forgiveness

Forgiveness and the myth of time

We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up over things we did wrong in the past, or that we think that we did wrong. And so we all need to forgive ourselves.

When we don’t forgive ourselves we often wish we could change the past. We replay past events over and over again, sometimes reliving events as they actually happened and blaming ourselves, and sometimes imagining that things went a different way. Then we end up regretting that this alternative reality didn’t actually happen.

And I think there’s a kind of myth about time that’s worth examining.

The Idea, “I Should Have Done Better”

I want to approach this myth from a direction that might seem a bit unusual. I’m going to start with talking about golf. Don’t worry if you’re not a sports fan. I’m not a sports fan! I don’t even play golf. So, no golf experience is necessary. But I think we can all imagine playing golf or practicing some other skill.

For now,  just imagine that you’re a pretty good golf player. You’ve lined yourself up to take a short putt — something you’ve done many times before. You almost always get the ball in the hole with such shots because you’re a good golfer. But on this particular occasion, for whatever reason, the ball does not go in the hole. Perhaps you get close. But, as they say, no cigar.

Now, in sinking a putt we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables. Every time you make the same movement with your body it’s slightly different. However much you practice, there’s an unavoidable imprecision in your body movements and therefore in the movement of your putter. There are other conditions that you can’t control — deformations of the putting green, how wet or dry the grass is , how hard or soft the ground is, changing wind conditions, how focused you are, whether you’re feeling stressed, for example. Those are just some of the variables involved in making a putt.

So you missed the putt for whatever reason. Maybe you would sink it 99 percent of the time, but this is one of the one percent times. And you can say to yourself, “Damn, I should have got that putt!” and you might feel really angry with yourself. You might get really down on yourself and be very critical about yourself, but the thing is you missed the putt.

And you keep thinking, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.” The thought obsesses you.

Could You Have Acted Differently?

Now, you don’t have the ability to go back in time and step back into the exactly same circumstances and conditions. In fact if you literally did go back in time and were in exactly the same place, and exactly the same situation, under exactly the same conditions, what would happen? You would miss the putt again, because the conditions that existed at that time were the conditions that existed at that time!

Now you might think, “Yes, but if I could go back in time I’d have the knowledge that I was about to miss the putt, and I’d do things differently.” But then you’re not in exactly the same conditions. You’re in a different set of conditions. And that, in a world where we are unable to project our present-moment consciousness back into the past, is a set of conditions that can never have existed.

So the the idea that you you should have sunk the putt is an abstraction. it’s referring to a different kind of world than the world that we actually live in.

Applying This to Non-Sports Things

So let’s apply this reflection to other things in our lives.

Let’s say you lost your temper with someone, and you said some things that were unpleasant. And afterwards you regret that, which is fine by the way, since regret is perfectly natural and ethical thing to do. We can regret something without beating ourselves us. It’s beating ourselves up that is the problem.

But the thing is, if you look back at that particular event, if you could see all of the conditions that were pertaining at that particular time—your expectations, and your stress levels, and all the different things that you were juggling in your mind at that particular point, and your physiological states, depending on how tired you were what your blood sugar level was, and so on—if you could see all of those conditions you would realize that it was inevitable in that moment that you were going to lose your temper.

You were doing the best you could with the resources that were available to you.  In fact, you did the only thing that you could with the resources available to you. Now, you can say, “Well, if I’d had a bit more mindfulness then I could have acted better.” But in that moment you didn’t have more mindfulness! You had as much mindfulness as you had! The idea that you could have done something differently is again a kind of an abstraction. It assumes that our present-moment state of mind can somehow affect our past state of mind, which is of course not possible.

Solutions Are In the Present, Not the Past

The myth about time that we need to see through is that the solution to painful regrets lies in the past. It doesn’t. The solution to our suffering lies right here, in the present.

The important thing is now. The regret you have about past unskillful actions is happening now. The learning you’re having, drawn from the lessons of the past., is happening now. The intention to act differently in the future is happening now.

And those things are happening now. So, in the present moment:

  • Let the past be the past.
  • Regret what you did wrong, which is just another way of saying “realize that what you did wrong was wrong.”
  • Accept that you did the best you could with the resources available.
  • Learn from your past mistakes.
  • Intend to act differently in the future.

