Contemplative Practice

The art of self-forgiveness

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly with fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.

How?

Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whateverit was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others. Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.
  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.) You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it. Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself. Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.
  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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Feed the mouse: using appreciation to generate inner nourishment

As the nervous system evolved, your brain developed in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Since the brain is integrated, avoiding, approaching, and attaching are accomplished by its parts working together. Nonetheless, each of these functions is particularly served and shaped by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it.

Petting your inner lizard was about how to soothe and calm the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. This article continues the series by focusing on how to help the early mammalian parts of your brain feel rewarded, satisfied, and fulfilled: in a word, fed.

This has many benefits. For starters, when you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving. The hungry heart gets a full meal; goals are attained and the striving for them relaxes; one feels lifted by life as it is. What a relief!

Feeling fed also helps you enjoy positive emotions such as pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease, and worth. As Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers have shown, these good feelings reduce stress, help people bounce back from illness and loss, strengthen resilience, draw attention to the big picture, and build inner resources. And when your own cup runneth over, studies have found that you’re more inclined to give to others; feeling good helps you do good.

Last, consider this matter in a larger context. Many of us live in an economy that emphasizes endless consumer demand and in a culture that emphasizes endless striving for success and status. Sure, enjoy a nice new sweater and pursue healthy ambitions. But it’s also vitally important – both for ourselves and for the planet whose resources we’re devouring like kids gorging on cake – that we appreciate the many ways we already have so, SO much.

So, in everyday life, draw on opportunities to feel fed – and as you do, really take in these experiences, weaving them into the fabric of your brain and being. For example:

  • While eating, be aware of the food going into you, becoming a part of you. Take pleasure in eating, and know that you are getting enough.
  • While breathing, know that you are getting all the oxygen you need.
  • Absorb sights and sounds, smells and touches. Open to the sense of how these benefit you; for instance, recognize that the seeing of a green light, a passage in a book, or a flower is good for you.
  • Receive the warmth and help of other people, which comes in many ways, including compassion, kindness, humor, practical aid, and useful information.
  • Get a sense of being supported by the natural world: by the ground you walk on, by sunlight and water, by plants and animals, by the universe itself.
  • Feel protected, enabled, and delighted by human craft, ranging from the wheel to the Hubble telescope, with things like glass, paper, refrigerators, the internet, and painkillers in between.
  • Be aware of money coming to you, whether it’s what you’re earning hour by hour or project by project, or the financial support of others (probably in a frame in which you are supporting them in other ways).
  • Notice the accomplishment of goals, particularly little ones like washing a dish, making it to work, or pushing “send” on an email. Register the sense of an aim attained, and help yourself feel at least a little rewarded.
  • Appreciate how even difficult experiences are bringing good things to you. For example, even though exercise can be uncomfortable, it feeds your muscle fibers, immune system, and heart.
  • Right now – having read this list just above – let yourself be fed . . . by knowing that many many things can feed you!

Then, from time to time – such as at meals or just before sleep – take a moment to appreciate some of what you’ve already received. Consider the food you’ve taken in, the things you’ve gotten done, the material well-being you do have, the love that’s come your way. Sure, we’ve all sometimes had to slurp a thin soup; but to put these shortfalls in perspective, take a moment to consider how little so many people worldwide have, a billion of whom will go to bed hungry tonight.

As you register the sense of being fed, in one way or another, help it sink down into yourself. Imagine a little furry part of you that’s nibbling away at all this “food,” chewing and swallowing from a huge, abundant pile of goodies that’s greater than anyone – mouse or human – can ever consume. Take your time with the felt sense of absorbing, internalizing, digesting, There’s more than enough. Let knowing this sink in again and again.

Turn as well into the present – the only time we are ever truly fed. In the past there may not have been enough, in the future there may not be enough . . . but right now, in what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Pure Land of this moment, most of us most of the time are buoyed by so many blessings. Falling open and into the Now, being now, fed by simply being, by being itself.

Being fed.

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How to live without causing fear

We evolved to be afraid.

The ancient ancestors that were casual and blithely hopeful, underestimating the risks around them – predators, loss of food, aggression from others of their kind – did not pass on their genes. But the ones that were nervous were very successful – and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain.

Consequently, multiple hair-trigger systems in your brain continually scan for threats. At the least whiff of danger – which these days comes mainly in the form of social hazards like indifference, criticism, rejection, or disrespect – alarm bells start ringing. See a frown across a dinner table, hear a cold tone from a supervisor, get interrupted repeatedly, receive an indifferent shrug from a partner, watch your teenager turn her back and walk away . . . and your heart starts beating faster, stress hormones course through your veins, emotions well up, thoughts race, and the machinery of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing kicks into high gear.

The same thing happens in the other direction: when you send out any signal that others find even subtly threatening, their inner iguana gets going. That makes them suffer. Plus it prompts negative reactions from them, such as defensiveness, withdrawal, counter-attacks, grudges, dislike, or enlisting their allies against you.

Thus the kindness and the practical wisdom in the traditional saying, “Give no one cause to fear you.”

