Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on October 9, 2016.
A little boy decides he wants to skip school. So he calls the elementary school office, and he tries to deepen his voice: “Donald Falk cannot go to school today because he is sick.” The woman on the other end of the phone asks: “To whom am I speaking?” The little boy says: “This is my father.”
That’s a cute lie, but often lies leave us feeling hurt and betrayed. When people lie to us, or mistreat us or take advantage of us, we’re likely to have a negative reaction. We’re likely to develop negative patterns of association with the individual who caused harm. And we sometimes feel the need to armor ourselves to keep from being manipulated or harmed in the future. When we armor ourselves, we are putting up defensive barriers that can include withdrawal and avoidance, a flight response, or aggressive behavior. Or maybe our language becomes defensive.
Fear, distrust, rejection, hate, and anger are all barriers to forgiveness. When we feel vulnerable, we may feel others will take advantage of us if we are not armored. Anger and armor do appear to protect us, though there is a price – we give up a chance for reconciliation and we stiffen our heart, our reactions, and our associations with the world.
Experiencing unresolved conflict means that we cannot have a complete experience of peace within ourselves. Perhaps you’ve heard of the stories of Japanese soldiers who refused to believe the war was over. Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese Army officer who fought in World War II and was a holdout who did not surrender in 1945. There were four of them acting independently in the Philippines. They discovered the leaflets that were air-dropped that explained that the war was over. They did not believe them. A year later they found a pamphlet that was signed by their Japanese general, ordering the surrender of any remaining Japanese troops. Again, they refused to believe it.
One by one the other three soldiers either left or were killed, so that Onoda was alone. In 1974, after Onoda spent nearly 30 years holding out in the Philippines, his former commander traveled from Japan to personally issue orders relieving him from duty. Talk about living with hate or the clench of unforgiveness inside your heart. There are real consequences for holding onto our hurts – we play out the cycles of that pain.
As human beings we are all likely to be hurt or harmed at some point. But when we are armored against others and the world, it is we who will suffer. There is suffering that comes when we push people out of our hearts.
Rumi states: Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Alan Wallace: a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, tells the following teaching story –
“Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, ‘You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?’ But just before you can catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumped into you actually is blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: ‘Are you hurt? Can I help you up?’
Sometimes our lives are like that – we react defensively to a situation without an understanding of the whole picture. When we clearly realize that ignorance is the source of disharmony and misery in the world, we can begin to open the door of wisdom and compassion.
Here’s another teaching story that explores our conditioning to react automatically:
Let’s say that you’ve been bitten by a dog, perhaps a recent event or an older memory that has left a scar. At any rate, you are aware that dogs can bite. You’re walking alone in the woods and you suddenly see a dog that is barking and growling at you. Your reflex, your reaction, may be to become quite defensive and either scared or angry at the dog. You might even be looking for a weapon to use against the dog for your own protection. Then you notice the dog has its leg caught in a trap. That observation shifts something in us, and we can feel compassion for the dog. It doesn’t change the fact that the dog can still bite us if we’re not careful. We don’t start condoning dog biting, but our heart does not hate the dog. When we see the whole situation it can transform our thinking so that we can feel compassion more easily.
Sometimes people may have their leg caught in a metaphoric trap that we haven’t seen. With insight we see the cause of their suffering. Of course, insight doesn’t excuse their behavior if they are growling and are a threat. Insight might give us the skillful means to refer the problem to someone with experience releasing traps. Using skillful means may still require that you protect yourself from being bitten, while at the same time feeling genuine compassion for the leg in the trap.
The compassion we generate is for ourselves as well as for others. We’re not free if we are living in resentment. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has this to say: forgiveness is understood as a way to end suffering, to bring dignity and harmony to our life. Forgiveness is fundamentally for our own sake, for our own mental health. It is a way to let go of the pain we carry.
