Forgiveness

“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
― M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans (a novel)

Forgiveness is related to gratitude, but more complicated. To cultivate gratitude, we only have to direct our attention to blessings being received. To forgive, we have to see that our pain is part of damage on a broader scale.

The Stedman quote above comes from the mouth of a character who is violently persecuted for being German in Australia during WWII. The clear choice not to take the persecution personally comes as a blast of counter-intuitive fresh air. It is true that to resent requires constantly refreshing our own anger, and that we do have the choice to give that up.

We are inclined to see the world in terms of aggressors and victims, but there is another view. The following quote is taken from a recent column by Washington Post advisor Carolyn Hax (edited by me):

Q: [Having been raped,] how is forgiveness actually possible?

A: Carolyn Hax – To my mind, forgiveness is not about absolving. I see it more as a matter of bringing a broader understanding to what makes people do bad things to each other. So, the perpetrator did something bad, it was that person’s choice and fault–but who comes to such an awful choice without something horribly wrong in that person’s life?

So your pain is not isolated, it’s part of a continuum of pain and of human frailty–and in that is where, speaking only for myself here, I find the stirrings of forgiveness. It’s the start of a decision, counterintuitively, not to bundle up your anger at the perpetrator as part of your own pain, but instead to release the perp to his own pain: “This wasn’t about me, I was just unlucky to be there–this was about a broken person who must live the consequences of that brokenness.” That in turn releases you to be about you, and healing.

The change in perspective that Carolyn Hax describes may be very difficult to arrive at on one’s own. Any trauma deserves to be treated with the help of a skilled and caring therapist.

The “truth and reconciliation” process that was undertaken in South Africa started with the confessions of the aggressors. Healing came from confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is rare that the full process can be realized; perpetrators of harm rarely confess and ask for forgiveness. And yet we would do well to attempt to free ourselves from the prison of resentment.

A good working principle is that everyone is doing the best they can with their currently available resources and understandings. Many of us do things that we think will make us happier or better off and then discover that they don’t. We can’t know what goes on inside other beings.

Many of the hurts we carry with us are small ones. Perhaps we can start by forgiving the momentary annoyances and perceived slights. While trying to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, we can come back to gratitude for what we have, fortified by forgiveness as needed.

 

 

 

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Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Relationships

Gratitude

It was Thanksgiving Day in the USA last week. Though some families may have endured stressful political discussions, the general theme of gratitude has held center stage. It’s an important moment for all of us to pause and count our blessings, to bring our attention to the many things that are going right and the many gifts we receive as a matter of course.

From Andrew Olendzki:
The Pali words for gratitude and thankfulness are kataññutā and kataveditā, which mean “the quality (-tā) of knowing (-ññu; -vedi) what has been done (kata-).”

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is said to be rooted in the early Pilgrims “knowing what had been done” for them, both by their God who had provided a successful harvest, and by their native American neighbors who did so much to help them survive their first year in Plymouth.

Gratitude is a wholesome state of mind, and the Buddha encouraged its cultivation:
“We will be grateful and thankful,
and will not overlook even
the smallest favor done to us.”
-Such is how one is to practice.
Saṃyutta Nikāya 21.12

Gratitude practice has become common in some circles. This involves keeping a gratitude diary and making note each day of at least one thing for which one is grateful. It could be the courtesy shown by most drivers on the road, the inspiration of a teacher (recent or long ago), a phone call or email from a friend, the fact of having a friend at all, the smile of a stranger, the song of a bird. This tends to act as a corrective to our tendency to see most vividly what is wrong or disordered.

One discourteous or dangerous driver obscures our vision of all the kind and responsible ones. A brusque word from an acquaintance can start a cascade of complaints that drowns out all the nice things that people say to us and do for us. If we regularly turn our attention to how many things go smoothly for us, we’ll still notice the disruptions in that flow, but we won’t make them the dominant events.

Being thankful for the gifts or blessings that we regularly receive can make our hearts more peaceful. It can make our own generosity flow more freely. There is no down side to practicing gratitude.

What follows is wisdom from a variety of sources on the subject of gratitude:

complaints-gratitude-jpg

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

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An open letter

This is a guest post. The author is a dear Dharma friend, a long-time practitioner and leader, Lloyd. His letter (below) is in response to a proposal recommending actions that Dharma communities and followers might take in response to the political turmoil in the USA post-election.

Dear Friends:

It’s clear that David’s sangha member is well intended in his suggestion, and I fully agree with the need for Insight Meditation sanghas around the country to be ready to more publicly witness our core values and take non-dual social action when it seems wise and needed.  Healing must begin, and we should certainly be a visible part of it.

