For tonight’s talk, I am drawing from a book by Robin Casarjian titled Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart. I realize that if we hope to cultivate inner peace, forgiving oneself and others is as essential as maintaining a regular meditation practice. Over the next weeks, we’ll share some reflections about forgiveness.
In his book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, Jack Kornfield reminds us that the Buddha taught, “You can search the whole universe and not find a single being more worthy of love than yourself.” But how many of us truly act with kindness towards ourselves? Self-forgiveness can soften how we come to terms with the smallest negligence and with the most horrendous acts.
All too often I treat my body without respecting its limitations—which are multiplying over the years! Sometimes I push myself to work for hours at my computer without taking a break, until my shoulders and neck protest, and my eyesight blurs. At such times, it helps me to pause and have an inner dialogue with the body, asking it for forgiveness and resolving to treat it more kindly. As I tune into physical sensations, I stretch, wiggling my limbs and rolling my eyes, so that I feel more relaxed and energized. Mixing forgiveness practice with gentle movements can establish a friendly and cooperative relationship between the body and mind.
A while ago, I met a former U.S. Marine named Larry Winters, whose book, The Making and Unmaking of a Marine, describes his inner journey towards self-forgiveness after fighting in the Vietnam War. Emerging from a period of numbness and nightmares, Larry sought the help of a therapist and a veteran’s support group. For the first time in many years, he was able to cry and to feel compassion for himself as a young man who was trained to harden his heart enough to kill. In the process of forgiving himself, Larry became a counselor and now helps other veterans soften their hearts.
Whether we have treated ourselves unkindly or hurt others, forgiveness helps us return to our original innocent and noble nature. In the Buddha’s words, “Ye who are nobly born, remember who you truly are.” We do so through facing our past and reconciling ourselves to it, so that we can live more fully in the present.
Forgiveness practice demands courage and integrity. It is not weak and does not ignore the truth of our suffering. Only forgiveness and love can bring us the peace we yearn for. According to Meher Baba, “True love is not for the fainthearted.”
To forgive doesn’t mean that we are condoning misdeeds. We can dedicate ourselves to ensuring that they don’t happen again. But without forgiveness, there’s no release from the sorrows of the past. You may have heard the saying: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” By forgiving, we can move on with our lives.
In Buddhist psychology, forgiveness is not viewed as a moral commandment: “Thou shalt forgive.” Instead it’s understood as a way to end suffering and to bring honor and harmony to our lives. We forgive for our own sake, for our own mental health, so that we are free from carrying hatred and resentment.
There’s a story of two former prisoners of war who have a reunion after many years. One asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
The other responds, “Never.” The first man replies, “Then they still have you in prison.”
For most people, the work of forgiveness is a long process and may involve going through stages of grief, rage, sorrow, hurt and confusion. By forgiving, we recognize that no matter how much we have suffered, we don’t want to exclude anybody from our heart.
Jack Kornfield suggests using a formal meditation practice that helps cultivate our capacity to forgive by extending forgiveness in three directions.
He himself repeated this practice hundreds of times before he could accompany his difficult father through the process of dying:
Sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to flow naturally and easily. Let your body and mind relax.
Breathe gently into the area of your heart, sensing the barriers you’ve erected and the emotions you’ve carried because you haven’t forgiven yourself or others.
Feel the pain of keeping your heart closed.
We’ll start our practice by forgiving ourselves for hurting others.
Breathing softly, listen to the following words, noticing any images and feelings that emerge:
There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, that I have betrayed or abandoned them, and caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.
Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others.
See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion.
Feel your own sorrow and regret.
Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness.
Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say:
I ask for your forgiveness. I ask for your forgiveness.
Now let’s turn towards self-forgiveness:
Just as I have caused suffering for others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself.
I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.
Feel connected with your own precious body and life.
Picture the ways you’ve hurt or harmed yourself.
Remember these moments.
Feel the sorrow you have carried, and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one.
Repeat these phrases to yourself:
For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness.
I forgive myself. I forgive myself.
Now let’s practice forgiving those who have hurt or harmed us:
There are many ways I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed.
All of us have been betrayed at one time or another.
Picture the moments of betrayal in your life.
Feel the sorrow you’ve carried from the past.
Now sense that you can release this burden of pain by gradually extending forgiveness, when your heart is ready.
Listen to these words and repeat what feels right to you at this time:
I remember the ways others have hurt, wounded or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger.
I have carried this pain in my heart long enough.
To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness.
To those who caused me harm,
I offer my forgiveness.
I forgive you.