Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present, contains pertinent insights for our Dharma practice. Tonight is the sixth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter. Chapter six is titled “Forgiveness” and begins with a quotation from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” The intentional crudeness of her words awakens us to their underlying wisdom.
Jack reminds us that disappointment, betrayal and broken trust happen to everyone, as part of the human drama. Emotional pain registers in the same areas of the brain as physical pain and can feel devastating. Recalling the universality of suffering may bring some ease and perspective to our struggles. To heal inevitable wounds in our human experience requires not only deep wisdom and compassion, but also forgiveness.
When Jack and his marriage partner of thirty years decided to divorce, he was asked, “How can a teacher of mindfulness and loving kindness be getting divorced?” He responded, “Like a human being, that’s how.” Our roles are not our true identities. As we mature, we learn to see beyond the roles that people enact.
One of Jack’s friends is the American Hindu Master, Ram Dass, who was born Jewish. When students wonder if he has rejected Judaism, Ram Dass replies that he still respects Jewish teachings, especially the mystical traditions of Hassidism and Kabbala, but he jokes, “I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side!”
Despite appearances to the contrary, our family history does not have to define us. In my own life, I began social activism as an angry reaction to injustices that I experienced in childhood. I was fired up to work with poor and oppressed people, especially in Latin American countries, where I was critical of U.S. involvement. In the 1980s, I volunteered as a creative arts therapist with children who were orphaned during the bloody civil war in Nicaragua, and I served as a Witness for Peace, interviewing torture victims in Guatemala and El Salvador.
In 1988, when I attended my first 10-day insight or Vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, I learned to shine the light of mindfulness on the pain and anger that I had been carrying since I was a child. I also started a formal Metta practice, sending loving kindness to myself, to loved ones, to strangers, and to difficult people. As I practiced opening and softening my heart, I began to let go of past suffering and to forgive family members, colleagues, and politicians who have caused harm. I realize that my identity transcends my personal biography and any ideas I hold about myself.
As Jack points out, research shows that much of what we remember is not true. Even what feels like accurate recounting consists partly of associations, repeated stories, and imagination. How can we remember that our essence is timeless and that we are larger than anything that happens to us? To forgive and be free, we must first honor our measure of grief and hold our difficult story with all the compassion we can muster. Then we can turn the heart towards forgiveness, which is the ground for healing.
Without forgiving others and ourselves, we are chained to the past and may repeat similar hurtful behaviors ourselves. Even though I knew that one of my friends had been sexually abused in his childhood, I felt shocked when his daughter reported that he had abused her for years until she was old enough to defend herself. She has done the hard work of reliving and transmuting the past so that she can work as a psychotherapist to support the healing of other abused people.
In his book Consolations, David Whyte’s essay on “forgiveness” provides insights into the underlying meaning of the word. He writes that forgiveness “not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.”
He continues, “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt…. At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. In refusing to wait; in extending forgiveness to others now, we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough able enough and generous enough to receive, at the very end, that absolution ourselves” (pp. 67-69).
In Jack’s words, forgiveness entails courage and clarity—not forgetting. Through the long process of forgiveness, we can acknowledge what is harmful and unjust, recognizing past suffering, and investigating the conditions that led to it.
Forgiving is not the same as minimizing what happened. Nor does it entail suppressing or ignoring pain. In its own time, forgiveness develops into freedom to truly let go. With new understanding, we can make the strong determination: “Never again will I allow such harm towards others or myself.” We can choose not to continue communicating with those who have caused us pain. However, forgiveness means never shutting another person out of your heart.
Most importantly, we must forgive ourselves for any harm that we have caused others. Just as others have been caught in suffering, so have we. With honest introspection, we can see the sorrows that have led to our own selfish or hurtful acts. Holding compassionately the pain we have caused, we can extend forgiveness and mercy to ourselves.
Jack tells the moving story of a Vietnam vet, Richard Luttrell, who returned to the site where he had killed a Vietnamese soldier 22 years earlier. Nearby, he was able to locate the grown children of the man he had shot and to ask their forgiveness. He gave them a photo of their youthful father, which Richard had carried remorsefully in his wallet for decades. The man’s son and daughter were touched by Richard’s visit and said that they could sense their father’s loving spirit reborn in him. All involved in these gestures of forgiveness were released from past wounds. Like them, we can move on with the flow of life, acknowledging what has happened without being limited by it.
Let’s practice an adapted form of the guided forgiveness meditation that ends chapter six:
Sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to be natural and easy.
Let your body and mind relax.
Breathe gently into the area around your heart.
Sense the barriers that you have erected and the emotions that you have carried because you have not forgiven yourself or others.
Gently touch the pain of keeping your heart closed.
Then, breathing softly, begin asking and extending forgiveness, reciting silently to yourself the following words, letting images and feelings to arise and deepen as you practice.
ASKING FORGIVENESS OF OTHERS: “There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, betraying or abandoning them, and causing them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.”
Take time to remember and to visualize the ways that you have hurt others. Feel the pain that you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Now be aware of your sorrow, and feel your regret. Sense that at last you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. And then, to each person you have imagined repeat silently:
“In the ways that I have hurt you out of my fear, pain, anger, and confusion, I ask your forgiveness. I ask your forgiveness. May I be forgiven.”
OFFERING FORGIVENESS TO YOURSELF: “Just as I have harmed others, there are many ways that I have hurt myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, or deed, knowingly and unknowingly.”
Be aware of your own precious body and life. Reflect upon the ways that you have harmed yourself. Picture them and remember them. Feel your regret, and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each of them, one by one. Repeat 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.”
OFFERING FORGIVENESS TO THOSE WHO HAVE HURT YOU: “There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, betrayed, abused, or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word, or deed.”
Now picture and remember these ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from the past. Sense that you can release this burden by extending forgiveness, whenever your heart is ready. Recite to yourself:
“I now remember the ways others have wounded me out of their fear, pain, confusion and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness. I forgive you.”
Forgive yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. None of these three directions of forgiveness can be forced.
You may simply set an intention to forgive, continuing to practice, and gradually letting the words and images soften the heart. In time, you can let go of the past and open your heart to receive each new moment with wise loving kindness.