However, there seem to be some assumptions imbedded in this particular suggestion that for me are a little problematic.  The first is that the sanghas are uniformly and monolithically politically progressive.  This is not necessarily the case at the Insight Meditation Community of Denver.  In addition to being at least a little bit ethnically diverse and a little more with regard to age, we are also at least somewhat politically diverse, including some libertarians and others I’m pretty sure may have voted for Mr. Trump.  My/our goal at the sangha is to make sure it’s a safe space for everyone, including those who do not necessarily regard themselves as politically progressive.

The second, related problem I have with the suggestion is that it assumes an “otherness” of those people who are unlike “us”.  As members of our sangha help those facing food emergencies, homeless vets, and others in need, I don’t know whether it’s occurred to us to wonder how those we are helping voted in the election, if they voted at all.  Chances are that a good many of them who did vote voted to blow up the system, which is what Mr. Trump promised to do.

For that reason, in our sangha we don’t dwell much on political positions or views in our talks and discussions, although we do stay keenly focused on issues of human rights, and on helping those most in need.  Personally, I think the most important form of witnessing Insight Meditation sanghas can do at this point in time is to stand up for and stand with those who are suddenly quite vulnerable in our society.  And one important way to do this is to come into alliance with other faith communities in other religious traditions.

For instance, a few months ago when there were bomb threats and some vandalism at the Colorado Muslim Society compound, faith communities joined together to form a symbolic protective cordon around their mosque, as a means of signaling that we are with them.  And the UU church where we meet and to which we contribute dana [financial gifts] periodically provided sanctuary for several months to a Mexican immigrant who’d lived in the US for years, and was about to be torn from his family and forcibly deported without adequate due process.

I don’t think we should assume that everyone who voted for Trump shares his bigoted views of ethnic and religious minority groups.  We might in fact eventually find that there is some common ground on human rights issues.

A few weeks after the Democratic National Convention, I heard an interview on NPR with Khazir Khan, the Muslim American immigrant whose Army officer son died protecting his troops in Afghanistan, and who gave such a powerful speech at the convention.  The interviewer asked him if he knew that he and his wife would be subjected to the kind of backlash they suffered after his speech, from insults by candidate Trump himself to death threats and vicious hate speech.  He said he did, and then he added this: “At the end of my life, when I stand before my Maker, I need to be able to say that when the time came, I chose to comfort the frightened heart”.

As Buddha Dharma sanghas, in my view some of the most important work we can do going forward into an uncertain and perhaps politically dangerous future is to comfort the frightened heart of the most vulnerable among us.  It is not easy work, and sometimes requires more than a little courage.  And in my experience both as a combat veteran and spiritual seeker, courage is not an absence of fear (which is fearlessness).  Courage is reposing in faith and equanimity in the presence of fear.

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Filed under Compassion, General, Harmlessness, Relationships

Mental and emotional stress

Since we’ve been talking about maintaining balance, here are some further thoughts:

There seem to be two ways humans suffer when we haven’t yet learned to live from open-hearted awareness. Being overly mental is one way: trying to avoid feelings by being “rational”, “objective”, and focused on worldly achievements. The suffering here arises from detachment, dissociation, and living trapped in our heads. Being overly emotional is the second way we suffer: by taking everything “personally” and by feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, and/or depressed. This happens when we’re sensitive and vulnerable but lacking the support of awake awareness, as our ego-identified system is too small to handle full emotional life. (From p.192 in the book Shift Into Freedom by Loch Kelly)

Some of us tend towards the overly mental, with the mistaken notion that it can protect us from getting hurt, or simply because we don’t trust emotion, including our own. People who are overly emotional seem to get more than the usual amount of suffering. It might be useful to think of ourselves and the people we know and consider whether we/they lean heavily in one of these directions or the other. Remember we are all both rational and emotional, and here we’re talking about being overly mental or overly emotional as causes of suffering.

We find our way out of suffering by identifying the sources of our discomfort. This is not a theoretical exercise, but a way of looking into our direct experience, seeking to understand. Once we start to see what is causing us pain, then what? What do we do next? As with many mindfulness exercises, we keep looking! We study in detail where it hurts and what sequence of events seems to be propelling the pain, now, and now, and now. We investigate until the connection between cause and effect becomes so clear to us that we can no longer sustain the clinging (to whatever it is) that is causing the pain. This may take a lot of patience, but the reward is there for the persistent investigator.