You can of course opt to use the present moment for beating yourself up, but self-punishment, calling yourself names, telling yourself you’re a bad person, and so on are all unskillful, unhelpful, and painful ways of acting. They’re a waste of this precious moment we have in the present to act in ways that promote our long-term happiness and well-being.

This Isn’t Determinism

Now, it might sound like I’m being deterministic—that we have no choice and therefore no responsibility. That’s not what I’m saying, as I’ll explain

The ability to choose courses of action, including the choice not to do something that hurts us and other people, is always potentially available to us, but practically speaking it often isn’t, because we frequently lack mindfulness. Without mindfulness, it’s as if our lives are predetermined by conditions. When we have mindfulness, life becomes more creative. We begin to be able to make choices that prevent suffering happen to ourselves or others.

Normally we’re not very mindful. I remember reading about a study once that showed that what we do and say is something like 80 percent predictable. Normally our habits simply roll on, without much mindful intervention.

An Analogy for Mindfulness, and Its Lack

Imagine a heavy ball rolling down a slope toward something precious, like a kitten. The ball is going to hit the kitten (which is, for the sake of argument, too young to move out of the way). That’s life without mindfulness. Our habitual impulses roll on, like heavy balls on a slope. Sometimes bad things happen as a result.

Now, imagine there’s someone observing the ball rolling down the slope. They see what’s about to happen, and with the touch of their hand the ball is diverted on a different course and the kitten remains untouched. That’s life with mindfulness (or with sufficient mindfulness to take action, which is the important thing).

It’s just an analogy. Don’t overthink it!

In any given moment of life, you either have enough mindfulness to act skillfully, or you don’t. When there’s no mindfulness present, it’s like there’s no one there to nudge the heavy ball.

And any moment in the past when you acted badly was a moment when you didn’t have sufficient mindfulness or wisdom to do otherwise.

Mindfulness = Wiggle Room

Mindfulness gives us wiggle-room. And if we want to live happier lives, and to have fewer regrets, then we should make it a goal to develop more mindfulness. Because more mindfulness gives us more wiggle-room.

With the little bit of mindfulness we have at present, we recognize that life has more potential for happiness when we’re mindful. So we set up conditions so that we can develop even more mindfulness. We meditate, for example. Or we commit ourselves to living according to ethical principles, like Buddhism’s five precepts. Or we join a community of other people who also intend to cultivate mindfulness. Or we go on a retreat where we can intensively train in mindfulness. Or we study by reading books and listening to talks on mindfulness so that we understand better what it is we’re trying to achieve. Or we create mindfulness triggers for ourselves. Or, all of the above.

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And right now, in the present moment, as we look back on things that we regret doing (or not doing) we recognize that self-blame is a painful waste of time. We recognize the value of accepting that we did what we did, and we did the best we could with the resources available to us at that time, and we in fact couldn’t have done otherwise. And in this present moment we can ask how we might act differently in the future.

The key to forgiveness is seeing that the solution to our present suffering is not in the past. It’s here, now. You can’t go back and change the past. But you can bring about change right now. And that’s going to benefit you—and other people—in the future.

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Five ways to forgive yourself and let go of painful regret

I’ve seen many people suffering because they can’t forgive themselves. Maybe they hurt someone in the past, or allowed someone to get hurt, or missed an opportunity, or made a bad choice. And they torture themselves about it.

Sometimes people hold onto these regrets—and the pain they cause—for years or decades, and have great difficulty letting go of them. And regret festers. It’s like a wound that never heals, and that, like an abscess,  poisons our entire being. It can turn into self-hatred—the belief that we, in our very core, are bad or unworthy.

Now there’s no way to instantly forgive ourselves. It’s a process that can take years. But I’d like to suggest a few things that can help with this important practice.

1. Know that you did the best you could

The past of course is past, and we all know we can’t really go back and change things, but we can end up replaying events over and over in our minds, wishing we’d made different choices.

When I recently told someone who was suffering because of regrets, ‘You did the best she could,” she pulled a face. I said to her, “You don’t believe me, do you?” She said I was right. “So you think that if you had a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion, things would have turned out different, right?” Right. “But did you actually have, at that moment, a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion?” Well, no. “So you did what you could with the resources you had available to you.”