You can – and should – be direct, firm, and assertive. Without needing to fear you, others should expect that if they break their agreements with you or otherwise mistreat you, there will be consequences: you reserve the right to speak up, call a spade a spade, step back in the relationship if need be, take away the privileges of a misbehaving child or the job of a dishonest employee, and so on. But this is simply clarity. Rocks are hard; you don’t need to fear rocks to take their hardness into account: I know this as an aging rock climber!

Much of the time the fear – the anxiety, apprehension, unease – we trigger in others is mild, diffuse, in the background, maybe not even consciously experienced. But studies show that people can feel threatened by stimuli they’re not actually aware of. Think of the little bits of irritation, caustic tone, edginess, superiority, pushiness, nagging, argumentativeness, eye rolls, sighs, rapid fire talk, snarkiness, demands, high-handedness, righteousness, sharp questions, or put downs that can leak out of a person – and how these can affect others. Consider how few of these are necessary, if any at all – and the mounting costs of the fears we needlessly engender in others.

Think of the benefits to you and others of them feeling safer, calmer, and more at peace around you.

Assert yourself for the things that matter to you. If you are sticking up for yourself and getting your needs met, you won’t be as likely to get reactive with others.

Appreciate that the caveman or cavewoman brain inside the head of the person you’re talking with is automatically primed to fear you, no matter how respectful or loving you’ve been. So do little things to prevent needless fears, like starting an interaction by expressing whatever warmth, joining, and positive intentions are authentic for you. Be self-disclosing, straightforward, unguarded. Come with an open hand, weaponless.

As you can, stay calm in your body. Get revved up, and that signals others that something bad could be coming.

Slow down. Fast talk, rapid instructions or questions, and quick movements can rattle or overwhelm others. Sudden events in our ancient past were often the beginning of a potentially lethal attack.

Be careful with anger. Any whiff of anger makes others feel threatened. For example, a crowded and noisy restaurant will suddenly get quiet if an angry voice is heard, since anger within a band of primates or early humans was a major threat signal.

Consider your words and tone. For example, sometimes you’ll need to name possible consequences – but watch out, since it’s easy for others to hear a threat, veiled or explicit, and then quietly go to war with you in their mind.

Give the other person breathing room, space to talk freely, a chance to preserve his or her pride and dignity.

Be trustworthy yourself, so that others do not fear that you will let them down.

Be at peace. Know that you have done what you can to help prevent or reduce fears in others. Observe and take in the benefits to you – such as others who feel safer around you give you less cause to fear them.

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Hug your inner monkey!

To simplify a complex process, your brain evolved in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

This post is about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

In ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. Today, feeling understood, valued, and cherished – whether as a child or an adult, and with regard to another person or to a group – may not be a life and death matter (though studies do show that survival rates for cancer and other major illnesses are improved with social support), but it certainly affects one’s happiness and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition, and nurturance – or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal, or shaming.

Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it’s important to “hug the monkey” (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.

How?
Try to routinely get a basic sense of feeling cared about. Basically, imagine being in the presence of someone you know wishes you well; it could be a human, pet, or spiritual being, and in your life today or from your past; the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect as long as you matter to this person in some way, such as liking, appreciating, or loving you. Then, based on the fact that this person does care about you, open to feeling cared about in your body, heart, and mind. Savor this experience and really take it in. Help it sink down into you, all the way down into young, tender layers of your psyche . . . and really far down into those ancient primate parts in you and everyone else that desperately need to feel bonded with others, included in the band, recognized, and valued.

Next, get a sense of your own caring nature. Think of someone you naturally care for, and explore what caring feels like in your body, emotions, thoughts, and inclinations toward action. In the same way, explore related experiences, such as being warm, friendly, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, protective, acknowledging, or loving. Here too, really know and take in the sense of what it is like for you to “hug the monkey” in other people.

Now imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself that is involved with caring both for others – and for yourself. My own committee includes the plump fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, an internalized sense of my parents and others who’ve loved me, spiritual teachers, Gandalf, and tough-but-kind coaches on my journey through life.

Who (or what?!) is on your own committee? And how powerful is this committee in terms of caring for you compared to other forces inside your own mind? Since the brain is a giant network with many nodes, the psyche has many parts. These parts often coalesce into three well-known clusters: inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent. (Another way of describing these three clusters is: vulnerable self, attacker, protector.)

In most people, the inner nurturer-protector-encourager is much weaker than the inner critic-pusher-attacker. So we need to build up the caring committee by frequently taking in [link] experiences of feeling cared about – and then to call on and listen to this committee!

So – get a sense of parts within you that want to feel seen, included, appreciated, wanted, respected, liked, cherished, and loved. Everyone has these parts. They often feel young, soft, or vulnerable. As you open to hearing from them, notice any dismissal of them, or minimizing of their needs, or even disdain or shaming. Ask your caring committee to stick up for these parts, and to tell them their longings are normal and healthy.

Imagine your caring committee soothing very young parts of yourself … praising and delighting in older parts of you … offering perspective and wisdom about tough experiences you’ve had … reminding you of your truly good qualities … pulling for the expression of the best in you … hugging you, hugging those soft longing parts inside you, giving them what they need … and feeling down to the soft furry little sweet monkey inside you and every human being, holding and loving and hugging it.

And meanwhile, your young, yearning, vulnerable, or bruised parts – and even your inner monkey – can feel that they are receiving what they’ve always needed, what everyone needs: recognition, inclusion, respect, and love.

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