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The Practice of Forgiveness

By: Burai Rick Spencer | 10/05/2007
In Topics: Emotion, Sangha Voices

Summary in English of the Forgiveness Study Group held with the Puerto Vallarta Zen Group.
Recently in our meditation group in Puerto Vallarta we've had a study group on the topic of forgiveness, and that's what I'd like to talk about today. We found the study group format very useful, but what I propose to do today is not a study but rather a summary of some of the things we talked about. I'd kind of like to call it “Forgiveness Part I.” This is mostly to acknowledge that there's much more to say about forgiveness than I'll be able to say today. If I'm able to present a starting point, I'll be happy.

We have to start by asking a very big question. What is forgiveness? What does forgiveness include? What does it not include? I can't say that the way I see forgiveness is the only way to see it. So I think I need to be as clear as possible what I mean when I say forgiveness.

So this is what I mean: forgiveness means letting go of the anger, resentment and blaming that we feel concerning some action that has had an impact on us. Forgiveness does not change what happened, but it does change our way of relating to what happened. Forgiveness doesn't mean that we have to trust the offender not to re-offend. We can forgive an alcoholic spouse, but that doesn't mean we trust them with a bottle. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Reconciliation does require forgiveness though. So forgiveness may be the beginning of a larger process, but it doesn't have to be. I think this is important enough that I want to repeat it. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation.

Forgiveness doesn't relieve the offender of their responsibility for their action, nor does it turn a wrong into a right. A dictionary definition that I like comes from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary: “to cease to feel resentment.” “Resent” is an interesting word. It literally means to feel over again – to “re-sense”. Something happens that has a negative impact on us. We feel that impact as emotional or physical pain. Resentment happens later, after the actual event. Resentment means that we feel the pain again after the original impact has passed. Along with this resentment there is usually anger and blaming toward whoever or whatever it was that we identify as the cause of our suffering.

So I would identify some different steps or stages in this:
1.There is some action of body, speech or mind that has an impact.
2.There is emotional or physical pain (or both) arising out of this impact.
3.Then there is anger, resentment and culpability relating back to that pain, interpreting that pain.

These are the things that set up a situation in which forgiveness might be appropriate. If we are to move forward from this point into forgiveness, two important things must happen:
1.We have to acknowledge both the original pain and the resentment of it. We have to accept our own feelings about what happened, and we have to recognize the emotional reactivity that we have concerning the situation and the person or thing that we blame for it.
2.Then comes the intention to give up or let go of our resentment and anger. Forgiveness begins here.

If you think about this a little, you'll see that forgiveness, as I am talking about it, has nothing at all to do with “making nice” to the offender, or saying that what they did was really OK after all. It has to do with “making nice” to oneself. It has to do with realizing that holding on to anger and resentment hurts the so-called victim, and really does nothing to punish or to reform the offender. One analogy is that refusing to forgive is like holding a hot coal in your hands waiting for someone to come by so you can throw it at them. They might not come by, or maybe they do but by the time that has happened you've already burnt yourself pretty badly. Another descriptive metaphor is that holding on to resentment and anger, refusing to forgive, is like eating rat poison and then hoping for the rat to die.

The etymology of the word “forgive” comes from Old English. “For” means “completely” and “give” comes from giefan which means “to give, grant or allow.” So to forgive is to give completely. I thought it was interesting that the Spanish word, perdón has the same etymological meaning even though its source is Latin and not old English. “Per” is an intensifier meaning completely and “don” has the same source as our English word donation. So in Spanish also it means “to give completely.”

Who gives what? I would say that first of all, the person who was holding on to their resentment gives it up. They let it go and give themselves relief. So it's not so much a giving to as it is a giving up.

These words might make forgiving sound rather clear and simple, but as we all know, it can be very difficult to do. We have to allow ourselves to feel the hurt before we can let go of it. And we'd rather not feel that hurt. Habitually we try to ignore it or minimize it or cover it up. We close ourselves off from our own experience as if this could protect us.

My experience has been that the fear of feeling pain is much worse than actual the feeling of it. When we allow ourselves to be present to even just a little of our own pain, we can begin to free ourselves of that fear. Over time, little by little, we can continue this process of letting go of the fear and simply feeling what we feel. This is essential to the healing process that is forgiving.