That’s all we can ever do.

This perspective is deeply counter-intuitive for many people. We’re wedded to the idea that we could, had things been different, have acted differently. And it’s true that had we been a different person we would have done something different. But we weren’t, and we didn’t. So obsessing about an alternative version of the past is pointless and a source of pain.

We can talk about having free will, or the ability to choose, but in any given moment we can only choose from the limited options available to us. And at times our very ability to choose can be severely constrained. There are certain situations (panic, extreme stress) when the mind has great difficulty considering alternatives to pre-programmed courses of action: defense, aggression, retreat, paralysis. Our options can be extremely limited. Right now we might not be able to completely forgive ourselves, but we can take steps in that direction.

With practice we can learn to develop our mindfulness and our ability to stay in (or come back to) balance so that we have more flexibility in how we behave. We can increase the options available to us. But practice is something we do now, not in the past. And it affects how we act in the future and not, again, in the past. The past is past. You did the best you could with the resources you had at hand. The best you can do right now is to accept that what happened happened, and resolve to do better in the future.

2. Do the right thing — now

When we’re caught up in regret and self-blame we’re focused on wanting to do the right thing — but in the past, which is the one time period we can have absolutely no effect on.

So focus on what you can do right, right now. This is the only moment you can directly affect. And how you relate to this moment determines your future happiness and wellbeing.

Self-hatred is toxic. It undermines us. It makes us miserable. It weakens us. The right thing to do right now is to bring as much mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom into this moment as you possibly can. To the best of your present ability, let these qualities manifest in you. You’ll be a better person as a result — not in the past, but in this moment and in moments yet to come.

3. Be a friend to yourself

If you were witnessing a dear friend torturing themselves over past actions, what would you do? Would you tell them they must be a terrible person because of the mistakes they made? Probably not. Would you tell them they’re broken? I doubt it.

You’d probably suggest to them that it’s unhelpful that they give themselves such a hard time. You’d probably tell them they were making themselves suffer unnecessarily. You’d probably suggest that they be gentle on themselves, and that they let go. You’d probably tell them about the good qualities you see in them, and suggest that their mistakes don’t define them.

In other words you’d suggest that they relate to their past in a more wholesome way. So why not give the same advice to yourself now? Be a friend to yourself.

4. Recognize that you need to forgive yourself in order to forgive others

The way we relate to ourselves tends to form the pattern of how we relate to others. If we have difficultly being empathetic and kind to ourselves we probably won’t do those things with other people either. If we judge ourselves harshly we’ll probably judge others too.

And the converse is true. If we want to be better to the people around us that we love — if we want to love them better — we need to work on loving ourselves better. Taking care of yourself, you take care of others.

5. Love your regret

In Buddhist psychology, regret is a skillful volition. It’s a positive thing! Regret is what’s skillful in us encountering an ethical slip. Regret is a sign that you want to be a better person. It’s a sign that you have ethical values.

When we don’t understand this, we tend to freak out. When we experience regret we take it as a sign that we’ve failed, or that we’re bad. Because regret, although skillful, is a painful experience. And it’s natural for us to assume that when we’re in pain, there’s something wrong.

The important thing is to learn to deal with the pain of regret in a way that doesn’t cause us more pain. So we can understand that regret is a natural and important part of being a human with ethical values. We can be mindful of, and accept, the pain of regret. And we can be kind, supportive, and compassionate to the part of ourselves that’s suffering. In other words, we can practice self-compassion.

So these are a number of things you can bear in mind to help you let go of shame, regret, and self-blame. Again, there’s no magic bullet. You’ll make progress a little at a time as you gain insights into the pointless painfulness of self-blame and as you learn how to bring your focus more into the present moment.

And if you’re interested in learning more about forgiveness and other spiritual practices, please check out Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, which will give you access to many of my online course, including Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Letting Go.

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Breaking the cycle of resentment

Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

When we call to mind some resentment from the past, we often assume that it’s the other person who’s making us suffer. And perhaps they did hurt us at some point. But unless they’re still in our lives doing the same thing that hurt us before, right now it’s our own thought processes that are causing us pain.

