Every night since the attack on my home by right-wing Zionists, I’ve been saying a prayer of forgiveness for them. While the political meaning of that act, and of the demeaning of critics of Israel, will be explored more fully in the July/August issue of Tikkun, on the spiritual level it is very important to not let negativity, even terrorism or violence, get the upper hand by bringing us down to the same level of anger or hatred that motivates those who act violently or those who demean and attempt to delegitimate the critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
If we are to build a world of love, we have to constantly work against the impulse to respond to anger and hatred with our own angry or hateful response. So, every night, I work on forgiving those who have assaulted my home, those who publicly demean me or Tikkun or the NSP, and those who spread hatred against the many people in our world who legitimately critique the policies of the State of Israel toward Palestinians.
It was in this context that I thought I’d post some notes taken by therapist Linda Graham at a recent weekend retreat on forgiveness conducted by Jack Kornfield and Fred Luskin. Fred is the author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness and Jack is the author of The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, and After the Ecstasy, The Laundry (and teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California). Linda Graham, who took these notes, is a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.
Reflections on Forgiveness
1. Both Jack and Fred gave many examples of the universality of suffering, injustice, betrayal, both on an international scale, like the multi-generational hostility and strife in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, in Southeast Asia, in Ireland, in Africa, and on the deeply personal scale of blame-shame-built walls with the parents, partners, children we want to hold nearest and dearest. We hurt people and are hurt by people because we are people. Experiences of loss, betrayal, hurt are inevitable when human beings are caught in the human conditions of greed, hatred, ignorance. There is such poignancy to the struggle when we are caught ourselves in blame, resentment, bitterness. Our pain becomes encased in neural cement and we’re stuck. Forgiveness practice is a choice we make for ourselves to not perpetuate that suffering.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Both Jack and Fred agree that forgiveness is a process; it’s not a one-shot deal. It’s a daily and lifelong practice to move through layers and layers of hurt and grief and reopen the heart to compassion and kindness. In this sense, forgiveness is independent of content, i.e., it doesn’t so much matter who did what to you or who; it’s our response that is the practice. Blame-anger-hatred keep us physiologically aroused. When we feel we’re still in threat, it’s not safe to forgive.
Fred said that not forgiving, staying in bitterness, anger, hostility, is like drinking a cup of poison and waiting for the other person to die. Jack mentioned two prisoners of war being released to return home. One asked the other, “Have you forgiven our captors?” “I’ll NEVER forgive them!” the second one replied. “They still have you in prison then, don’t they?”
The choice is ours, and the responsibility to choose is ours, to create conditions for happiness or bitterness. Loving kindness and other practices outlined below regulate our bodies back to the open, compassionate state where it is possible to forgive.
“Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge, and dares forgive an injury.”
- E. H. Chapin
3. Jack and Fred offered similar understandings of what forgiveness is: the inner peace and wise perspective that allows us to keep our hearts open in the face of injustice, betrayal, harm. We are simply poisoning ourselves when we don’t. And what it is not: a bypass of condoning, pardoning, forgetting, false reconciliation, appeasement, sentimentality. Neither is forgiveness necessarily bringing to complete resolution every individual complaint or grievance, however legitimate. It’s a practice, daily and lifelong, to keep the heart open in the face of trying circumstances.
“Forgo your anger for a moment and save yourself a hundred days of trouble.”
- Chinese proverb
4. Both Jack and Fred anchor forgiveness practice in a deeply felt sense of our own goodness, our own innate capacities for wisdom and love, our Buddha Nature. (See Exercises below to access this felt sense.) To remember that we, and all beings, are “nobly born.” And that the capacity for kindness is as hardwired into our neural circuitry as the tendencies to contract in pain and suffering. This helps us bypass our body’s adrenalin reactions that fuel our sense of personal threat and drama, and allows us to reopen into a spacious calmness; from there we can forgive.
