Forgiveness

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By Jonathan Borella

letgoAs students of the Dharma, we practice to grow our compassion. The Metta Sutta exhorts us to “let our boundless love pervade the whole universe – above, below, and across,” and to nourish the wish that all beings – whether frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, visible or invisible – live in perfect tranquility. We could also add to that list people whom have harmed us and wronged us. It is here many practitioners run into obstacles. How can we feel compassion for those whom have caused us pain, when the anger and sadness are still so raw?

During retreats, this question is often asked of meditation teachers and their responses contain a lot of wisdom. When we have been betrayed by a partner, or relative or friend, when we’ve been exploited or taken advantage of, when we’ve been victimized by a stranger, we are promised that we can find relief in understanding. Through understanding, we are able to forgive, and forgiveness can transform our anger and sorrow into compassion and peace. Dharma teachers are correct to remind us that the people who cause us suffering are themselves suffering, compelled perhaps by greed, or fear, or anger, or any number of afflictions. In many cases, this truth is plain to see. So why do we still struggle with forgiveness?

When we’re hurt by others our tendency is to shift all our attention on them instead of the wounds in our heart.

Like many, I’ve turned to my meditation practice to learn how to forgive. I’m not unique in that I was wounded by another person. And, as is also very common, that person was someone I lived with and had a very close relationship with. In these kinds of relationships, it is typical for there to be multiple wounds, promises repeatedly broken, scabs torn off and scarred. Because I lived with this person and knew her intimately, I never had to be reminded that she suffered. I could see for myself her frustration with life, her anxiety, her karma. The advice I’d heard wasn’t much help to me. We all suffer. Everyone has some sorrow and frustration in their life. Not everyone dumps it on other people. My awareness of her suffering wasn’t enough to help me forgive. In a way it did the opposite. I linked her suffering with mine and considered it the cause of my torment. When I observed her in struggle, resentment arose in me.

Of the beings the Metta Sutta declares are deserving of love, there is yet another we should add: ourselves. When we’re hurt by others our tendency is to shift all our attention on them instead of the wounds in our heart. Whether we entertain revenge fantasies or obsess ourselves with understanding their suffering, our habit is to escape our own hurt feelings. Thay demonstrates the foolishness of this habit with his story of the burning house. If your house is set on fire, do you go looking for the person who set it ablaze or do you put the fire out?  When we douse the flames in our hearts and minds, we are practicing loving kindness towards ourselves as the Metta Sutta teaches.

We stop running from our pain. We come back to ourselves to be with our feelings. We say, “Ouch, this hurts.” Compassion for ourselves is different than just feeling sorry for ourselves.  With compassion, we know that we suffer with all beings. We never ask, “Why me?” or say, “I don’t deserve this.” But, we also know that we are worthy of peace and healing. Compassion is not something we demand from the world, it is something we give to ourselves, and with compassion, understanding arises. When we come back to ourselves to embrace our feelings, we’ll see our pain clearly. We’ll recognize all the anger we’ve been using to guard our hearts from pain and fear, and we’ll know how futile an attempt it was to understand someone’s suffering without understanding our own.

Compassion for ourselves is different than just feeling sorry for ourselves.

The difficulty to forgive is directly proportional to the degree of hurt caused. It is easier to forgive someone who steals five dollars than someone who steals five-hundred. Therefore, healing our hurt feelings is the wisest thing to do if our intention is to forgive. Embracing the pain is one aspect of healing; but we can’t stay there. If all we ever do is dwell with the suffering, we’ll create a rut in the mind. In Buddhism, this rut is called samyojana, an internal formation. We need to stay with our pain just enough to acknowledge its reality, understand its causes and effects, and give rise to compassion for ourselves and others. What we should not do is create a narrative or life’s story. In this way, we are practicing the first two of the Buddha’s Noble Truths: awareness of suffering, and looking deeply to see its causes.  We will also see the need to move beyond, to heal.