There’s a 5th century text by a monk called Buddhaghosa, “The Path of Purification,” that discusses reflecting on this very thing as a way of getting rid of resentment. He suggests we ask ourselves why, if another person has hurt us, should we then hurt ourselves?

So when resentful thoughts come into the mind, we can be aware that we’re causing ourselves pain. Now our problem with a person we have a grievance about is that they caused us pain, and yet here we are doing the same thing to ourselves!

Reflecting this way is probably not going to stop the whole process of resentment straight away. But it lessens the stream of resentful thoughts enough that we can start to think straight again.

Implicit in the practice that Buddhaghosa is suggesting is that we become aware of the way that feelings and thoughts affect each other. When we have resentful thoughts, this triggers feelings of pain, hurt, anxiety, etc. And those feelings in turn trigger further resentful thoughts. So our resentment becomes cyclical, which is one reason it becomes such a problem for us.

The Buddha talked about this in terms of two arrows. He said that being hurt is like being shot by an arrow. That’s obviously painful, but the stream of thoughts that springs up in reaction to our pain hurts us even more. He said that it’s like being shot by yet another arrow. Actually, each thought is an arrow. And because we can have a thousand resentful thoughts in reaction to being hurt, we often fire many more arrows at ourselves than the other person ever did.

Buddhaghosa offers some other reflections as well. He points out that in your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness. So why, he says, should we not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable?

He also suggests that if another person has done something we disapprove of, then we should reflect on why we are doing something (like getting angry and resentful) that we would also disapprove of them doing? We should hold ourselves to the same standard we hold other people to. He’s suggesting that we practice integrity.

Buddhaghosa further points out that if someone wants to hurt you, why give them satisfaction by joining in? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself.

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

I find that a very useful and important practice is to notice where thoughts appear to come from, which you’ll probably find is up in your head, and where feelings arise, which is probably down in the body, mainly around the heart and the gut.

Once you’re aware of this separation, you can more easily see the dynamic that’s in operation between those two parts of our being. You can see how a thought affects how you feel — for example causing you to be afraid or feel hurt or despondent — and how those feelings can affect how you think — provoking you to have further resentful thoughts.

When we do this we can start to see the whole cycle in operation.

Now lovingkindness practice is very important here, because we can find ourselves becoming aware of the cycle of resentment, and start criticizing ourselves. In practicing lovingkindness, however, we’re learning how to be more supportive, gentle, and understanding toward ourselves. So we can recognize that we’ve been caught up in a cycle of resentment. We can recognize the pain of knowing that we cause ourselves suffering. And we can offer ourselves kindness: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be free from suffering.”

None of these practices I’ve mentioned is a quick fix, but they help us to soften around our resentment, and this in turn helps us to let go and be at peace.

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Stepping into an “enemy’s” shoes

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness is to recognize that the other person’s thoughts, speech, and actions are the result of causes and conditions. This might sound rather abstract, but please bear with me.

We’re all born with genetic and epigenetic predispositions toward certain kinds of behavioral traits. Most of us know that our genes predispose us to be more confident, aggressive or fearful; gregarious, clingy or aloof, and so on. Fewer people are aware that experiences our parents and grandparents have had (and even the food they’ve eaten) can affect the way our genes express themselves right now.

And then we are all subject to conditioning early in childhood. The presence or absence of nurturing, and the kinds of behavioral modeling we’re exposed to, profoundly shape the very structure of our brains, and thus the way we feel, think, and act.

And we’re all subject to cultural conditioning that shapes the way we see the world.

These forms of conditioning affect the kinds of choices we make, and thus what happens to us in life. Some of what happens to us in life may change us in positive ways, but sometimes the effects are to reinforce our early conditioning. So someone who’s afraid of intimacy because of childhood betrayals may inadvertently choose to be with people who don’t care about their feelings or wellbeing. An aggressive person will tend to seek out conflict.

It’s being aware of all this that I mean when I talk about stepping into the shoes of an “enemy.”

Take anyone you get into conflict with for any reason. It might be a colleague at work who routinely dismisses your suggestions, or a spouse who is often so absorbed in something else that they forget to greet you when you come home, or a child who picks fights with their siblings and drives you crazy.