We consciously reflect on (or learn from research) the benefits of cultivating kindness, compassion, gratitude, equanimity in the face of sorrow, hurt, grief to support our forgiveness practice. All of these pro-social practices are Wise Effort: the path of choosing to end suffering, in all its forms, and to cultivate the wholesome in all its forms. Even if we don’t know how to forgive very well, we have compassion and forgive ourselves for lack of that skill. Forgiveness is the culmination of a long series of practices to open the heart.
5. Then we begin to cultivate a willingness to let go of our personal suffering, our personal drama, our well-rehearsed personal stories and identities of victimhood, our personal complaints and bitterness that create a state of mind and heart where kindness and forgiveness are biologically impossible. Those neural pathways of contraction and protection are well established. It’s so easy to go into complaining, criticism, contempt. We have to be willing to soften that neural cement. We have to stop adrenalizing to be safe enough to be kind. We have to set an intention to stop being in contention with the world, to stop projecting our disgruntlement onto the world, to give up resentment, bitterness, entitlement. Not to deny our pain, but not to linger. We’re not indifferent, but we’re not stuck in drama either. Understanding, compassion, grief, forgiveness are the open-hearted response to a human life’s vulnerability to change. The willingness, the intention, resets the compass of the heart so we can reclaim our larger self, our larger consciousness, our larger kindness that can open to compassion for ourselves. These practices put us back on the track of integrity, dignity, and possibility. There comes an awareness beyond self, and eventually a compassion for others who have acted in misguided or harmful ways.
“When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.”
- Catherine Ponder
6. Both Fred and Jack emphasized the necessity of honest grieving over harm experienced as we cultivate this willingness, this intention to practice forgiveness. The heart needs to feel its legitimate pain before it can be moved to let it go. Being stuck in blame can create a sense of victimhood, but honest grief work can help the underlying hurt, fear, and anger resolve and move through, making the practice of forgiveness digestible and workable.
“Let the pain be pain, not in the hope that it will vanish but in the faith that it will fit in, find its place in the shape of things, and be then not any less pain but true to form…. That’s what we’re looking for: not the end of a thing but the shape of it.”
- Albert Huffstickler
7. Forgiveness is a process that happens over time, layer by layer. Start practicing forgiveness where it’s easiest – your dog for tearing up the carpet or your child for spilling potato salad all over the kitchen floor. Yourself for losing your cool in rush hour traffic or forgetting to pay the phone bill on time. Then “broaden and build.” Practice forgiveness in more and more challenging situations or with more and more challenging people where the stakes get higher until you’re ready to tackle the “unforgiveable” with courage and care. Life is full of “forgiveness moments,” big and small, where we practice over and over again remaining open-hearted.
“You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
- Lewis B. Smedes
8. Begin doing a formal forgiveness practice (see Exercises below for Jack’s exquisite meditations on forgiving oneself, asking forgiveness from another, offering forgiveness to another. You can include forgiving life for things not going the way you want them to go, too.) In the Buddhist monasteries, monks practice forgiveness 300 times until it becomes a natural practice of the heart. Even if you do forgiveness practice only five minutes a day, do it every day, day after day. Once a day brings you to 300 times to establish the practice less than a year. Five minutes three times a day brings you there in a little less than three months.
“It is very easy to forgive others their mistakes; it takes more grit and gumption to forgive them for having witnessed our own.”
- Jessamyn West
9. Include all layers of processing experience in your forgiveness practice. When we feel something in our body, it feels so real to us “it must be true.” It can be hard to change that neural reactivity. Sometimes working in somatic-based trauma therapy is necessary to release bodily-held rage, hostility, defensiveness, or collapse into powerlessness. We do have to stop adrenalizing before we can feel safe enough to forgive.
Sometimes we have to learn new skills in experiencing and expressing the intense emotions that sometimes erupt as we focus on experiences that need our forgiveness. We learn to take responsibility for our emotional experience, having compassion for ourselves in moments of “there I go again.”
