forgiveness

Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

Also see:

We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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Four spiritual love languages

Ai-generated images of the Buddha and a nun, in a colorful style that looks like a painting.

Yesterday on Mastodon, which is the only social media site I use at the moment besides the private online community space I host for Wildmind’s sponsors, someone shared a link to a “love languages” quiz.

I’d heard of this concept of love languages before. The blurb on the official website, based on the best-selling book by Dr. Gary Chapman, says,

The premise of The 5 Love Languages® book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.

The basic idea is that we don’t all have the same ways of expressing love to each other, and therefore we don’t always recognize when someone is showing us love, or understand how to let them feel loved. And that fits with my experience.

For example, if my partner’s way of showing me love is giving small gifts, but I don’t value material possessions and in fact see them as annoying clutter, I might not feel that she intends to show love when she gives me some tchotchke or other. There’s a mismatch in how we interpret the action of giving.

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Conversely, if my partner wants me to show affection with touch, but I’m not a particularly physical person, then she may not feel that she’s being shown love when I give her praise, even though I might consider that to be a clear expression of my love for her. If I offer help, but the other person interprets this as their competence being called into question, then again there’s a mismatch. It is indeed very much as if we were speaking different languages.

I took the quiz, and was told at the end that there were five love languages:

  • Quality Time™
  • Words of Affirmation™
  • Physical Touch™
  • Acts of Service™
  • Receiving Gifts™

I learned that my preferred “languages” were the first three in the list.

(And yes, the quiz included those oddly obsessive trademark signs, although hopefully we’re allowed to talk about things like “quality time” without getting sued.)

When I reflected on my own experience of being in loving relation to others, it seemed to me that the most profound expressions of love were not included in the five languages offered above. So I thought I’d say a few words about other love languages.

My intention isn’t at all to criticize Chapman’s work, but to offer a wider and deeper perspective on communicating love, for those who might find it helpful.

1. Looking With Love

Looking with love and being looked at with love are profound forms of communication. As Jan Chozen Bays wrote in her wonderful book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” in a chapter called Loving Eyes: “We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?”

Not only do we know how to look with loving eyes, but we know what it’s like to be looked at lovingly. It’s one of the most important communications that goes on in loving relationships, whether between partners, or parents and children, or friends.

Looking with loving eyes has become an important part of the way I practice and teach lovingkindness practice. But it’s something we can do anytime.

Although looking with love plays an important part in showing love, it doesn’t fit into the five-fold schema of the love languages. However, it seems to me to be a love language in its own right. And it’s another place where mismatches in communication styles can take place. Some people are more sensitive to loving looks than others. Some people express love through their eyes more than others.

2. Giving Honesty and Showing Vulnerability

Like everyone, I have bad habits. I get irritable at times, for example. When I’ve behaved badly like that I try to apologize as quickly as possible — often within moments. I usually try to explain what was going on in my being as the irritability arose — “I was stressed and tired, I misinterpreted what you said, old conditioning from childhood traumas was triggered,” and so on. I often say she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. I do these things as an expression of love.

And she is very good herself at doing the same time, letting me know what led to her acting in unhelpful ways. She too does this as an expression of love.

This, to me, is one of the most profound displays of love we can offer. Giving honesty and showing vulnerability involves a great deal of trust. It too is a kind of love language — Look, I love you enough that I will take this risk!  — yet it doesn’t seem to fit at all in the five love languages schema.

There can be mismatches in language. Some people don’t like apologizing, because they think it makes them look weak, and they’ll see another person’s apologies as a sign of submission. Some people can’t receive expressions of vulnerability because their first instinct is to try to “fix” things by making suggestions, rather than listening empathetically.

3. Showing Patience and Forgiveness

The expressions of love that I most appreciate from my partner are when she is patient with me and when she forgives me. When she does those things I really know I’m loved.

When we accept each other as imperfect, and forgive each others’ missteps, we give each other permission to be ourselves, which is an enormous gift. We see ourselves and each other as works-in-progress, which liberates us both from being afraid we’ll never change and from having to pretend we’re perfect. And we also know that the other person is working on their stuff, which offers immense reassurance.

Patience and forgiveness are also languages through which we show love.