Now consider that this person has been conditioned since before birth to behave in certain ways, that their brains have been profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences as well as events later in life. That their beliefs and values have similarly been shaped by genetics and life experiences. That it may be very difficult, even impossible, for them to do things you might want them to do, like be more trusting, be less aggressive, cooperate more, be more logical or more emotionally expressive, and so on.

The contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

So imagine you had been born with the brain and genes of the person you’re having difficult with. Imagine you’d had the same (inevitably faulty) parenting, early childhood experiences, cultural conditioning, education, and life experiences. In all likelihood you’d act exactly as they do.

Tolle points out that this realization that a person is a bundle of conditions, and that if you were subject to the same conditions you’d think and act as they do, leads to forgiveness, compassion, and peace. And he’s right. It’s also true that recognizing our own conditioning leads to self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and peace.

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“We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” Voltaire

In this artwork by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov, which was on display at last year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada, two adults sit back to back. Both are in pain. Both are curled up, turned in upon themselves, absorbed in their own suffering. But in trying to deal with their hurt in this way, each must turn away from the other.

Within each of the adults, though, children stand upright. They are open. They face one another. They reach out, uniting through touch. It’s not obvious in this picture, but the children are translucent and radiant. At night they glow, symbolizing the light of love.

This isn’t an allegory along the lines of “adults bad, children good.” The adults are the children, and the children are the adults. Both the man/boy and the woman/girl are simultaneously dealing with their own hurt, and responding to the other. The children are alive to their own tenderness and vulnerability, and also that of their partner. Their suffering unites rather than divides them.

I think there’s always a part of us that wants to reconnect when we’ve hurt another person, or been hurt by them. There’s fear and pride and hostility too, which may stop us from reaching out, but there’s also that deep need to return to a state of harmony. There’s a need to forgive and to let go of grievances. There are these two tendencies, and we choose between separateness or connection.

An awareness of our own “frailty and error” will help us choose to connect. When we think we’re perfect, it’s hard for us to tolerate imperfection in others, and so we become hard and judgmental. When we forget that we make mistakes, have flaws, and fall into bad habits, we become intolerant of those things in other people. We need to connect with our own vulnerability if we are to forgive others.

“What is tolerance? It is the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly; this is the first law of nature.”

« Qu’est-ce que la Tolérance ? c’est l’apanage de l’humanité. Nous sommes tous paitris de faiblesse et d’erreurs ; pardonnons nous réciproquement nos sottises, c’est la premier lois de la nature ».

Voltaire“What is tolerance?” Voltaire rhetorically asks in his “Philosophical Dictionary.” “It is, he replies to himself, “the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” To Voltaire, tolerance is the “first law” of human nature. Without it there is no connection.

Often, of course, we do not connect because we cling to our grievances. Our response to hurt can be to separate, and so the part of us that longs for connection is ignored. We polarize against ourselves and against the other, perpetuating conflict and hurt.

Less often, we identify more closely with the desire to forgive, and ignore the part of us that is hurt. This course of action is scarcely less destructive, since it leads to painful and damaging self-sacrifice.

In order admit to our frailty and error— in order to forgive—we need to learn to take care of the part of us that is hurting—with genuine compassion rather than indulgent wallowing—and as we address our own suffering in this way, see that the other too is hurting, and reach out to them. Through connecting with our own frailty, we learn to care for the frailty in others. In dealing with our own suffering, mindfully and compassionately, we naturally turn toward others.

They too, just like us, are hurting. They too, just like us, need compassion. Their being, just like ours, is woven through with “frailty and error.” Only if we recognize that can we let go or resentment and forgive each other.

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Mindfulness at work can reduce retaliation after unfair treatment

PRWEB: Practicing mindfulness at work can reduce retaliation by employees who feel treated unfairly.

Mindful employees are less angry, less likely to dwell on the mistreatment and less likely to retaliate, according to a new study by PhD student Erin Cooke Long and Professor Michael S. Christian of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School,

“When employees think they have an unfair boss or colleague or the organization is unfair, they might be tempted to seek retribution or act in ways to ‘even the score,’” said Cooke Long. “Mindfulness helps them short-circuits emotions and negative thoughts so that they can respond more constructively.”