We give up all hope of a better past and patiently, perseveringly restructure our thoughts and belief systems, especially any lingering feeling like the universe revolves around us in an entitled way, or clinging to an identity as a victim. Forgiveness practice doesn’t rewrite history, but it does allow us to rewrite our story of our history. We can re-perceive ourselves as hero rather than victim for all the courage and resiliency it takes to learn and grow enough to forgive.
“The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”
- Alden Nowlan
10. Finally, our forgiveness practice shifts our perspectives. We begin to take things less personally. We see that my pain is part of the pain of all human beings, universally. We see that the suffering of every life is held in a larger consciousness that holds all the arising and falling away of all of existence. We begin to trust in something larger than our separate personal lives. We begin to see that forgiveness practice doesn’t necessarily end suffering, but it makes life livable. We see that forgiveness practice is a tremendous catalyst for growth and healing; we become a forgiving person. (Like becoming a loving, compassionate, open-hearted person.) We claim the undeniable goodness of our life.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
“Life without forgiveness is unbearable.”
- Jack Kornfield
“Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
- Viktor Frankl
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
- James Baldwin
“The person who betrayed you is sunning themselves on a beach in Hawaii and you’re knotted up in hatred. Who is suffering?”
- Jack Kornfield.
“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.”
- Bernard Meltzer
“Forgiveness and reconciliation are not just ethereal, spiritual, other-worldly activities. They have to do with the real world. They are realpolitik, because in a very real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future.”
- Desmond Tutu
For Someone Who Did You Wrong
Though its way is to strike
In a dumb rhythm,
Stroke upon stroke,
As though the heart
Were an anvil,
The hurt you sent
Had a mind of its own.
Something in you knew
Exactly how to shape it,
To hit the target,
Slipping into the heart
Through some wound-window
Left open since childhood.
While it struck outside,
It burrowed inside,
Made tunnels through
Every ground of confidence.
For days, it would lie still
Until a thought would start it.
Meanwhile, you forgot,
Went on with things
And never even knew
How that perfect
Shape of hurt
Still continued to work.
Now a new kindness
Seems to have entered time
And I can see how that hurt
Has schooled my heart
In a compassion I would
Otherwise have never learned.
I have begun to glimpse
The unexpected fruit
Your dark gift had planted
And I thank you
For your unknown work.
- John O’Donohue
To Bless the Space Between Us
Stories to Learn From
Last weekend’s seminar on forgiveness was a day of interweaving inspiring stories of exemplars of forgiveness like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela – free of violence in their own hearts, they could free a people, free a nation – and the poignancy of our own nitty-gritty struggles to forgive.
Jack told the story of the Dalai Lama who, when asked if he could ever forgive the Chinese for their military occupation of Tibet and systematic destruction of Tibetan monasteries and culture, replied, “They’ve already taken my country. Why should I let them have my mind, too?”
* * * * * * *
Jack told another story, well known in meditation circles, of a woman who attended the trial of a 14-year-old gang member who had murdered her teenage son in a drive-by shooting. As the boy was being taken out of the courtroom after sentencing, she coldly looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll kill you for what you’ve done.”
Several months later, the woman began visiting the boy in prison, taking him cigarettes or magazines, sitting and talking. Over the next few years she became a regular visitor for this young man who had no one else. As the time approached for him to be released, she asked where he was going to go, what he was going to do. No clue. Through a relative she lined up a job for him. Then proposed, “You don’t have anyone in this world to look after you. You killed my boy. I don’t have anyone at home to take care of. Why don’t you stay with me for a while and see how it works out?” The boy accepted. Eventually the woman decided to adopt him, saying, “I told you that day in court that I would kill you. Well, I have. The boy that killed my son no longer exists. He’s no longer alive on this earth. I’ve killed him by being kind. You couldn’t kill anyone now the way you did then. And now you can live with me in that boy’s place.”
