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Practice of Forgiveness

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/09/2001
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Emotion, Uncategorized

The practice of fully feeling our pain allows us to see through it. We are then led to forgiving ourselves and becoming more aware of the different realities residing within conflict

Practice of Forgiveness

In being fully alive – through our pain and difficulty.

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | June 9, 2001


Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum


One of my practices, which I would recommend highly, is
watching morning television. It’s very
educational. It really is. The other day, an expert came on, who had
figured out a really good method for achieving happiness. You would write in a journal for twenty
minutes a day. Not randomly,
though. There were several areas of
personal concern that you were supposed to write about in a systematic way. The
categories were the physical – including your diet and exercise, emotional,
relationships, and spirituality. You
were supposed to write for five minutes on each of these four areas. What impressed me was that under spirituality,
you were supposed to write about forgiveness.
Every single day you would write in your journal about your efforts to
forgive yourself for what you had done that was harmful, or to forgive somebody
else for what they had done to you that was harmful.


So I thought about this afterward. It seemed really startling to me, the idea
that there would be so much hurting going on in the world. That every day – because there was that much
hurting going on in the world – every person would have to spend time forgiving
themselves and others. I had never
really thought about it quite in that way before. But as soon as I thought about it, I said,
“Of course, that is really right. People
hurting themselves. People hurting each
other with all kinds of abuse and disrespect.
Diminishment of all sorts.” The
kind of hurting that you read about in the newspaper – the violence, the anger,
the hatred; but also the more subtle, everyday kind of hurting. Hurting that comes just from failing to love
enough. Failing, little by little, day
by day. No one notices. And yet, it really is a powerful, negative
force in our lives.


I thought the expert had a really good idea. It really made a lot of sense. If you are going to take care of yourself –
take your vitamins and follow a good diet and all that, it would really make
sense to have a daily hygiene of forgiving.
Forgiving seems to be a really necessary practice.


But how do you forgive?
Well, it is not that easy. Why is
it so hard? It’s hard because it is
literally painful, and nobody wants to feel pain. It is a natural, human response to run away
from pain. So when pain is there, before
you even have a chance to feel it, you are already fleeing in the other direction,
covering it over with distraction. And
distraction takes various forms: denial, blaming somebody else, or just
oblivion. Somehow wiping it out. Forgetting it somehow. As I often say, we live in a society that is
masterful at all of this. Our society is
literally organized to promote this kind of distraction and oblivion.


Of course, as far as blame is concerned, we don’t need any
help for that! We automatically blame
people. So if you have ever hurt
yourself, and I think that we often do, and if you have ever hurt anyone else,
which we often do (knowingly or unknowingly), there is pain. And if somebody has hurt you, then obviously
there is a lot of pain.


If you are going to follow this woman’s advice and practice
forgiveness, the first thing you have to do is to allow yourself to feel acutely
the pain of that hurting. This requires work,
since most of the time, I think, that pain in
its fullness
does not exist within the frame of our awareness. You need to allow it, to evoke it, to bring
it up, to bring it forth, and to let it blossom into your heart. It is very rare that we are willing to sit
still for that. But we have to, if we
are ever to forgive.


This is one reason why meditation practice is not always
peaceful. If you practice meditation
with a sense of really being present and open and aware to what comes,
sometimes that is what comes. Pain. Difficulty.
But actual meditation practice itself, if you follow it closely and are
honest with yourself, will naturally lead you down the path of


So that is the first part.
To forgive, you really need to allow yourself to feel the fullness of
the pain.


The next thing you have to do is go to the root of the pain,
beyond the story that comes associated with it, and beyond the dismay that you
feel. You really have to go to the root
of it. The root of pain, I feel, is
really always the same. The root of pain
is existence itself. Because you are, there is this pain. If you really are going to forgive, you have
to feel the pain of the hurt all the way to its core, and see right through
it. Yes, it is true. You have been hurt. Maybe it is also true that someone has done
something to you. But if you weren’t, that would not have
happened. If you didn’t have a mind, a
body, an identity, that wouldn’t happen.
But since you do, it is guaranteed that you will be hurt. When the conditions of hurt come together, as
they will, you will be hurt.


The one who hurt you, the story, and the history of that
hurting, are ultimately incidental to the sheer fact of hurt being built into
the condition of life. So if you can get
to that level of experiencing your hurt, or having hurt another (because in the
end being hurt and having hurt another amount to the same thing). if you can
allow yourself to feel the pain to that level, then it is easy to forgive. It is a natural thing. The heart just opens to forgiveness, because
you see that we are all in this together.


So I agree with the woman that forgiving oneself, and
forgiving anyone else who has hurt you, are necessary for spiritual and
emotional health. I am not quite as
confident as she is that twenty minutes a day of journaling will do the trick;
but I am willing to believe that it is possible. You never know! But whether or not it seems true, it really
seems right that forgiveness has to be a daily, regular practice. It has to be a path that you walk down,
probably for your whole life.