Their study is the first to test the role of mindfulness in the relationship between workplace injustice and retaliation.

“It demonstrates that a trainable mindset helps diffuse negative reactions by employees, said Christian. “We also show that both emotions and thoughts affect our behaviors when we believe we’ve been treated unfairly at work.”
Mindfulness – nonjudgmental attention and awareness of what is happening in present-moment experiences – has important workplace implications.

“It helps employees to overcome knee-jerk reactions to unfairness at work, said Cooke Long. “When treated unfairly, people tend to feel angry and dwell on the unfair treatment, which can trigger acts of retaliation or attempts to even the score. More mindful people are less likely to ‘take things personally’ and therefore less likely to retaliate.”

“Our work introduces mindfulness as a malleable psychological factor – one that managers and employers can cultivate in their employees to reduce unproductive reactions when they feel unjustly treated,” said Christian. “Delivering mindfulness training can help employees control their thoughts, emotions and, ultimately, behavior at work.”
Their findings are based on two studies: An intervention study using brief mindfulness training in the lab and with a diverse sample of employees who recounted experiences with unfairness at work. Their paper “Mindfulness Buffers Retaliatory Responses to Injustice: A Regulatory Approach” will be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and is available online.

Mindfulness matters at work in more ways than we think,” said Cooke Long. “It is not just a skill that promotes health – it also helps us behave positively and helps us avoid behaviors that are short-sighted and can damage relationships, reputations and career.”

Promoting mindfulness is a proactive option for organizations to reduce retaliation at work, said Christian. “Mindfulness training is not difficult for novices to learn and use.”

“Employers can enhance employee mindfulness through mindfulness education,” said Cooke Long, “by creating an organizational culture that recognizes the merits of mindfulness and by conducting large-scale interventions.”

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Eight steps to forgiveness

Forgiveness is a tricky topic.

First, it has two distinct meanings:

  • To give up resentment or anger
  • To pardon an offense; to stop seeking punishment or recompense

Here, I am going to focus on the first meaning, which is broad enough to include situations where you have not let someone off the hook morally or legally, but you still want to come to peace about whatever happened. Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.

Second, there is sometimes the fear that if you forgive people, that means you approve of their behavior (like giving them a free pass for wrongdoing). Actually, you can both view an action as morally reprehensible and no longer be angry at the person who did it. You could continue to feel sad at the impacts on you and others – and to take action to make sure it never happens again – but you no longer feel aggrieved, reproachful, or vengeful.

Third, forgiveness can seem lofty, like it only applies to big things, like crimes or adultery. But most forgiving is for the small bruises of daily life, when others let you down, thwart or hassle you, or just rub you the wrong way.

Fourth, paradoxically, in my experience, the person who gains the most from forgiveness is usually the one who does the forgiving. One reason is that we often forgive people who never know we’ve forgiven them; much of the time they never knew we felt wronged in the first place! Further, consider two situations: in one, someone has a grudge against you but then forgives you; in the other situation, you have a grudge against someone but then let it go. Which situation takes more of a weight off of your heart? Generally it’s the second one, since you take your own heart wherever you go.

Fundamentally, forgiveness frees you from the tangles of anger and retribution, and from preoccupations with the past or with the running case in your mind about the person you’re mad at. It shifts your sense of self from a passive one in which bad things happen to you, to one in which you are active in changing your own attitudes: you’re a hammer now, no longer a nail. It widens your view to see the truth of the many, many things that make people act as they do, placing whatever happened in context, in a larger whole.

And most profoundly, as you forgive yourself – which can coincide with serious corrections in your own thoughts, words, and deeds – your own deep and natural goodness is increasingly revealed.

How?

