them, but with an acceptance that it is likely that it happened because the other person was in pain or had unresolved forgiveness issues of their own. Just as you find ways to resolve your issues allow them the opportunity to resolve theirs. Don’t force it. Every incident of harm does not have to be forgiven in one sitting. The point is to exercise in a very small way something that you think you are ready to forgive, let go of and move on from right now in this moment. Remember the many ways that you have been hurt, wounded, or harmed and bring in awareness of the others pain, confusion, fear, anger that they have been carrying just as you have. Say to the other person “I forgive you” keep repeating it until you notice some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved before bringing the practice to an end.
This practice, like so many others, is about the development of trust in the practice. Trust is only established when we engage with a practice with integrity and experience directly how helpful it is. If we engage in a lack lustre way, or out of a sense of duty or obligation we will never resolve our worries. The entire Dharma journey is an on-going experiential learning process. That’s the beauty of these and other practices. We surrender to them when we learn that we’re not in control of the fruits of our practice, but we are in control of how we do the practice, whether we do it with patience and integrity with effort and energy. We’re not in control of how it then expresses itself in our lived experience of it. It becomes a natural expression of the journey. We’re not trying to make anything happen, because in the trying to make something happen, we will miss the beauty and the delight of what does happen.
Dharma practice is a voluntary undertaking. The only commitment you ever make is to yourself. The commitment to forgiveness is a particular heavy duty emotional practice that you might be initially scared to engage with and if that is so I suggest, as always, to give it a go at a very low level to begin with so you can at least be aware what the resistances are all about and learn something even from them. Think of it like you would with physical exercise. We don’t start with the 100 kilo weight. We start maybe with a couple of small barbells and we work with those to get the muscle going. So start with the minor issues and work your way up. And then eventually your ability to forgive allows you to meet forgiveness in all its liberating glory. If we are not ready to forgive ourselves or others right now, we can sit quietly and see if there’s any small, even tiny little potential opportunity on the horizon. All things after all are subject to change. If we think that we can’t extend forgiveness to others because we think that something is completely unforgivable, then we can know that too. During this practice we reflect on whatever worry we’re holding onto and how that is affecting the quality of our own current mind state. This is a deep, unfolding process that can take a lifetime to work through. If all else fails maybe you can just be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go, and move on right now because that’s OK as well.
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