This is illustrated by the story of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never.” “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.” For most people, the work of forgiveness is a process. Practicing forgiveness, we may go through stages of grief, rage, sorrow, fear, and confusion. As we let ourselves feel the pain we still hold, forgiveness comes as a relief. The outcome is a release for our own heart. Forgiveness acknowledges that no matter how much we may have suffered, we will not keep people out of our heart.
Now, I want to acknowledge that just letting go of blame, or anything else that we cling to as if for dear life, isn’t always so easy. There’s a joke about this. A man is getting chased by a tiger, and to escape goes over the side of a cliff and finds himself just hanging on to a root. The tiger is still above him, and below him are jagged rocks. He’s stuck, and says: “God help me, what should I do?” Then he hears a deep voice echoing from the clouds: “Just let go.” The man says: “God, is that you?” And God says: “Yes.” Then the man says: “Is there someone else I could talk to about this?”
Maybe advice from a four-year-old would be encouraging. I’ll quote from the blog Ravishingly: My friend David really really wanted to play Ninja Turtles and he just hit me in the nose, and then my nose started bleeding. He said “sorry” and the teacher said it was an accident. But I couldn’t forgive him because my nose was bleeding.
When your nose starts bleeding, you can’t forgive someone. But when my nose stopped bleeding I could forgive him.
When I was a kid, I realized that my parents didn’t always have great parenting skills. When I’d been wronged, I’d often hold a deep grudge because it was one of the only weapons I had to keep them at a distance. I was also aware, when I went to college, that my parents no longer had authority over me and it wasn’t necessary to hold a grudge any more – not in my present, and not regarding the past of my childhood. Knowing someone doesn’t actually hold power or authority over you is important to achieving personal integrity. Integrity makes forgiveness easier. I’m going to repeat that in a slightly different way. It’s easier to forgive someone when they don’t exercise authority over you or hold you hostage in some way. It’s important to claim your own authority.
What I’m going to say next is related to that: forgiving is not condoning what was done to us, forgiving is a movement to free your own heart from the squeeze of anger or hatred that binds you. You can let go of the “you are bad” feeling in your heart while at the same time learning skills and setting boundaries so that the bad thing that happened never happens again. Letting go of blame is an ongoing practice, a course you put yourself on, a practice of generosity toward ourselves and others.
It’s worth repeating that forgiving isn’t passive, we can still have strong boundaries. We can forgive, and still dedicate ourselves to making certain that harm does not happen again. Forgiving means keeping an open heart.
It’s worth noting that letting go of deep anger and tangled attachments will likely take time. When we’ve experienced trauma, letting go can become a life process. Sometimes we may need the assistance of skilled helpers. Accepting that we may have areas of vulnerability does not mean we are weak. On the contrary, it takes a cultivation of inner strength to hold our vulnerability and become warriors of compassion. Whether we are hurt, healed, or something in between, it is good practice to make a conscious and ongoing intention to honor and strengthen the kindness that lives in our hearts.
The practice of mindfulness is useful in the process of forgiveness and letting go of blame. Cultivating awareness can bring us into the spaciousness and grace that can be found in the present moment. We are drawing on the Power of the Knowing itself – a unified quality of Being. We are drawing on the identification with a larger and more spacious quality of mind. And while mindfulness is often practiced in a chair, it can be done just about anywhere. We can go for a walk or find a quiet place to reflect, and we don’t even need to call it mindfulness.
But there may be times when we feel stuck, overwhelmed, or too fatigued to deal with a difficulty through the practice of mindfulness or a walking substitute. Keeping your heart open can sometimes be challenging. So I’m going to suggest two additional strategies for finding a heart-felt pause – sanctuary and prayer.
I’ll start with prayer since that may have surprised a few of you. In the 1980s, I still had some Fundamentalist baggage with the word prayer. The prayers I grew up with were mostly prayers of petition – asking a tribal god for protection and assistance. Of course, you had to follow the rules or you were out. That doesn’t seem like prayer to me now. It seems more like pleading or bargaining.