When we look for the balance Loch Kelly is talking about, we have to look both within ourselves and at our circumstances. In our experience, the two are not separate. Situations call forth responses, and our responses affect our situation. Both can be modified, and altering one alters the other. This is how progress is made.

If you are interested in finding out more about awake awareness and open-hearted awareness, I recommend Loch Kelly’s book, Shift Into Freedom. The language is sometimes different from a traditional Theravadan approach, but there is nothing in Kelly’s integrated, accessible teaching that contradicts the Buddha’s teaching or my own experience.

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Even-mindedness

Some of us have been thrown off balance by recent political events. Emotions may roil; we may feel threatened, frustrated, or confused, without having a sensible channel for responding. This seems the perfect time to introduce the upekkhā pāramī, often translated as equanimity.

The only way out is through a different approach: one of developing equanimity as self-acceptance. Cultivating this is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind. No need to struggle: ‘I can be with this.’

I like to define this process as having three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next. (from chapter Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī, in the book Pāramī by Ajahn Sucitto)

There’s comfort and wisdom to be found in Ajahn Sucitto’s words. Upekkhā is (1) one of the perfections, (2) one of the four sublime states (Brahma-viharas), and (3) a description of the fourth jhana (a deep meditative state). And yet the way to practice with this principle is very simple: pay full, empathic attention and reject nothing in our experience. It may seem paradoxical, but we CAN fully accept and acknowledge our confusion, our fear, our hatred, our greed, our generosity, kindness, delight, and all the rest – and see that they all come and go. They rise and they pass away; they are ownerless states of body and mind, common to all humans. Our empathy for the discomfort these states sometimes cause can be extended to ourselves and to other people.

What makes even-mindedness so difficult in practice is that it is subtle. Our fear, greed, lust, and hatred are not subtle. When we feel these emotions, we usually identify with them strongly, and this might make us feel “more alive”. I recall a moment in my early 20’s when this thought took hold of me: “I LOVE these strong feelings, the good and the bad, and I have a sense that they will become less urgent as I get older. This time in my life is the peak of emotional intensity (for me); it will never be this compelling again.” This youthful perspective may not be a universal principle, but it is unlikely to be unique.

I’ve found that just noticing the intensity of strong emotion weakens its ability to take me over. After long and painful experience of being driven by feelings and desires, I’ve come to appreciate the deep peace of letting go. As I’m more and more able to simply “be with this” (whatever it is), life is less stressful and more joyful.

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Filed under Mindfulness, Perfections, Sublime states

Mindfulness and thinking

One way we can catch ourselves being less honest and loving than we want to be is to keep an eye on our feelings. Another way is to try to track our thinking.

The Blessed One said, “Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort. – from MN19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html)

Sorting ALL of our thoughts would be exhausting and not practical. But most of our thinking doesn’t even get our attention. It’s just there in the background – repetitive, inconsequential,  and undirected. But when an action is imminent, usually there is some thought process behind it, and we can then discern whether it is in the general direction of:

  1. Sensual desire or aversion, ill will, or harmfulness; or
  2. Renunciation, non-ill will, or harmlessness.

If there is an intention to buy something we don’t need (and by tomorrow won’t want), this is a thought imbued with sensual desire. If there is an intention to put someone down or push them out of our way, there’s a thought imbued with ill will. Harmfulness or hurtfulness could be standing someone up or doing something to or for them that we know they won’t appreciate.

When we have a generous, kind, or compassionate thought, we can recognize it because it feels warm and good. It makes us happy to think and act in these ways. Harmlessness, non-ill will, and renunciation can be known through this process.

It’s not very complicated; it’s an invitation to bring awareness to our intentional thoughts, our thoughts that may lead to action.

Sometimes it’s easier to do this reflection after an action has been taken. What made us do that particular thing?  What were we thinking? Sometimes our good intentions go awry, and we can reflect on what we failed to take into consideration that caused our intention to be misunderstood or our action to be unsuccessful.

This is just one way in which to maintain mindfulness throughout the day. We can watch our intentions as they rise, come to the surface of consciousness, and what results come from those intentions. As a wise friend once said, “Listen to yourself!”, which in this case means “observe yourself”. Sometimes we’re trying so hard to create an impression that we lose track of our intentions and actions. We can reel in our attention and keep it close to home, close to our bodies and minds. In this way, mindfulness is strengthened.

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Election Day

It’s election day in the USA, and there is tension in the air. Leunig is an Australian cartoonist who sometimes leans towards the misanthropic. I share this cartoon to propose that we find a better way in the future.

sound-of-democracy-leunig

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