We often run our relationships as if they were a business. I’ll give you four if you give me four, but if it seems you only gave me three, you owe me. An unforgiven debt arises in the Karma Savings & Loan.
“You owe me” is resentment. “I owe you” is guilt. And the longer our interactions go on like this, the more impoverished we become. We lose our balance, the heart is thrown askew. The gut tightens. The eyes cannot open fully. But forgiveness rebalances the mind and brings kindness to the senses.
Self-Forgiveness is a Service to the World
Forgiveness decomposes the armoring over the heart. It allows an unimagined kindness to seep into the lowest sense of self. Judging ourselves, we judge others. Self-forgiveness is not self-indulgent but is a service to the world, a means of opening our life and a benefit to others.
Oddly enough, the true magic begins when, quite to our amazement, we discover that it is our attachment to our suffering, our own negative attachment, that holds our suffering in place.
The automatic pushing away of the unwanted displays this negative attachment. Our resistance is our attachment. It reveals our natural aversion to pain and the “knee jerk reaction” it engenders—we are angry at our anger, fearful of our fear, anxious about our anxiety, judging judgment, we relate from rather than to our confusing predicament. As we perpetually lunge at our unfinished business, we are like someone who, having been stung, walks up and punches the hive.
Stephen wrote that when an early teacher first said to him, “Be kind to yourself,” his knees began to buckle and he had to sit down. It had never occurred to him before.
Even The Best of Relationships Require Forgiveness
We may think forgiveness isn’t necessary, that it might be a sign of weakness, but even the best of relationships between family, friends, and lovers, because of subtly differing desire systems, may well have some slight unfinished business that needs tending. This gentle, daily forgiveness, as an experiment in conscious compassion, can keep our life current.
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As we gradually begin the forgiveness practice, we notice we are not forgiving the action, but the actor. We are not condoning cruelty; we’re forgiving someone for being cruel (even ourselves) as the revered Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out, “those whose heart could not yet see.”
We can forgive someone who stole from us without excusing stealing per se. By practicing forgiveness, we are not reinforcing oppressive or injurious action. We may, after considerable processing of emotion, forgive someone whose heart was so obstructed, so unable to see beyond its sorrow, that they caused injury to another. We are forgiving the person, not the action. I might be able to forgive someone who kills without approving of killing in any way.
Forgiving the Past and All the Ghosts
We learn to forgive the past and all the ghosts, living and dead, who have not had the benefit of mercy. And we let the ghost of ourselves be forgiven as well. We allow ourselves to imagine being touched by their love and their wish for our well-being.
We must test everything in our heart to see for ourselves what a month of silent, daily forgiveness might do to the flow of our life. See for ourselves what soft belly reoccurring throughout the day does to that day. How much more love than loss might be found. When we use soft belly as a reference point, we don’t suppress our feelings; we give them room to breathe.
A Day of Forgiveness
What would it be like if we had a day of mindful forgiveness? A day without anger or remorse? A day in which we meet the moment with respect, honoring all those who cross our path? To peer through the shadows reality casts and see the original heart behind it all? To see how we cannot see. To discover how to love by watching how unloving we can be. A day of making amends to others by touching those around us with the forgiveness we wish for ourselves. And amends to the earth from which we take so much and return so little.
A day of treating others as we wish to be treated. Remembering that they too, no matter how difficult at times it may be to perceive, lament not waking up to a day in a life of love. A day when the still, small voice within remembers that to forgive others opens the door to self-forgiveness.
Part of my birth into a life of love is to allow myself out of hiding.
It would be ideal if I could just let go of afflictive states, but the considerable momentum of negative identification with these feelings is not so easily dissuaded. Sometimes, before, when I could simply be mindful of them, I could enter these states with a liberating awareness. But I had to learn to clear the way by skillful means. I learned to meet merciless judgment of myself and others with mercy. Just as softening the belly initiates a letting go in the mind and body, which can be felt in the heart, its equivalent in the work of forgiveness softens the holding in the mind, which can be felt in the letting go of the hardness in my belly.
The practice is not to submerge anger or guilt, but to bring it to the surface, so it is accessible to healing. Not that these qualities will disappear, but that we will no longer be surprised by them, or unable to meet them with mercy, even with a sense of humor, for the mind seems to have a mind of its own.
