The Sweetness of Forgiveness
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Dear Still Water Friends,
Many years ago, a friend who worked in international reconciliation told me about a colleague who had been a political prisoner. She was amazed that he could be civil to, even polite to, a government official from his home country who had been involved with his imprisonment and torture. “How can you do it?” my friend asked him. He replied, “You see, if I were still angry at him, I would still be in prison and he would still be my jailer.”
The story came to mind because I was recently reminded that some disappointments and resentments from my childhood were still smoldering. Part of me was still stuck in that time, when I felt powerless and needy. When I recall the story of the political prisoner, I remember that we practice forgiveness for our own benefit, in order to free ourselves from the incapacitating grip of painful experiences. We practice forgiveness so we can gain access to the vitality and elation of an open heart.
The practice of forgiveness, as I understand it, has two essential steps. First, we see clearly what was done: Who did what, why, and what the consequences were for ourselves and others. Second, we rise above the self-protective – and totally understandable – responses of anger, disappointment, resentment, and emotional distance. We are ready and willing to say goodbye to the old emotional responses and allow in new ones, such as compassion, warmth, tolerance, and acceptance.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we need to rewrite the past, so that the hurts never occurred. It doesn’t mean that we need to invite the person who abused us over for dinner, or that a person who is dangerous to others should not be in protective custody. Forgiveness simply means that we recognize that we are no longer in prison, and another person is no longer our jailer. We are free to move on, to be more responsive to life as it manifests today.
This Thursday, after our sitting, we will look over our emotional baggage. Are there some no-longer-needed pieces we are wishing to leave behind as we enter into the new year?
You are invited to practice this exercise with us, or with others.
Teachings on forgiveness by Henri Nouwen and Thich Nhat Hanh are below.
Peace and joy to you,
Forgiving is an Inner Movement.
by Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
How can we forgive those who do not want to be forgiven? Our deepest desire is that the forgiveness we offer will be received. This mutuality between giving and receiving is what creates peace and harmony. But if our condition for giving forgiveness is that it will be received, we seldom will forgive! Forgiving the other is first and foremost an inner movement. It is an act that removes anger, bitterness, and the desire for revenge from our hearts and helps us to reclaim our human dignity. We cannot force those we want to forgive into accepting our forgiveness. They might not be able or willing do so. They may not even know or feel that they have wounded us.
The only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts.
Understanding Brings Forgiveness
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Living Buddha, Living Christ.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Everyone makes mistakes. If we are mindful, we see that some of our actions in the past have caused others to suffer, and some actions of others have made us suffer. We want to be forgiving. We want to begin anew. “You, my brother or sister, have wronged me in the past. I now understand that it was because you were suffering and did not see clearly. I no longer feel anger toward you.” You cannot force yourself to forgive. Only when you understand what has happened can you have compassion for the other person and forgive him or her. That kind of forgiveness is the fruit of awareness. When you are mindful, you can see the many causes that led the other person to make you suffer, and when you see this, forgiveness and release arise naturally. Putting the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha into practice is always helpful.