  1. As best you can, take care of yourself and those you care for. Protect yourself against ongoing or potential harms. Do what you can to repair the damage done to you. Keep making your life a good one.
  2. Ask for support. We are intensely, viscerally social animals. It is much easier to forgive your trespassers after others bear witness to the ways you’ve been mistreated. (This point also speaks to the importance of bearing witness to harms done to others, whether it is the impact of a teenager’s coldness on your mate, or the impacts of religious prejudice on millions of people.)
  3. Honor the wound. Try not to be overwhelmed, but open to the shock, hurt, sense of injustice, anger, or other aspects of the experience. Allow the thoughts and feelings and related desires to have breathing room, and to ebb and flow over time with their own organic rhythms. Forgiveness is not about shutting down your feelings; opening to the experience in a big space of mindful awareness is an aid to forgiveness.
  4. Check your story. Watch out for exaggerating how awful, significant, or unforgivable the incident was. Be careful about assuming intent; with modern life, most of us are pretty stressed and scatterbrained much of the time; maybe you unfortunately just bumped into someone else’s bad day. Put the event in perspective: was it really that big a deal, given all the other good things about the person who upset you? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t.
  5. Appreciate the value of forgiveness. Ask yourself: what does my grievance, my resentment, cost me? Cost others I care about? What would it be like to lay those burdens down?
  6. See the big picture. Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream from the person who hurt you, like his or her life and childhood, parents, finances, temperament, health, mental state just before whatever happened, etc.
  7. Try not to take wounds so personally. There’s an old saying: each day wounds, and the last one kills. We all get wounded. This doesn’t mean making yourself a target or letting wrongdoers off the hook, but it does mean recognizing that the price of being alive includes some inevitable pain – and the risk of serious injury in one form or another. It’s not personal. It’s life. We don’t need to feel offended by it.
  8. Help yourself come to peace. Accept that the past is fixed and will not change; the bad thing will never not have happened. Disengage your mind from your story, narrative, “case” about the events. Steer clear of people who fan the flames of outrage. Focus on the good things in your life, on gratitude. It’s bad enough that people have harmed you; don’t add insult to injury by getting caught up with them inside your own head; for example, they may have gotten away with some of your money, but don’t also give them your mind.
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Don’t beat yourself up

Most people know their less than wonderful qualities, such as too much ambition (or too little), a weakness for wine or cookies, something of a temper, or an annoying tendency to rattle on about pet interests. We usually know when we make mistakes, get the facts wrong, could be more skillful, or deserve to feel remorseful.

Some people err on the side of denying or defending these faults ( a word I use broadly here). But most people go to the other extreme, repeatedly criticizing themselves in the foreground of awareness, or having a background sense of guilt, unworthiness, and low confidence.

It’s one thing to call yourself to task for a fault, try to understand what caused it, resolve to correct it, act accordingly, and move on. This is psychologically healthy and morally accountable. It’s another matter entirely to grind on yourself, to lambaste your own character, to fasten on the negative and ignore the good in you, to find yourself wanting – in other words, to beat up yourself. This excessive inner criticism tears you down instead of building your strengths; it’s stressful and thus wears on your mood, health, and longevity.

Nor does beating up yourself help others. Most of the time, they don’t even know you’re doing it, and if they do, they usually wish you’d stop it. Harsh self-criticism can also be a way to avoid feeling genuine remorse, taking responsibility, making amends for the past, and doing the hard work of preventing the fault in the future.

Further, the charges and scorn we throw at ourselves are often based on nasty scoldings, shamings, rejections, and humiliations experienced as a child: bad enough that they did this to you back then, and even worse that you’re doing it to yourself today.

How?

Pick a small fault – such as being a few minutes late, interrupting, or having too much dessert – and then try on two approaches about it. First, talk to yourself about it like a supportive but no-nonsense friend, coach, teacher, or therapist. Notice what this feels like, and what the results are for you. Let’s call this the encouraging approach. Second, talk to yourself about it like an alarmed and intense critic – maybe like your dad, big sister, or a minister or teacher talked to you. What’s this approach feel like, and what are its results?

Let the differences between approaches sink in. How do you feel inside when you’re “listening” to each one? What’s your sense of the influences in your life that have created each approach? What are the distortions or fixations on the negative in the critical approach?

Let a real conviction form as to which approach is better for you – and a real resolve to truly use the one that’s best for you.

Then, when you find a fault in yourself – no need to go looking, they appear on their own! – really try to use the encouraging approach. Name the fault to yourself and admit the facts of it unreservedly. Open to any appropriate remorse. Commit to skillful corrections for the future.

And then take a big breath and very deliberately name to yourself three strengths or virtues you have. Let the sense of them, and of your natural goodness, sink in.