There could be mismatches here, too. One person might show patience and forgiveness as an act of love, while the other person takes it as a sign of having got away with something; they aren’t able to reciprocate with the humility and gratefulness that should accompany being offered forgiveness and so can’t benefit from it. Some people even see conflict as a sign of love, and think that patience is equivalent to not caring — If they really loved me they’d be angry. Some people fear being forgiving because they think it will encourage bad behavior, and so they resort to punishing, resentful behaviors, never letting the other person forget that they’ve transgressed.

4. Sharing the Path

The most powerful way I know for us to connect lovingly with each other is for us to talk about our lives and our relationships as a spiritual practice. This means sharing what we understand love to be, sharing the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, what our hopes and fears are, and in every way letting ourselves be known not just as a partner, but as a human being struggling our way through life.

It means sharing what we see our life’s purpose to be, and sharing how the relationship we have with the other person — and I’m thinking of partners here, in the main, but also some dear friendships — fits into that purpose.

This may be the deepest love language of all.

Through it, we come to see the other person in a deep way, and to see ourselves more clearly as well. We see the other person as a being who is on a spiritual journey. And we see ourselves in the same way. Sharing the path involves opening up in a deep way. It takes a lot of trust, as well as a shared commitment to growth.  Two people cannot share their paths unless they are both walking a path.

When we share in this way we become clearer about what matters most in our lives. We see ourselves in a very different way from our ordinary view of ourselves as beings who work and do chores and pay bills and relax in front of the TV in order to recuperate from all that.

Sharing the path in this way can lead to a profound sense of transcendence, where we no longer see ourselves and the other person as entirely separate, and where, even, our sense of self becomes tenuous. It is in fact a form of spiritual practice in its own right, as are the other three spiritual love languages I’ve described.

Mismatches here might arise when one person sees the point of such discussions as establishing who is “right” — who has the best philosophy, the most incisive insights, and so on. These kinds of mismatches are particularly painful, because what’s being shared and rejected is so central and important to who we are.

Four spiritual love languages

It’s possible that all this is contained in Chapman’s teaching on love languages — I haven’t read the book — but I saw not even the merest hint of it in the questions I was asked, which were all along the lines of, “It’s more meaningful for me when (a) my partner gives me a gift, or (b) my partner doesn’t check their phone when talking to me.”

It’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack spiritual depth. Then again, not having read Chapman’s book, it may be I’m over-simplifying his approach.

Anyway, as someone who cares about the quality of my loving relationships, and who falteringly works at being a better friend, parent, and partner, I wanted to share a little of what I regard as important where it comes to communicating love.

These four spiritual love languages are areas where we need to learn to speak in ways that others who communicate differently can understand. And we need to learn to listen too, so that we can decipher others’ languages and realize that we are loved, and learn to respond to them, so that the other feels loved too.

Are there other things you would consider “love languages” that aren’t in Chapman’s book or in this article? Why not tell us about them in the comments below?

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“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

Also see:

Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

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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.

See Also:

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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Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As a bit of a quotation stickler, I feel compelled to point out that there’s no evidence she actually used those words. She did however express the core idea that feeling snubbed is something we do to ourselves.

Even if she never said the words in the quote, it’s certainly true that a lot of the time we make ourselves unhappy by making ourselves feel inferior to others. And this usually involves taking things personally.

Taking things personally means that we see things as being about us when they’re really about the other person.

Reacting to Being Snubbed

One time when I worked in Community Education in Scotland I was heading to a training course with Kate, a colleague of mine. Neither of us drove, so we took the train, which involved a bit of walking at the other end. As it happened, we weren’t entirely sure where we were heading, and so Kate suggested that I ask a pedestrian who was walking on the other side of the road. I dashed across and started following him.

As I got closer I said “Excuse me.” The pedestrian ignored me and kept on walking. I said “Excuse me!” again, but this time louder. Again he ignored me. By this time I was starting to get mad. How rude, I thought,  to ignore someone in this way! How dare he ignore me? Who does this guy think he is!

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I actually had to catch up with the man before I could get him to pay attention to me. At which point I discovered he was completely deaf! It turned out that he was very friendly, and he gave us directions the building where the training course was being held. I felt very embarrassed at having taken another person’s disability personally.

I assumed that this man’s lack of response was an act of rudeness he was directing specifically at me. But it wasn’t about me at all. His not acknowledging my hails was simply because he couldn’t hear me.

Not Reacting to Being Snubbed

In a contrasting example, the other day as I left the building where I live, a woman was heading in the opposite direction. I said “Good morning” to her as I passed. All I got in response was a startled gaze.

