Tonight we’ll conclude our series on the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a decision to see beyond the limitations of another person’s personality—beyond any fears, eccentricities and mistakes—to visualize the pure inner essence inside, sometimes called Buddha nature. This is the dimension of every sentient being that has limitless potential and is worthy of love and respect.
Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, author of Forgiveness the Greatest Healer of All, says that forgiving entails choosing to “see the light instead of the lampshade.” We may still notice the fear-based behaviors of the lampshade (conditioned identities), but we can learn to see them in the context of the light shining in the core of each of us.
At the end of prolonged retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, participants are instructed to sit facing a partner and to gaze into one other’s eyes. I turn to my neighbor, who has sat next to me for a month, and who may have annoyed me by coughing or fidgeting. As our eyes meet, I see the pure innocence of my partner’s essential being, while she witnesses mine.
This exercise almost always evokes tears, because we remember who we truly are.
Jack Kornfield tells the story of the Babemba tribe in South Africa. When a member of the community acts irresponsibly or unjustly, elders escort that person to the center of the village, to stand there, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Members of the tribe take turns speaking, recalling good deeds the accused person has done. All that person’s positive attributes, strengths, and kindnesses are carefully recited.
The tribal ceremony lasts for several days. At the end, the circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is welcomed back into the tribe.
How different our world would be if our focus were on reminding one another of our essential goodness and worth. Through that lens, it would be easier to consider transgressions as stemming from ignorance and distorted ways of thinking rather than as evil crimes. In such a forgiving environment, there might be less likelihood of the alienation that leads to explosive actions such as school shootings.
Mark and I saw the film version of the musical Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, which deals with themes of morality and forgiveness in the era before the French revolution. The protagonist is Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who is embittered after nineteen years of imprisonment for stealing a piece of bread to feed his impoverished sister’s sick child.
Kindly Bishop Myriel gives the newly liberated man dinner and a place to sleep. Police officers catch Valjean running away with the bishop’s silverware, but Myriel saves the thief by pretending that the silver was a gift.
The bishop’s extraordinary act of forgiveness and mercy transforms Valjean, who changes his name and becomes a respected, philanthropic mayor in a small town. As he learns to forgive himself for his past desperate actions and to accept himself as an imperfect man, he makes conscious choices to help those in need and pain.
His nemesis is Inspector Javert, who is rigid about law and order. Javert recognizes Valjean as a former convict who has broken parole, and for decades pursues him to return him to prison. At one point Valjean has an opportunity to kill the inspector, who has been captured and disarmed by revolutionary rebels, but instead he frees him and lets him escape unharmed.
Javert cannot reconcile this act of mercy with his strict moralistic view of Valjean as a criminal who should never be forgiven. In a dilemma, Javert no longer wants to arrest Valjean, but he still feels legally duty-bound to do so.
Unable to forgive himself for questioning his own scruples, Javert commits suicide by throwing himself into the river Seine. Victor Hugo’s story illustrates clearly how one’s capacity to forgive others is intimately connected with the ability to forgive oneself.
In our own daily lives, the gradual work of forgiveness is supported by the practice of letting go of outdated attitudes, grudges, and agendas. Jack Kornfield’s principle teacher Ajahn Chah taught:
If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be free.
Letting go doesn’t entail losing the wisdom we’ve gained from past experiences, but it does involve releasing old images, emotions, fears and disappointments that cramp our spirit. Letting go is different from aversion or struggling to get rid of something. What we resist and try to push away follows us.
If I’m frightened, my first impulse is to numb my feelings with held breath, a clenched jaw and a tightened belly. After years of practice, I’ve learned to be aware of these physical reactions and to breathe consciously, relaxing my body so that I can deal with the underlying fear.
The roads of northern India are a great training ground for facing fear. When Mark and I were following the path of the Buddha, we traveled in taxis and buses driven by men who seemed to be flirting with death. At top speed, we’d bounce rapidly over pot-holed roads that were crowded with pedestrians, cars, camels and rickshaws. We’d head towards what looked like a chaotic impasse, and a space would open up at the last moment for us to pass through, with centimeters to spare. Looking down into ravines along the roadside, we could see where buses with bad karma had crashed. There was nothing to do but admit that we were scared to die, to scream at close calls and then to sigh with relief, and to trust that the odds were pretty good that we would survive. By the end of our trip, we learned to laugh at how crazy the highways were and to forgive our intrepid drivers for accelerating our aging process.
To let go of fear or trauma, we need to recognize it for what it is, feeling it fully and accepting that it is so. Letting go begins with letting it be, until what used to be upsetting gradually loses its power to disturb us. When we face what’s true, we can breathe and soften, resting in acceptance. Your heart will know when it’s time to stop replaying old stories and to let them go.
Let’s practice a guided meditation about letting go from Jack’s book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace:
Bring awareness to a story about a past situation that it’s time to release.
Sit comfortably and bring a kindly attention to your breath.
Relax and settle into the ground of the present.
Gently name the feelings associated with the story, and allow them space to be, to float without resistance, held in the heart of compassion.
Continue to breathe.
Ask yourself if it’s indeed wise to let go of this part of your past.
Sense the benefit, the ease that will come from this release.
Repeat to yourself gently: Let go, let go….
Soften the body and heart, and let any feelings that arise drain out of you into the earth.
Sense how the feelings can be released like water draining out of a tub.
Feel the spaciousness of letting go, how the heart softens and the body opens.
Now direct the mind to envision the future where this situation has been released.
Sense the freedom, the innocence, and the ease from letting go.
Repeat several more times: Let go, let go….
Sit quietly and notice if the feelings return.
Each time they return, breathe softly as if to bow to them, and say kindly, I’ve let you go.
The images and feelings may come back many times, but as you continue the practice, they will eventually fade.
Gradually the mind learns to trust the space of letting go.
Little by little, the heart will ease and you will be free.