“Forgiveness is for the fulfillment of your inner Life.”
Forgiveness is not just about the other. It’s really for the fulfillment of your inner life. Forgiveness is the capacity to let go and release the suffering.
What is forgiveness?
What is this human capacity for forgiveness?
What is the human capacity for dignity no matter what the circumstances of life?
It’s really for the beauty of your soul. It’s for your own capacity to fulfill your life. Forgiveness is, in particular, the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love.
Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.”
With forgiveness we are unwilling to attack or wish harm on anyone, including ourselves. And without forgiveness, life would be unbearable. It’s hard to imagine a world without forgiveness, because we would be chained to the suffering of the past and have only to repeat it over and over again. There would be no release.
It’s not easy. “Love and forgiveness is not for the faint-hearted,” wrote [the Indian mystic] Meher Baba. But someone has to stand up and say, “It stops with me. I will not pass on to my children this sorrow.” Whether it’s in Ireland or Israel, someone has to say, “I will accept the betrayal and the suffering, and I will bare it, but I will not retaliate. I will not pass this onto the next generation, and to endless generations of grandchildren.”
I remember a woman coming to see me amidst a terrible divorce. Unfortunately, her ex-husband was a lawyer and a very good one, so he wangled most of the money and a lot of the custody of their children. She was just desperate and struggled in all these ways to protect herself. Finally, she said to me, “You know, I simply am not going to bequeath to my children a legacy of hate. I will not do it. I will figure a way through this and I will not hate him—the bastard.” Humor helps, it really does.
When someone betrays you, you can hate them, or at some point, you can say it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to live day after day with hatred. Because for one thing, that person who betrayed you could be in Hawaii right now having a nice vacation—and you’re here hating them! Who’s suffering then?
As Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate, writes: “Suffering confers neither privileges nor rights. It all depends on how you use it. If you use it to increase the anguish of yourself or others, you are degrading, even betraying it. Yet the day will come when we shall understand that suffering can also elevate human beings. God help us to bear our suffering well.”
Not Quick or Sentimental
So here is a little bit about the architecture of forgiveness. First, forgiveness does not mean that we condone what happened in the past. It’s not forgive and forget. In fact, forgiveness might also include quite understandably the resolve to protect yourself and never let this happen again.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to speak or relate to a person who betrayed you, necessarily. It’s not about them. It doesn’t condone their behavior—it can stand up for justice and say “no more.”
And forgiveness is not sentimental, or quick. You can’t paper things over and smile and say, “I forgive.” It is a deep process of the heart. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others—the grief, the anger, the hurt, the fear. It can take a long time. Sometimes when you do a forgiveness practice, you realize that you’re never going to forgive that person. And never takes a while.
Forgiveness is also not for anybody else. There’s a story of two ex-prisoners of war. One says to the other, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” And the second says “No, never.” And the first one then says “Well, they still have you in prison, don’t they?”
Similarly, I remember sitting with the Dalai Lama and some Tibetan nuns who had survived years of imprisonment and torture. We were part of a meeting that I was running of ex-prisoners from all across the United States who’d been using meditation, contemplative practices, mindfulness, compassion, and so forth to change their lives.
With us were guys who had just been released after 25 years in Texas state prison or 18 years in Ohio in a maximum security prison. And they were sitting with the Dali Lama and these little nuns who were imprisoned during their teenagers years for saying their prayers out loud.
The nuns were asked, “Were you ever afraid?” And they answered, “Yes, we were terribly afraid. And what we were afraid of was that we would end up hating our guards—that we would lose our compassion. That is the thing we most feared.”
And they sat there, these sweet young nuns, and I remember this one guy who had been in prison for 18 years in Ohio saying, “I’ve seen some brave folks in my day, and I ain’t seen anything like you young ladies.”
The Principles of Forgiveness
One of the interesting things about forgiveness is that you find it in all different traditions. There are African indigenous practices of forgiveness. There is of course the Christian teachings of turning the other cheek and Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness. There is the mercy of Allah in Islam.
What’s unique about Buddhism—because Buddhism is more a science of mind than a religion, although it functions as a religion for some people—is that it offers practices in trainings. It doesn’t say just “turn the other cheek” or “remember the mercy of Allah,” but it offers a thousand different trainings: trainings in mindfulness, in compassion, in forgiveness, in lovingkindness, in compassion for those who are different than you, and so on.