For me, the hardest thing of all is forgiving yourself for
being yourself. I think that on some
very deep level, this is the hardest thing.
I think that we all are slightly annoyed with ourselves for being
ourselves. I have always considered it
to be the pinnacle of spiritual life just to allow yourself to be yourself, as you are. They always talk about this in Zen. They talk about it as the supreme and
indelible mark of awakening: That you simply are yourself. It sounds crazy. “Of course I am myself!” What they mean, though, is totally accepting
that you are the way you are. Forgiving
yourself for it, all the way to the bottom.
Short of this, we are always a little bit embarrassed about who we are,
thinking, “I should be better. Why is it
this way?”


So it is hard to forgive yourself. Very hard.
And it is also very hard to forgive somebody else. To forgive another person is actually an internal
act of your own. It is something that
you do, not necessarily for the other person, but for yourself. Because your forgiving someone cannot absolve
that person of responsibility. You
cannot take away their responsibility, because nobody can ever escape the
consequences of their actions. So
although we forgive them, our forgiveness doesn’t get them off the hook. It is a mistake to think that somehow we have
gotten them off the hook by our forgiveness.
Only they themselves can do that.
So forgiveness is for us – for the openness of our own hearts, and for
the possibility that we could actually learn how to love. I think we need forgiveness before we can


Some of you know that Kathie’s brother, my brother-in-law,
has been ill in the hospital, so I have been spending a lot of time with my
mother and father-in-law. We were talking
in the hospital the other day. It had
been the day after this horrible bombing in Israel, in the disco in Tel
Aviv. My mother and father-in-law were
baffled by this. They could not
understand what is going on there. How
could two peoples – yes, they are different and have different world views –
fail so miserably to appreciate each other?
How could they go on for so long, persisting in hating one another, with
such disastrous consequences? How could
people hate each other just because of their cultural and religious differences? It makes no sense.


Well, the fact is that it does make sense. People have
very good reasons for hating one another: They hate one another because they
are afraid of one another. And since
fear is such a disempowering and unacceptable emotion on a visceral level, we
can’t really allow ourselves to feel fear.
It’s too much. So we distract
ourselves from it with hatred. Why do
they fear each other? They fear each
other because they feel on a gut level – not just because they made this up,
but because they have past experience to base it on – that the other person,
the other peoples, are a threat to their very existence. A direct threat to their whole sense of
identity. The truth of the matter is
that most of us in the world, including most of us Buddhists, base our life on
identity. If your senses of the world,
if your beliefs, seem not only different from mine, but seem somehow to
absolutely deny the reality of mine, then I am terrified to my very bones. Then I feel that there is no choice. I have to hate you out of self-defense, because
your existence threatens mine.


That is how hatred works on this kind of level. Nobody thinks of it like that, really. They think it is about land, or this or that. They see it manifest every day in external
events. “Members of your group have killed
my family members, have killed my brothers and sisters. have killed my
countrymen – people that I know and lived with.
They have been killed by your people, and their property was taken away;
their language was taken away; their rights were taken away. How could I be
myself if I could forgive or accept that?
How could I face myself in the morning?
It would be like denying my own existence if I were to accept that. How could I face my relatives if I were to
forgive you for having killed them? How could
I deal with my own self-loathing for having betrayed my family?” That is how hatred is created.


Nightmare situations happen in cultures. I saw this in Israel. Jews and Palestinians can’t talk to one
another, because they don’t even share a basic understanding about what is
going on. There is no narrative or historical
basis for having a conversation. They
even call the same places by different names, and refuse to acknowledge that
the other name exists. If you ask where such-and-such
a street is, somebody will say, “Never heard of it.” Not because they don’t know it by that name, but
because they refuse to acknowledge that other people do know it as that


It is not that they feel that they are living in different
worlds. They both think that there is only
one reality, but that the other one’s view is distorted. They all think that their attitudes are based
on sound, historical events, but if you talk to them about the history and the events,
their stories are different. It seems as
if there are no facts at all about
the past – only faith-based myths disguised as history. So there is no way to talk about it, because
they can’t even say what happened. There
is no way to get to the peace table and agree: “This is what happened. This is where we want to go. This is what we need to do.”


Again, my point here is that the root of all this sorrow and
pain and suffering is identity and fear – the tremendous fear that we all have
of loss of identity.


I think that we have to respect identity and fear as
powerful motivators in our lives. I
think we can’t kid ourselves about that.
Probably, if we could only realize and respect how powerful those
factors are in motivating us, that in itself would be a major political
breakthrough. Just to realize that would
be a huge advance, I think, because this is what motivates all of us in our
social contacts and our relationships.


We always need to know how to negotiate and have some
realistic, hard-nosed ability to make trade-offs; but I am convinced that real
reconciliation, real change of heart, is possible and necessary, not only for
individuals, but for whole societies. It
begins with internal, spiritual work that we do on our cushions and in our
lives. And it continues, when we get up
from our cushions, with how we meet each other – with the heart of forgiveness,
the heart of reconciliation.


Internal work. But
not just internal. I think of some lines
from the poet Robert Creeley:


Inside and




I always think of those lines. They cheer me up.


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