What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not just about the other. It's really for the beauty of your soul. It's for your capacity to fulfill your life. Forgiveness is the capacity to let go, release the suffering, sorrows, burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead choose the mystery of love. Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love. As the Bhagavad Gita says, "If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive."
With forgiveness, we are unwilling to attack or wish harm to anyone, including ourselves. And without forgiveness, life would be unbearable. It's hard to imagine a world without forgiveness because we would be chained to the suffering of the past and have only to repeat it over and over again. There would be no release.
One: Understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not condoning; it's not a papering over; it's not for the other person; it's not sentimental.
Two: Sense the suffering in yourself, of still holding onto this lack of forgiveness for yourself or another. Start to feel that it's not compassionate, that you have this great suffering that's not in your own best interest. So you sense the weight of not forgiving.
Three: Reflect on the benefits of a loving heart. [Buddhist texts say]: Your dreams become sweeter, you wake up more easily, men and women will love you, angels and devils will love you. If you lose things, they will be returned. People will welcome you everywhere when you are forgiving and loving. Your thoughts become pleasant. Animals will sense this and love you. Elephants will bow as you go by—try it at the zoo!
Four: Discover that it is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering. This one is a big one. We are so devoted to our suffering, focusing on the trauma and the betrayal of "what happened to me." OK, it happened. It was horrible. But is that what defines you? "Live in joy," says the Buddha. Look at the Dali Lama, who bears the weight of the oppression in Tibet and the loss of his culture, and yet he's also a very happy and joyful person. He says, "They have taken so much. They have destroyed temples, burned our texts, disrobed our monks and nuns, limited our culture and destroyed it in so many ways. Why should I also let them take my joy and peace of mind?"
Five: Understand that forgiveness is a process. There's a story of a man who wrote to the IRS, "I haven't been able to sleep knowing that I cheated on my taxes. Since I failed to disclose my earnings last year on my return fully, I've enclosed a bank check for $2,000. If I still can't sleep, I'll send the rest." It's a training, it's a process, layer by layer—that is how the body and the psyche work.
Six: Set your intention. There is a whole complex and profound teaching in Buddhist psychology about the power of both short-term and long-term intention. When you set your intention, it sets the compass of your heart and your psyche. By having that intention, you make obstacles surmountable because you know where you are going, whether it is in business, a relationship, a love affair, a creative activity, or in the work of the heart. Setting your intention is important and powerful.
Seven: Learn the inner and outer forms of forgiveness. There are meditation practices for the inner forms, but there are also certain kinds of confessions and making amends for the outer forms.
Eight: Start the easiest way, with whatever opens your heart. Maybe it's your dog, and perhaps it's the Dali Lama, and perhaps it's your child, which is the thing or person that you most love and can forgive. Then you bring in someone a little more difficult to forgive. Only when the heart is all the way open do you take on something challenging.
Nine: Be willing to grieve. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has spelled out, grief consists of bargaining, loss, fear, and anger. You have to be willing to go through this process in some honorable way, as I'm sure Nelson Mandela did. Indeed, he has described how [before he could forgive his captors] he was outraged and angry and hurt and all the things that anyone would feel. So be willing to grieve and then to let go.
Ten: Forgiveness includes all the dimensions of our life. Forgiveness is the work of the body. It's the work of the emotions. It's work of the mind. And it's interpersonal work done through our relationships.
Eleven: Forgiveness involves a shift of identity. There is in us an undying capacity for love and freedom that is untouched by what happens to you. To come back to this true nature is the work of forgiveness.
Twelve: Forgiveness involves perspective. We are in this drama in life that is so much bigger than our 'little stories.' When we can open this perspective, we see it is not just your hurt, but the hurt of humanity. Everyone who loves is hurt in some way. Everyone who enters the marketplace gets betrayed. The loss is not just your pain; it is the pain of being alive. Then you feel connected to everyone in this vastness.