On A Day of Mindful Forgiveness...
If, at first, forgiveness seems a little awkward, even self-serving when turned toward oneself, that is simply an indication of how little we have considered the possibility and how foreign loving kindness has become.
On a day of mindful forgiveness, instead of being seduced into mind-chatter that tries to convince me that the “I am” of anger is noble, I would recognize that each state of mind has its own unique body pattern and be able to approach each emotion as its imprint in the body. Allowing awareness to survey each outline and clear the approach to the heart, loosening identification with the states so that anger and self-pity might pass through the mind without becoming angry or pitiful.
Just as clarity brings with it a loving sense of openness in the body and mind, anger and fear, in their turn, close the mind, tighten the jaw and belly, and leave little room for anything else. Becoming aware of these roadblocks to the heart, these hindrances to happiness, opens the path forward.
Touching Everyone with Forgiveness -- Whether They Need it Or Not
During the course of a mindful forgiveness day, I reflected on what the word “forgiveness” might mean as various people come to mind, some invited, some lurking just offstage, waiting for an opportunity to make their case. As an experiment in happiness when I noticed their presence, I touched them with forgiveness, even the closest friends who I imagined needed no such greeting. Watching to see if even my loved ones might resist being forgiven, I simply said to them, “I forgive you,” and watched my mind’s response, noting whatever unexpected, unfinished business began its spin.
I noted whatever friends, coworkers, family, old flames, or old flame extinguishers came to mind. And when you do it, don’t be surprised that you are surprised at what occurs in the shadows when you say “I forgive you.” To you or anyone else.
Forgiveness Finishes Unfinished Business
Forgiveness changes the world; it lets us see where we stand. When I began focusing forgiveness on my mother, reaching out to her from that state of mind, I said, “Mom, I forgive you for any way you ever caused me pain, intentionally or unintentionally, through whatever you said or did.”
Saying it slowly, bringing her image to mind, I held the intention to let go of whatever kept her out of my heart. The release and opening of the anger and fear gradually became more genuine, dropping through levels and levels of release, the breath became smoother, and then in my open-mindedness I heard her say, “You forgive me? How dare you!” and my belly turned to stone. And then I remembered how long these barriers have been up and how long it might take to tear down the wall. We never know where our next teaching might unexpectedly come from.
Softening the Belly and Allowing the Armor to Fall
When the belly softens the tension and begins to melt, the armor clatters to the floor, the breath reaching down into the body, picking up bits of grace as it passes. The more often we lose our way, then find our way back again, the wider the passage becomes.
And then, instead of constricting the buttocks and the gut each time that the heart becomes obscured by doubt or fear, anger or judgment, we set ourselves free with “Ah yes, anger, envy, fear again. Big Surprise!” which of course is no surprise at all—a wry acceptance of the passing show, noting with each changing state, pleasant or unpleasant, the familiarity of the same old painful states with the recognition, “Big Surprise!” And life becomes a moment-to-moment surprise, instead of an ongoing indignation.
“Yes, Ma, you, I forgive you, and wish you to find it in your heart to forgive me for whatever prompted that awful resentment, whatever made you sweat beneath your armor. I didn’t suppose we would ever meet where love might slip past our defenses and quite unexpectedly touch each other. But let the fist open, exposing a hidden empathy.”
During this forgiveness practice we recognize how our lack of forgiveness, our indifference, our impatience with each other’s hearts, causes considerable suffering in the world.
And we begin to become the person we always wanted to be.
Sub-titles by InnerSelf
©2012 & 2015 by Ondrea Levine and Stephen Levine. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Weiser Books,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com
The Healing I Took Birth For: Practicing the Art of Compassion
by Ondrea Levine (as told to Stephen Levine).
Watch a video (and book trailer): The Healing I Took Birth For (with Ondrea & Stephen Levine)
About the Author
Ondrea Levine and Stephen Levine are close collaborators in teaching, in practice, in life. Together they are the authors of more than eight books, some of which bear Stephen's name only as author, but all of which Ondrea had a hand in. Together they are best known for their work on death and dying. Visit them at www.levinetalks.com