* * * * * * *
When my brother stopped speaking to me for three years, I had my own struggle to understand what was going on with him, to keep my heart open as he forbade me to visit him in person, to send him the unacknowledged voicemails, letters, Christmas and birthday gifts until he was ready to reopen his heart. Not on the scale of China occupying Tibet or a mother forgiving her son’s murderer, but on the scale where many of us live and hurt and long every day.
I was calling my brother on Thanksgiving morning. I misunderstood the time we had agreed I would call and called him just as he was loading the car to take a full Thanksgiving dinner to his in-laws, not two hours before when he would have been home cooking. He was peeved at my mistake, and when I asked if he could not be so angry with me, he abruptly hung up the phone. I could sort things out a few minutes later with my sister-in-law; his feeling pressured; his feeling not important enough to me that I would remember when to call. The hurt my brother felt in that moment of – me shaming him for his anger? – locked him behind a stone wall of counter-rejection and hostility that lasted three years. Only when he suffered his second heart attack and his heart literally cracked open could he call me from the hospital and reconcile. My sorrow all those years was not knowing how to repair, only trying to understand his punishing anger from his point of view, forgiving myself of the pain I caused him and me for my mistake, grieving the many lost moments of laughter and support we had sustained over years of 2,000 miles between us, and patiently keeping my own heart open until his protective armoring softened.
Exercises to Practice Forgiveness
[Fred and Jack acknowledged there are outer forms of forgiveness practice like confession or making amends. Their day (and the exercises below) focused on inner practices.]
[I have found it is crucial to open to a place of kindness and love in our hearts first, before calling up the memories of hurt and betrayal we are trying to forgive. We simply need the container of kindness and compassion to hold the pain as we attempt this work.]
1. Fred’s guided visualization for dropping into a space of kindness and love.
Sit or lie down comfortably. [I add place one hand on your heart; the other on your belly. Relax your jaw and let the tip of your tongue touch the roof of your mouth, where the palate meets your teeth. The latter helps calm the chatter of your mind.] Breathe gently into your belly, slowly in and out. Breathe a sense of goodness into your belly. Breathe into your belly as though you were safe.
Now remember people or things in your life you are grateful for. Savor the gratefulness throughout your body. Remember moments of kindness in your life, when people have been kind to you, then when you have been kind to others. Savor the feeling of kindness throughout your body. Remember a moment of feeling loved and cherished by someone, then remember a moment of you loving and cherishing someone, even a beloved pet. Savor the feeling of love throughout your body.
Let yourself claim the goodness of your own self now. Let that open into a sense of the goodness of humanity. This is the place within that forgiveness comes from. States of kindness, compassion, good will. From here it becomes possible to forgive.
2. It is also necessary to become mindfully present to notice any unfinished business of the heart that still needs forgiving.
Sit comfortably, relaxing your body, allowing your attention to focus inward. Notice your feet on the floor, your seat on the chair or couch. Relax your eyes, your jaw, your throat. Focus your awareness on your natural breathing, gently in and out. Notice any place in your body that is still holding tension; any place in your body that is contracting, your jaw, your throat, your chest, your fists. Are there any words, images, thoughts that come up when you focus on the tension? If this tension had words, what would it say? Is there any unfinished business to attend to here? Allow whatever you’re noticing to be here, with interest and curiosity. You may wish to give it a name or label, and then return your awareness to the place of goodness inside you, then to your breath.
3. Once we’ve established a sense of loving kindness and a steady awareness of our experience in the moment, we can begin our forgiveness practice.
[As in loving kindness practice, sometimes it's easier to offer kindness to others than to ourselves; sometimes the reverse. I present Jack's meditations here in the order they were presented in the training, but I sometimes acknowledge ways I have hurt or harmed myself first before I ask forgiveness for ways I have hurt others. It works for me; please do what works for you.]
Jack’s 3 meditations on forgiveness:
Let yourself sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to be natural and easy. Let your body and mind relax. Breathing gently into the area of your heart, let yourself feel all the barriers you have erected and the emotions you have carried because you have not forgiven – not forgiven yourself, not forgiven others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. Breathing softly, begin reciting the following words, letting the images and feelings that come up grow deeper as you repeat them.