And then take another big breath and move on.

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A Buddhist’s perspective on biblical ways to love

I just read a list of ways to show love and I was inspired to write this article including a Buddhist’s perspective of ways to carry out the biblical suggestions on the list.

Ten ways to show people you love them:

  1. Listen without interrupting. (Proverbs 18) – When someone is speaking, the most loving thing we can do is listen. And, if we are really listening, we are not thinking of how to respond or how to get our point across or asking questions or saying anything. We are simply listening to hear and understand what the person is saying. So, the next time you are listening to someone, wait until the person is finished and then respond.
  2. Speak without accusing. (James 1:19) – We all have times with our partners, family members and friends when we disagree, feel disappointed, feel hurt or get angry. When someone accuses us of doing something, we can respond honestly, without blaming or accusing them, by gently speaking from our own experience including: how we felt, what we heard and how we responded. Whenever we accuse or blame someone, they feel defensive and communication is blocked.
  3. Give without sparing. (Proverbs 21:26) – A friend of mine suggested “Always follow through on an impulse of generosity”. I love this idea and put it into practice as often as possible. Yesterday I was selling tote bags and jewelry at a Crafts Fair. A young woman, with two young children, was at a table next to mine. She came to see my jewelry and found a necklace she liked. She told me she would love the necklace but she works at a Child Care Center and cannot wear jewelry to work. She went back to her table where she was selling things her students made so they could take the proceeds and purchase holiday gifts for children who otherwise wouldn’t have them. I put the necklace she liked in a box and gave it to her and told her I would like her to have it. We were both very happy. At the end of the Crafts Fair, she came back to my table with a box, filled with goodies to make a gingerbread house and offered it to me. I accepted her gift and agreed with her when she said “After all, it’s all about creating community.”
  4. Pray without ceasing. (Colossians 1:9) At times in our lives when we feel overwhelmed, uninspired, exhausted or hopeless, the best we can do is to meditate or pray.
  5. Answer without arguing. (Proverbs 17:1) Recently I received an email from a friend (Cindy) who told me she heard from a friend (Janet) who was upset because they had not gotten together for a long time. Janet has a relationship that is on again, off again and Cindy hears from her when the relationship is in the “off again” mode. Janet expects Cindy to be available when Janet wants to get together. Cindy loves Janet but feels Janet takes advantage of their friendship. Cindy wrote to Janet and expressed her feelings. Janet got defensive and argued her case. Cindy refused to enter into an argument and although they didn’t come to an agreement, Cindy left the door open for further communication. When two people argue, it is unlikely they will find a resolution.
  6. Share without pretending. (Ephesians 4:15) Real sharing comes from the heart, without pretense of giving something because it is expected or given with strings attached.
  7. Enjoy without complaint. (Philippians 2:14) Real enjoyment comes when we are wholeheartedly in the present moment. When we have a tendency to find fault with or complain about things, we stop ourselves from enjoying life.
  8. Trust without wavering. (Corinthians 13:7) Many people grow up in situations where they learn not to trust people. This lack of trust can become a habit, a way of protecting ourselves, but it also interferes with closeness with others. When we are aware that we lack trust, it is important to make a resolution to learn to trust again, not blindly, but with wisdom and compassion for ourselves and others.
  9. Forgive without punishing. (Colossians 3:13) People will disappoint us and we will forgive them and when we do, the forgiveness should come without conditions or punishment.
  10. Promise without forgetting. (Proverbs 13:12) It is so important to follow through with our promises so that we are trustworthy and dependable.
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26/11: Survivors return with forgiveness in heart

The last time US-based spiritual guru Charles Cannon and his followers were in Mumbai for a meditation programme at the Trident, they were “rudely interrupted by violent fundamentalism”.

Two years later Cannon is back to the city he “loves and remembers” along with 12 of his disciples who lived to tell the terrible tale of 26/11.

The group, which has been advocating the “rehabilitation and education” of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab instead of the death penalty, will hold a commemorative event at the Trident on Friday. They will also be launching the Indian chapter of One Life Alliance, a non-profit organisation that “responds with compassion to acts of terror”.

Read the rest of this article…

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