Sometimes we try to jump over the pain right into blaming someone for having hurt us and then try to use that energy to avoid feeling what we feel. This just adds bitterness and anger and makes us feel worse. So over and over we may need to keep stepping back to ask ourselves where all this anger is coming from.

The practise of becoming familiar with our wounds is an essential part of the process. We must not try to rush it. It’s absolutely necessary that we allow ourselves to become familiar with the wounds, and with the feeling of having been wounded. It has to be included in our forgiveness. It’s not a preliminary; it’s an essential part of the whole. And if we are having difficulty forgiving, this practise is what we need to return to.

The therapist Robin Casarjian puts it this way in her book, Forgiveness:

After attempting to forgive we might wonder why we still feel angry or empty inside. If we are repressing anger and guilt, the forgiveness we extend can't be rooted in our being because the repressed feelings become a barrier to our core experience. The body and psyche that hold too many restricting and repressed emotions have little room to embody love and joy with much consistency and depth. We may experience the joy and relief that forgiveness offers from time to time, but it will remain on the surface. It's like trying to plant a magnificent flower garden with a very shallow root system. A brief drought or a passing wind can sweep it all away. But if we give our pain acceptance and, in a safe context, feel what may have been too unsafe and scary to feel in the past, then the pain can be released and transformed. The process of honoring our feelings is like tilling hardened or shallow topsoil so that it becomes rich and deep. Only then will our forgiveness and understanding have room to take root deep within us.

As we acknowledge our pain and recognize that we feel wronged, we can begin to acknowledge all the bitterness and anger that we feel in relation to that. At this point we can begin to bring awareness to all of our resentment, to take its measure, without judging ourselves for feeling what we feel. This is how we begin to forgive.

Often we do have judgements about these feelings. We may think it's somehow wrong to feel angry and try to stifle it or cover it up. Or we may have the opposite feeling and think that it's good and empowering to have what we might call righteous anger. It's not easy to let go of the judgements and just see what's there: blaming, anger and resentment. And then to see what's beneath that: some pain that we would like to relieve.

It's good to do this with a partner whom we trust to help us to keep our perspective, especially if the issues are particularly difficult.

Letting go of our resentment isn't easy and it doesn't happen all at once, but I think that little by little we can began to acknowledge it and then let it go, see a little more of it, and then let it go. And we may have to do this over and over and over again. We let something go but then the wound may open again in a different way, or something new might come up.

Another thing that's difficult to let go of is the conviction that “I was right.” and “They were wrong.” It's even possible that this is true, but holding on to it doesn't lead us anywhere. One thing that might help here is to recognize that at one time or another we have also acted in ways that created pain and suffering. Just as we have been hurt, we have caused others to hurt.

We might look at the person who we blame for hurting us and imagine them as a baby in their mother's arms. We can imagine them as a baby in our arms. We might imagine them on their first day of school, or learning to tie their shoes. And we might imagine the suffering that they have lived through. We try to look beyond our own reactivity and see them as simply another human being who lives and breathes just like us. Maybe we will come to feel some compassion for them, or at least come to recognize that they too have suffered, and that their hurtful behaviour is the result of their own pain and confusion.

We can also look at our own responsibility for why we feel resentful. Perhaps we feel hurt because someone did not treat us as we think they should have. But this idea of how we should be treated comes from our own expectations. If it weren't for our expectations, perhaps their behaviour wouldn't have bothered us so much. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered us at all. So was it that person, or was it our own expectations that caused us to feel offended? It may help to see all this from a broader perspective.

And we can recognize that no matter what we do, what happened, happened. We can't change that with our righteous sense of what should have happened or by being angry or blaming someone. It has been said that forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

We can include the person who hurt us in a lovingkindness meditation. We can begin the meditation by sending lovingkindness to ourselves and to those who are close to us and then go on to include the person who has hurt us. “May they be happy, safe and well, and free from suffering.” If this is hard to do at first, we can remind ourselves that if they had been able to enjoy those conditions, they probably never would have hurt us. And again, we can try to let go of our reactions and opinions about them and just see them as another human being.

So far I have been talking mostly about how we forgive when we feel we have been hurt or offended. But there are really three different relationships for the practise of forgiveness. In addition to forgiving others who have caused us harm. There is seeking forgiveness for having caused harm to others, and there is forgiving ourselves for the ways we have harmed ourselves. I'd like to talk a little about the other two situations now.