Now I believe that prayer is a full-bodied invocation of gratitude, lamentation, or love. Prayer is a process of engagement that may inspire and motivate us to feel and act through a more generous sense of self. Prayer can be expressed as right action. Prayer can be discovered through an inspirational poem, quote, or song that brings you more fully into Harmony. Prayer can arise intuitively. Here is an actual prayer overheard from a 3-year-old (I think this is cute): “Our Father, Who does art in heaven, Harold is His name.” Perhaps we can think of prayer as a process of engaging an unselfish and innocent part of ourselves that seeks Harmony with Being.
Here’s a short quote from Rumi: I am in the House of Mercy, and my heart is a place of prayer. We could easily substitute the word forgiveness for prayer in that quote: I am in the House of Mercy, and my heart is a place of forgiveness.
Sanctuary is drawing on a connection to whatever is sacred or nourishing for you – a special place in Nature, love, a mythic being or teacher… anything that can support you in times of stress. We can’t always physically transport ourselves to our favorite sanctuary – say the Grand Canyon or a Zen garden. But if we can imagine ourselves immersed and filled with the spirit of a place, we can experience a genuine source of support. Sanctuary can be invoked and experienced through visualization, using our imagination to connect with a healing environment. Your sanctuary can be fluid, combining real and imaginal landscapes and architecture.
If you feel a connection to an actual or mythic person or a being that loves you unconditionally – invite them along. Choose a figure or being that resonates for you. It could be Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus, a deceased ancestor, a dear friend, or a beloved pet. You can imagine yourself in a special place with spirited beings that love and inform you, linking you to your inner resources. Our roots go deep! Sanctuary is not simple escapism – though it can be a useful and heartfelt way to disconnect from pain. Treat sanctuary like meditation, something done intentionally.
We can use awareness, sanctuary, or prayer to nourish and strengthen our hearts. Then, we will be in a more centered place to mindfully recognize our thoughts and feelings. Recognition of blame and aversive judgment is the first step to beginning the process of forgiveness, the first step to living more fully. So, we can begin with recognition or insight, and then we can attend to that insight, and intend to follow a path or process toward open-hearted forgiveness.
Whatever skills and resources we feel inspired to draw on to live in a more open-hearted way, please remember that we need not feel alone. The power of community can support us when we are together or apart. Bonds of friendship, love, and connection can be invoked through association and imagination, supporting us through difficult times.
Of course, making direct connections with our friends and community and being present, fully present, with another person is a gesture of healing.
Now, if you’d like, let’s take a contemplative moment to check in with ourselves and see if we can do a little exploration into blame or attachment to insult. In order to practice forgiveness we first need to see if we are attaching blame, or if we are holding on to a story about an insult or difficulty. Sometimes it will be obvious. If it feels overwhelming, let’s not go there right now. Overwhelming or traumatic blame often requires ongoing support: clearly identified skillful means. Let’s look for the more garden-variety blame, which might be more common than we realize.
At the sound of the bell, the suggestion is to explore the ways we judge or project blame onto others or hold on to an insult. Of course, you can also choose to use this time to simply relax.
Bell: Let’s just check in for a moment and see if we are carrying subtle or not so subtle blame or judgment.
Can we attend to whatever we discover within and decide to befriend the process of healing? Expansive heart begins with genuine compassion for the human condition in both ourselves and others.
Forgiving is a process that we attend to over time. Offer kindness, and see what happens. End Bell
A hospice doctor, Ira Byock, wrote a book about the four things that matter most to people who are dying. These four things can be summed up in the four phrases: ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’. At the end of the day, these might be the most powerful things we that we can say to each other. Why wait for the end of the day? I invite you to explore and embody the qualities of gratitude, forgiveness of self and others, and love throughout the activities of your life. Through the process of cultivating a forgiving heart we may find it increasingly possible to embrace Harmony both inside and outside ourselves, and to find genuine moments of freedom.
Thank you for these moments together