The second aspect of healing is nourishing joy – the third and fourth Noble Truths. We look deeply into our lives and see that we have been wounded. But, we can still breathe, still smile, still sit stably, and still enjoy the wonders of life always available. We should not let one instant of betrayal color our whole world. We really don’t have to look too hard to see that the world is full of light and love. The sun coming through the clouds, a small child riding a bicycle, a kind word from a friend, a family dinner – all these things can bring a smile to our face and lightness to our heart. The practice is to direct our attention to these wonders every day, to welcome them, and express our gratitude.  If our pain is so great that we feel our life has been destroyed, then these small moments are the bricks we use to rebuild.

Dwelling with the little moments of the day can bring us a lot of peace. But the greatest happiness comes from putting into action our purest aspiration. In the beginning, we may not know what such a life would look like.  We don’t know where to start and are too intimidated to even begin an effort. That is why in the beginning of our reconstruction it is helpful to have a blueprint.  The Buddha offered such a blueprint in the Discourse on Happiness.  In this sutta the Buddha describes the conditions that create a happy life.

“Not to be associated with the foolish ones,
To live in the company of wise people,
Honoring those worth honoring –
This is the greatest happiness.

To live in a good environment,
To have planted good seeds,
And to realize that you are on the right path –
This is the greatest happiness.

To have a chance to learn and grow,
To be skillful in your profession or craft,
Practicing the precepts and loving speech –
This is the greatest happiness.

To be able to serve and support your parents,
To cherish your family,
To have a vocation that brings you joy –
This is the greatest happiness.

To live honestly, generous in giving,
To offer support to relatives,
Living a life of blameless conduct –
This is the greatest happiness.

To avoid unwholesome actions,
Not caught by alcoholism or drugs,
And to be diligent in doing good things –
This is the greatest happiness.

To be humble and polite in manner,
To be grateful and content with a simple life,
Not missing the occasion to learn the Dharma –
This is the greatest happiness.

To persevere and be open to change,
To have regular contact with monks and nuns,
And to fully participate in Dharma discussions –
This is the greatest happiness.

To live diligently and attentively,
To perceive the Noble Truths,
And to realize Nirvana –
This is the greatest happiness.

To live in the world
With your heart undisturbed by the world,
With all sorrows ended, dwelling in peace –
This is the greatest happiness.

For he or she who accomplishes this,
Unvanquished wherever she goes,
Always he is safe and happy –
Happiness lives within oneself.”
Mahamangala Sutta, Sutta Nipata 2.4

These are the conditions we should practice and strive to create in our life. Notice the Buddha never said, “To always be treated with fairness and respect, to win every argument, to never experience hardship or frustration – this is the greatest happiness.“ This is good news. It means we can be happy no matter the obstacles present in our lives. But, we have to make it happen ourselves.

During this time of healing, it may be necessary to create some space between us and the person who inflicted an injury. This is not a means of punishment. But, for the sake of healing we may need to say, “You’ve hurt me. I want to forgive you but when I see you, when I hear your voice, when I even think of you I feel so much anger and sadness. I need time for myself because I know I cannot heal my injuries and forgive you as long as these feelings are so intense.” If we really mean to forgive, then that is not a statement we can just say. Once we say those words, we have the responsibility to transform our feelings. We may need a day, or a week, or even years.  

We may need to say, “You’ve hurt me. I want to forgive you but when I see you, I feel so much anger and sadness.”

However long it takes, if we practice embracing our pain and nourishing our happiness, we’ll notice a shift happening. One day we’ll have the insight, “I am not caught in the past. The traumas that happened before have no power over me. I am happy.” This is the moment of forgiveness and it’s much different than how we thought it would be before.  We thought we had to give up something of ourselves to forgive. We thought we’d have to find a way to excuse the other person’s behavior. We thought forgiveness would restore the relationship back to its previous state. We see now none of that is true. Forgiveness is no great change, no flash of lightning from the sky that changes everything. One day, we are simply aware that we’ve moved on, harboring no ill feelings. We don’t feel much different the day we forgive than the day before because, in truth, we already forgave before we were even conscious of it. If we feel anything new it is a sense of empowerment and liberation. We know now that our happiness depends on how we think and act in the present moment, not on what somebody did to us in the past.

One day we’ll have the insight, “I am not caught in the past. The traumas that happened before have no power over me. I am happy.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Very helpful & nicely Written. I’ve been deeply struggling through this subject matter on many levels. I’m going to save this & check back in with its wisdom when I can 🙂 Thank You

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