First I want to say a few things about seeking forgiveness. At the beginning of our Bodhisattva Precepts ceremony, we chant a verse of confession three times.

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

I think that this is an important practise, to acknowledge that each and every one of us has been the cause of suffering, we should be mindful of that as we chant. But if we just do that and feel it's enough, we are mistaken. It is difficult and disagreeable work to go right into the ugliness and shamefulness of what we have done and admit our errors. But it has been my experience that this is what we need to do in order to cleanse ourselves and in order to offer some relief to the ones that we have wronged. I think we have to honestly admit to the specific wrong or unskilful action and we have to commit ourselves to avoid repeating it.

Often we hear “apologies” where someone says, “If you feel bad because of something that I said, then I'm sorry.” I would call that a “no-apology.” The person is refusing to take responsibility for their own behaviour and acknowledge its harmful consequences. I think it’s a subtle way of saying, “It’s your fault if you feel offended.” Even if we are convinced that we had no choice but to act in a way that hurt someone, we can still say, “I know that what I did hurt you and I'm truly sorry.” And then we can honestly try to understand how we can avoid finding ourselves in a situation like that again.

The first Buddhist retreat that I went to after I was ordained as a priest was with a Chinese Ch'an teacher. In my interview with him I said, “I have only been ordained for a few months. What advice do you have for me as a new priest?” He told me, “Whenever you make a mistake, it's very important for you to confess it to another priest. If there are no other priests where you are, then you can offer incense and confess to the Buddha, but it's better if it's to another priest.”

It wasn't what I expected to hear. Maybe I was thinking, like in the 70's movie Love Story, that “Being a priest means never having to say you're sorry.” But I have learned that this is not the case. Sometimes the hard part has been realizing or admitting that I have caused suffering. Then it can be even harder to say so out loud to someone else. But I think it has to be done. It's not good enough to admit your mistake only to yourself. Someone else needs to hear it. This is not easy. When it's something small, maybe you can go right to the person you hurt and speak your confession. But if it's something big, or something that you're not clear about, maybe still feeling defensive or looking to justify your action, it's a good idea to talk this through with someone you trust first.

I have already recommended that when you are learning to forgive, it's good to have a forgiveness partner, someone that you can talk with as you go through the forgiving process. I think this is also true for us when we are seeking forgiveness. Someone who is trusted and yet somewhat neutral can make a huge difference to us. This is one of the functions of the sponsor in the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I have come to prefer the phrase “seeking forgiveness” over the phrase “asking for forgiveness.” To me it's closer to the way I understand forgiveness. Seeking forgiveness to me means looking deeply at ourselves and at our own behaviour first. Then, when it's possible and won't cause more suffering, we can honestly acknowledge our offence to the person we hurt. We need to do this to try to ease their suffering. We hope they will be able to forgive, not for our sake but for their own sake. To me, “asking for forgiveness” sounds as if on top of having hurt them, now we are going to ask them to give us something, and that just doesn't sound right to me. “Seeking forgiveness” sounds better.

When someone whom we have hurt does forgive, it means that they are able to let go of their resentment, anger and pain. Then because they feel some relief, we also can feel some relief. But this will not be complete until we can forgive ourselves. That's what I'd like to talk about next.

We are often told that the Golden Rule is that we should love and care for other people as much as we love and care for ourselves. Considering how judgemental and unforgiving we can be with ourselves, no wonder the world is such a mess! Maybe we should reverse that advice. We should show as much consideration for ourselves as we do for others.

It's not that difficult for us to see the value in treating others with compassion and understanding. There is some encouragement to do this in our culture. And yet, so often we feel that we should not extend this same compassion and understanding to ourselves. We have learned that it is selfish and bad to do so.

I think it's just as selfish to think that we should be treated worse than others as it is to think we should be treated better. In both cases we place ourselves as something separate from and opposed to everything else. When we vow to benefit all beings, we shouldn't forget that this includes us!

Why is it so difficult to forgive ourselves? I think it's partly because deep down we are aware of the insubstantiality of all our excuses. Even when we deny responsibility for our offence, at some level we still blame ourselves and feel ashamed and unworthy. We usually try to hide this from everyone. Most of all we try to hide this from ourselves, but that has consequences too. So the first step to forgiving oneself is to begin uncovering all that we have been denying, all of those things about ourselves that we fear might be true. You probably already know for yourself what some of these things are.