Now I could have taken this personally. And in fact I could sense that part of me wanted to. But I very quickly realized that she probably didn’t reply because I hadn’t greeted her until I was right in front of her. Quite possibly she was distracted and didn’t hear me. Or maybe she was startled and didn’t have time to reply before I’d gone by. Perhaps she was trying to work out if she was supposed to know me.

This brings us to the practice of “don’t-know mind.” Don’t know mind is when we accept that we don’t know something. Being comfortable with not knowing, we don’t rush to create a story that will fill the void.

I simply don’t know what was going on with the woman who didn’t say hello to me. But there’s no reason for me to make up a story that her behavior was about me personally. Her behavior was to do with what was going on in her life. It wasn’t about me at all.

It’s About Them, Not You

Even if someone directs anger or criticism against you, you don’t have to take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or a bad week.  Perhaps they are having a bad life!  It may be that you’re just the person who happened to be near them when they had an outburst.

So just reminding yourself of the phrase, “It’s about them, not about me.” This can help you to take things less personally. You can say those words to yourself when you realize you’re freaking out and becoming reactive. The words “It’s not personal” can also help.

Victims of Our Own Thoughts

Often, when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, we run through a very rapid set of thoughts, something like this:

  • That person treated me rudely.
  • Therefore they don’t respect me.
  • Therefore they don’t think I’m worthy of respect.
  • Therefore they think I’m worthless.
  • Therefore I don’t matter to others.

And so you feel unhappy, because believing you don’t matter is unpleasant. This process of generating narratives that make us feel inferior is called the hindrance of doubt. It’s also traditionally referred to in Buddhism as “inferiority conceit.” Normally we think of conceit as involving a belief in our superiority, but in Buddhism any belief that we are superior, inferior, or even equal to another person is called conceit.

Displacing Reactive Thoughts With Compassion

When someone behaves toward us in a way that triggers thoughts of our inferiority, one antidote is to consider that they are suffering. This is a constant factor in all bad behavior. If the other person is suffering, and doesn’t have the self-compassion or mindfulness to deal with that, then they’ll tend to act out in ways that hurt others.

By considering that the other person is suffering we’re directing our attention away from our own self-preoccupation. There’s less mental processing power available for us to run through our usual self-punishing thinking — the chain of rapid-fire thoughts (like those I outlined above) that end with us feeling miserable.

I mentioned that when someone didn’t reply to my “Good morning,” I could sense my reactive thought-patterns waiting to be activated. But in this case they stayed dormant, and so I didn’t cause myself unnecessary suffering. The reason was that I had diverted my attention to what was going on with her; I considered the possibility that she was suffering, because I had startled or confused her. Because that’s the direction my thoughts went in, they weren’t able to go in the direction of taking things personally.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion, then, help us to stop taking things personally so that we can stop freaking out and instead be calmer and happier.

This post is adapted from materials in Wildmind’s online course, “How to Stop Freaking Out.” You can learn more about how to access our courses here.

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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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Seeing yourself with loving eyes

Father cherishing a newborn baby

A lot of people have difficulty wishing themselves well, even in lovingkindness meditation. Here’s an approach that might help.

Imagine that you’ve been transported back in time, and you have the opportunity to hold yourself moments after your own birth. How would it be to cradle that tiny body in your hands, to see this small being, newly emerged into the world, so full of potential?

What would you want for this tiny version of yourself? I’d imagine you’d want him or her to grow up healthy and happy, to have the resilience to deal with life’s difficulties, and to be a kind and ethical person.

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What would you feel? Love? Protectiveness? Joy? Care? Awe?

Would you have any anger or resentment against this newborn you? I presume not. Any blame? I doubt it.

You don’t have to time-travel to have this experience. This is what it can be like to have self-compassion and to be kind toward yourself. This is what it can be like to hold your own being in awareness, and to regard it with care, tenderness, and appreciation, to accept yourself as you are, to see yourself as newborn in every moment, to want nothing but the best for yourself.

Next time you feel hurt, or unsure, or anxious, or ashamed, try imagining that the hurt part of you is like a tiny baby that’s in need of reassurance. Give yourself loving attention. Hold yourself with tenderness, with kindness.

When we relate to ourselves in this way, it’s easier to regard others too in a similarly compassionate and kindly way. Self-compassion is not selfish—it’s the first step in being genuinely compassionate to all beings.

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