FORGIVENESS FROM OTHERS
There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, have betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.
Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others. See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret. Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say:
I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.
FORGIVENESS FOR YOURSELF:
Just as I have cause suffering to others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.
Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Repeat to yourself:
For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.
FORGIVENESS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE HURT OR HARMED YOU:
There are many ways I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly, in thought, word or deed.
We have been betrayed. Let yourself picture and remember the many ways this is true. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past. Now sense that you can release this burden of pain by gradually extending forgiveness as your heart is ready. Recite to yourself:
I remember the many ways others have hurt, wounded, or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart long enough. To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.
Let yourself gently repeat these three directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release; instead, you may experience again the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and the images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving kindness.
OTHER PRACTICES THAT SUPPORT FORGIVENESS:
Letting go, grieving, and equanimity are three additional practices that complement the work of forgiveness. Each offers a wise and simple form, a gracious language to encourage the heart to let go, to heal, and to come to rest. Let your own intuition guide you as to which of the meditations to practice. Stay with it as long as it serves you, then return when you are ready to the ongoing practice of forgiveness.
Excerpted from The Art of Forgiveness, Loving Kindness and Peace, by Jack Kornfield
4. Practice forgiveness in nature
As I’ve developed my own forgiveness practice, I’ve gravitated to practicing outdoors, where the spaciousness of open land and sky puts my grievances into a much larger perspective of the cycles of life and death, the seasons of growth, decay, rebirth. I have a special “tree of lamentation” I sit under when I honestly need to weep and wail, to do the deep grieving that is part of the forgiveness process. I have a pile of stones (cairn) on a local trail where I add stones (memories) of old hurts. And, one day I spontaneously decided I had had enough of some old baggage of grudge and decided to dump it all in a local lake. As soon as I did, symbolically, my whole being felt light, and ever since, when the old grumps rise up in my mind, I say, “No, that’s in the lake now,” and go on about my day.
Books, Websites, and Resources
The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace by Jack Kornfield, Bantam, 2008.
Beautifully simple, elegant, transformative meditations and commentary on forgiveness, grief, reconciliation, letting go, as well as lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, joy, equanimity, peace.
Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield, Bantam 2008.
Jack’s latest in a long series of best-selling books on Buddhist practice (A Path with Heart, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry) and the masterpiece of a life dedicated to spiritual practice and teaching. A very accessible exploration into the depth and breadth of Buddhist practices to heal, train, and transform the mind and heart, including a chapter on “Beyond Hatred to a Non-Contentious Heart”. “The Wise Heart offers an extraordinary journey from the roots of consciousness to the highest expression of human possibility.” Possibly one of the most illuminating books you could ever read in your whole life.
Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness by Fred Luskin, HarperCollins, 2003.
A guide to practical techniques (Changing the Channel, Breath of Thanks, Heart Focus, the HEAL method) for moving beyond expectations, disappointment, blame, grievances and taking things too personally to forgiveness and becoming a forgiving person.
Forgive For Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship by Fred Luskin, HarperCollins 2009.
The science, stages, and benefits of forgiveness to sustain and/save an intimate relationship.
Radical Forgiveness: Making Room for the Miracle by Colin Tipping, Global 13 Publications, 1998.
Written by a pioneer in the field of forgiveness, this book addresses in depth the psychological blocks to forgiveness, and offers tools to move from the archetype of victim to victor and from superficial to genuine forgiveness.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Puddle Dancer Press, 2005.
These distilled principles of training in nonviolent (compassionate) communication are used in communication trainings worldwide: observing the actions that are affecting our well-being, identifying and expressing feelings and needs, making and reflecting requests skillfully, with exercises in empathy, appreciation, anger management, setting boundaries. Somewhere on a continuum between Gandhi and Carl Rogers, Rosenberg offers another vocabulary for conflict resolution and forgiveness practices, personal or public, domestic or international.www.greatergoodscience.org