I can clearly remember some very hurtful things that I did and said to others even when I was a little boy. In some cases it's been over 50 years, and I am still ashamed of some things I did as that boy. But I have forgiven him. I know that I am no longer that same little boy. I know that in his immature mind he was just looking for love and acceptance. I understand how little he knew of right and wrong.

This is one way that we can begin to forgive ourselves. We can recognize that we are no longer the person who committed that offence. This is true even if the offence was committed yesterday or only 5 minutes ago. We are no longer that person. We can recognize how the suffering of that person resulted in their unskilful action. Then we can let go of blaming ourselves and we can vow to do our best not to repeat the offence. We may have to do that many times.

When we are the cause of someone's suffering, it's easy to see who was the offender and who the offended. But when we speak of forgiving ourselves, who is offended? Who is the offender? And who offers forgiveness? It's not so easy to answer that. Did I hurt me? I think that we suffer because we have caused suffering. We suffer because we know that we have done something that was un-virtuous, non-compassionate, un-wise and dis-harmonious. You could say that we have committed an offence against virtue, compassion, wisdom and harmony. Our offence was against the three treasures: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

And so our self-forgiveness needs to come by way of the three treasures. In the realm of the three treasures there's no possibility of resentment, no place for anger and blame to stick. In order to forgive ourselves we need to realize and accept that this is true.

I did a search for self-forgiveness on an internet site dedicated to answering questions about the bible. The answer that came back was that there is not one mention of forgiving oneself in the bible. There is no such concept in the bible. This surprised me at first, considering how important I think it is to forgive ourselves.

But, according to this website, the true issue is not that we should forgive ourselves. The true issue is that we need to accept that God forgives us. Self-forgiveness needs to come from somewhere much greater than our narrow view of who we think we are and what we have done. Whether we say it's God, or the three treasures, or Buddha, or the great mystery doesn't really matter.

Self-forgiveness can't be found by thinking about it or analyzing it. It can only be found somewhere beyond our thinking, beyond our feeling, beyond our small selves. Actually I believe that this is where all forgiveness comes from, not just self-forgiveness. I think that we accept forgiveness for ourselves and offer it to others through our mysterious connection with something greater than ourselves. To me this is what is meant in the Lord's Prayer “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If we cannot find forgiveness for others, we can't find it for ourselves either. And we find forgiveness for ourselves and for others when we connect with the great mystery. So the Lord's Prayer reminds us that we find self-forgiveness in the same place that we find forgiveness for others. That's the only place that it can be found. But it's not just there on the surface. It takes time and practise. It takes opening our hearts, exposing our shames, and giving up our strong habit of believing we are unworthy.

To do this we need to go beyond our analysis and intellectual understanding. We need to go beyond our thinking minds. We definitely need to go beyond today's talk.

I'd like to tell you a story from a dharma talk given by Daigan Lueck, a teacher from Green Gulch Farm.

In his talk Daigan told us about how much anger he had when he came to Zen practise, and how his anger continued in his practise. He said he was angry with everyone and everything. He knew that his anger was eating him up, but knowing that didn't help him to get beyond it. He said that one day, in total desperation, feeling that he could not draw another breath; he went to his teacher and said, “What can I do?”

And his teacher said, “I have a practise for you, and I guarantee you that it will work.” He said, “Every day in your home you should do prostrations. Do 108 prostrations every day. You don't have to do them all at once, just do 108 prostrations in the course of each day. And with each prostration say, 'I forgive you.'”

Daigan said, “OK, but who am I forgiving?” and his teacher said, “You'll find out.”

So Daigan said he followed this practise, day after day, doing 108 prostrations and saying “I forgive you” 108 times. And then one day in the middle of doing this, he broke down in tears. He said that he finally realized who it was that he had to forgive. Then he said, “I don't need to tell you who that was. Everybody knows who that was.” Daigan said that he had a deep sense of gratitude for having found a practise that he could do.

The forgiveness that I have been talking about is not something that can be done quickly. It's not a single event, but rather a process. Sometimes we might enter into the process without even knowing that we have done so. Or we might realize that we have entered the process with absolutely no idea of where it will lead. Perhaps it's not even a process so much as a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage with no end.

There is still so much more to say about forgiveness. May the conversation continue.

Thank you for your practise.