Someone wrote the other day saying that she’d had a hard time forgiving a colleague at work who had reflexly shot down her very excellent ideas. Apparently this colleague does this a lot. It’s just a habit with her.
My correspondent found her colleague’s actions very hurtful. She struggled with resentment for several days as she worked on practicing forgiveness and on cultivating metta. (Metta is “lovingkindness,” or simply kindness). Eventually she was successful, and she managed to forgive her critic. So that’s excellent! Practice works!
The thing is it took her a long time to find her way back to peace. And I think her story highlights something that’s missing from many people’s practice of metta. It’s the missing link in our practice of lovingkindness.
I sometimes worry about sounding like a broken record, but I find that one key thing when we’re hurt is to practice kindness and compassion toward ourselves. I’ve written in a number of places about how we can do this, for example in Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared and The power of self-kindness. You can also check out my book on self-compassion, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human.”
When this colleague reacted to my correspondent, this caused pain. Whenever she felt resentful afterward, that also caused her pain. Trying to wish another person well while we’re not responding compassionately to our own pain tends not to be very effective. (I’m not saying this to blame anyone — this is a very common oversight in our lovingkindness practice. It’s something we all do.)
Resentment is our pain’s way of trying to protect itself. It’s like a kind of bristly, spiky forcefield that we erect around our hearts. If we recognize our own pain and send it our love and reassurance, then we’re “protecting” the heart in a different way. We protect it by offering it love, and by surrounding it with love. It becomes much easier to direct this love toward the person that hurt us. It becomes much easier for us to let go of our resentments. The forgiveness can happen much more quickly. Sometimes it takes minutes or even seconds rather than days.
When we ignore our pain in favor of directing well-wishing to the other person, we’re not being very compassionate to ourselves. In fact we’re unintentionally being cruel. To see this more clearly, imagine yourself walking past a friend who is obviously in distress, without really acknowledging them. You’d be taking a person who’s in pain, and adding to their pain by not being concerned and compassionate.
Now the part of you that’s hurting has exactly the same response. When you ignore it and focus on someone else instead, the hurt deepens. And so your hurt continues to try to protect itself. It continues to erect this spiky forcefield or resentment. And the more you feel this resentment, the more you’re likely to work harder at cultivating compassion for the person who hurt you. And so we stay stuck, until eventually a current of genuine kindness appears, the dynamic changes, we let go of some of our resentment, and your heart feels safe again.
So when we’re trying on the one hand to cultivate kindness to another person, while also (accidentally) cultivating unkindness toward ourselves, it can take us so long to let go of our reactions.
I never used to quite believe the teaching that we have to be kind toward ourselves before we can be kind to others, but the longer I practice the more I see that it’s true.