Tonight we’ll continue our discussion about the Gateway of Love as portrayed in Tara Brach’s book True Refuge. Chapter Eleven explores the theme of forgiveness.
The chapter opens with one of the Buddha’s sayings: Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.
Tara refers to a Cherokee legend about an elder instructing his young grandson: “In each human heart there are two wolves battling one another—one is fearful and angry, and the other is understanding and kind.” When the little boy asks, “Which one wins?” his grandfather replies, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”
When we cultivate mindfulness, we’re better able to pause and recognize what’s happening in the present moment, even if we feel angry. In that pause, we can bypass habitual emotional reactivity and respond with compassion. Pausing mindfully allows us to soothe ourselves and to recall the suffering that underlies unskillful and insensitive words and actions. We can awaken to what Tara calls our “evolutionary potential” and respond from our essentially good-hearted nature.
I try to remember to include myself in any compassion and forgiveness that I extend to someone who has offended me. Nobody is free to trample others. If I remember that an invasive or belligerent person is hurting inside, I’m more likely to give feedback and to draw boundaries in a kindly manner.
As you know, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela died on December 5 at the age of 95. He was a master of forgiving former oppressors, while setting clear limits for their behavior. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” One of the most moving tributes to him comes from a white man who was a prison guard during Mandela’s 27 years in captivity. The jailer was so touched by his prisoner’s peaceful dignity amidst extreme duress that he treated him with kindness and tried to shield him from others’ brutality. Their friendship endured after Mandela stepped down as president of South Africa.
As I’ve been recovering from Mohs surgery to cut out skin cancer from my face, I’ve been practicing “movie Dharma.” Mark and I watched videos of two films that illustrate principles of forgiveness: Tom and Viv is a biographical account of the tumultuous relationship between T.S. Eliot and his first wife, a British woman named Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he married after a brief, passionate courtship in 1915. Frustrated by conservative, anti-feminist society, and suffering from a hormonal imbalance, Viv acted erratically and impetuously. Although she served as Eliot’s muse for works such as The Wasteland, he separated from her in 1933 and made no effort to prevent her from being forcibly committed to a mental institution a few years later.
During the decade that she was institutionalized before her death in 1947, T.S. Eliot never wrote or visited her. In the movie’s depiction, Viv’s mental and physical balance improved greatly after menopause; she took responsibility for her foibles and forgave her ex-husband for shunning her. She found dignity by accepting the reality of her destiny.
The documentary bio-pic Searching for Sugar Man recounts the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a remarkably gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist, born in 1942 to Mexican immigrants in Detroit. Despite his talent and a contract with a major recording studio in the early 1970s, his two albums barely sold in the U.S.A., so he earned his living by laboring long hours as a construction worker. Unbeknownst to him, his albums became hugely popular among young white liberals who were rebelling against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Because he’d disappeared from the music scene, folks who loved songs like Sugar Man knew nothing about Rodriguez and circulated a story that he had committed suicide.
By the 1990s, South African fans started a blog on the Internet to seek information about the songwriter. To their amazement, one of Sixto’s daughters responded that her father was indeed alive–in a working class barrio of Detroit. Soon after, Sixto and his family were flown to Cape Town, driven by limousines to a deluxe hotel, and escorted to an enormous auditorium packed with wildly cheering fans. Rodriguez thanked them for bringing his musical self back to life and gave them an unforgettable performance of their favorite songs from the 1970s.
After the concert and signing countless autographs, Sixto returned to the humble house where he’s lived for the past forty years and to his construction crew. He has no bitterness about his music being ignored in his homeland nor about forgoing royalties for hundreds of thousands of albums sold or pirated in South Africa. Whatever he earns in occasional blockbuster concerts in South Africa, Rodriguez gives away to needy friends and relatives. He seems to accept the highs and lows of life with equanimity, and to carry no resentment. What an example for those of us who are practicing forgiveness and acceptance of reality.
Let’s end with an adaptation of Tara’s guided meditation that ends Chapter Eleven. In traditional Buddhist forgiveness practice, we first ask forgiveness from others, then offer it to ourselves, and finally to those who have injured us.
Asking for Forgiveness
Sit comfortably with eyes closed.
Bring to mind a situation in which you have caused harm to another person through your words, actions, or neglect. Take some moments to remember the circumstances and to sense the hurt, disappointment or betrayal that person might have felt. Allow yourself to feel your own sorrow or regret.
Now, holding that person in your awareness, begin to ask for forgiveness. Mentally whisper his or her name and say, “I understand the hurt you have felt, and I ask your forgiveness now. Please forgive me.”
With a sincere heart, repeat your request several times. Then take some moments of silence and open to the possibility of being forgiven.
Just as we have caused injury to others, we have harmed ourselves.
Reflect on ways that you have judged or punished yourself, and ways that you have withheld your own care or neglected yourself. Remember and visualize these situations, and allow yourself to feel the pain that you carry from harming your body, heart and mind. As you reflect on this, and on the sorrow and regret you feel for hurting yourself, offer the following words:“I see and feel the ways I have caused myself harm, and I forgive myself now.” If you’re not yet ready to forgive, say, “It is my intention to forgive myself when I can.” Your intention to forgive is the seed of forgiveness—this willingness will gradually relax and open your heart.
In the same way that we have hurt ourselves and others, we have all been wounded in our relationships. Bring to mind an experience in which you were deeply disappointed or rejected, abused or betrayed. Without judging yourself, notice if you are still carrying feelings of anger and blame towards the person who hurt you. Have you shut this person out of your heart? Recall a specific situation that reminds you of how you were wounded. Be aware of any grief, shame, anger or fear. With gentle acceptance, feel this pain as it expresses itself in your body, heart and mind. Take some moments to hold the hurt places with compassion. Placing your hand on your heart, offer a tender presence to the wounds you carry. Rest for a while in self-compassion.
When you feel ready, visualize or imagine the presence of this person. Sense the fear, hurt, guilt, shame or inner pain that might have caused him or her to behave in a hurtful way. Experience this being as an imperfect human, vulnerable and real. Staying connected with your own pain, mentally whisper his or her name and offer a message of forgiveness: “I feel the harm that has been caused and, to the extent that I am ready, I forgive you now.” If you feel unable to offer forgiveness at this moment, say, “I feel the harm that has been caused, and it is my intention to forgive you.” Remain connected with your own feelings of vulnerability, and repeat your message of forgiveness or intention to forgive.
In this practice, it’s easy to judge ourselves for how well or fully we are able to forgive. Let go of any judgments you’re carrying, and honor the sincerity of your intention to open and free your heart. End by releasing all thoughts of self and other. Simply rest in the experience of loving awareness.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
Doesn’t make sense.