In this way, Buddhist psychology shows an ancient understanding of “neuroplasticity,” the idea that our neurosystem is always changing, even to the very end of life. So many of the modern neuroscience studies that researchers like Richard Davidson are doing, using fMRI machines and the like, validate this idea of neuroplasticity. Indeed, in Buddhism, the teaching in three words is: “Not Always So.” Things are always changing.
The Buddha was a list maker:
- the Eightfold Path,
- the Seven Factors of Enlightenment,
- the Four Nobel Truths.
Similarly, here are 12 forgiveness steps and principles connected with the process of forgiveness.
One: Understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not condoning, it’s not a papering over, it’s not for the other person, it’s not sentimental.
Two: Sense the suffering in yourself, of still holding onto this lack of forgiveness for yourself or for another. Start to feel that it’s not compassionate; that you have this great suffering that’s not in your own best interest. So you actually sense the weight of not forgiving.
Three: Reflect on the benefits of a loving heart. [Buddhist texts say]: Your dreams become sweeter, you waken more easily, men and women will love you, angels and devils will love you. If you lose things they will be returned. People will welcome you everywhere when you are forgiving and loving. Your thoughts become pleasant. Animals will sense this and love you. Elephants will bow as you go by—try it at the zoo!
Four: Discover that it is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering. This is a big one. W are so loyal to our suffering, focusing on the trauma and the betrayal of “what happened to me.” OK, it happened. It was horrible. But is that what defines you? “Live in joy” says the Buddha. Look at the Dali Lama, who bears the weight of the oppression in Tibet and the loss of his culture, and yet he’s also a very happy and joyful person. He says, ‘They have taken so much. They have destroyed temples, burned our texts, disrobed our monks and nuns, limited our culture and destroyed it in so many ways. Why should I also let them take my joy and peace of mind?’
Five: Understand that forgiveness is a process. There’s a story of a man who wrote to the IRS, “I haven’t been able to sleep knowing that I cheated on my taxes. Since I failed to fully disclose my earnings last year on my return, I’ve enclosed a bank check for $2,000 dollars. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send the rest.” 🙂 It’s a training, it’s a process, layer by layer—that is how the body and the psyche work.
Six: Set your intention. There is a whole complex and profound teaching in Buddhist psychology about the power of both short-term and long-term intention. When you set your intention, it sets the compass of your heart and your psyche. By having that intention, you make obstacles become surmountable because you know where you are going. whether it is in business, a relationship, a love affair, a creative activity, or in the work of the heart. Setting your intention is really important and powerful.
Seven: Learn the inner and outer forms of forgiveness. There are meditation practices for the inner forms, but for the outer forms, there are also certain kinds of confessions and making amends.
Eight: Start the easiest way, with whatever opens your heart. Maybe it’s your dog and maybe it’s the Dali Lama and maybe it’s your child which is the thing or person that you most love and can forgive. Then you bring in someone who is a little more difficult to forgive. Only when the heart is all the way open do you take on something difficult.
Nine: Be willing to grieve. And grief, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has spelled out, consists of bargaining, loss, fear, and anger. You have to be willing to go through this process in some honorable way, as I’m sure Nelson Mandela did. Indeed, he has described how [before he could forgive his captors] he was outraged and angry and hurt and all the things that anyone would feel. So be willing to grieve, and then to let go.
Ten: Forgiveness includes all the dimensions of our life. Forgiveness is work of the body. It’s work of the emotions. It’s work of the mind. And it’s interpersonal work done through our relationships.
Eleven: Forgiveness involves a shift of identity. There is in us an undying capacity for love and freedom that is untouched by what happens to you. To come back to this true nature is the work of forgiveness.
Twelve: Forgiveness involves perspective. We are in this drama in life that is so much bigger than our ‘little stories.’ When we can open this perspective, we see it is not just your hurt, but the hurt of humanity. Everyone who loves is hurt in some way. Everyone who enters the marketplace gets betrayed. The loss is not just your pain, it is the pain of being alive. Then you feel connected to everyone in this vastness.
Forgiveness is the way, the Dharma, the Truth.
This is the ancient and eternal law.
Source – The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness By Jack Kornfield
Adapted by G Ross Clark