By David Lawson
Forgiveness is sometimes thought of as a nice thing to do for others, sort of like giving a birthday present or a Valentine’s Day card. Of course, it is a wonderful expression to offer to another human being, but the fact is that it will always be a largely superficial gesture unless based on self-forgiveness. In my life, I find that it is not something just nice to do; instead, it is as essential as breathing.
Forgiveness involves the relinquishing of resentment, which is one of the biggest obstacles to personal growth and happiness. Resentment literally means “feeling again.” It is an example of a “second arrow” pointed out by the Buddha in one of his discourses. There, he describes how crazy it would be if a man, shot with an arrow, were to respond by first trying to figure out what the arrow was made of, who shot it and why, all before removing it from his body. In so doing, he would effectively be “shooting himself” with a second arrow of his own making because of his proliferation of stories around the primary pain.
So how do we pull out the first arrow? Much of the pain of the arrow is due to the suffering that is present in us before its arrival. So it gets stuck in some really tough tissue. As it turns out, the most effective way to remove the arrow is to let the tissue loosen up a little. And surprisingly, this is best done through feeling the pain of the arrow as fully as possible. It doesn't seem like this should work, does it? However, what we find is that when we can feel the pain fully, we also get to see all of the other aspects of our lives to which it is connected. Seeing the web of connections allows for an understanding that there really is no single pain existing as a thing, no solid and sovereign entity. When this is discovered, there can be an uncontrived opening of compassion for the self that has felt so overwhelmed by things for so long!
We resist offering forgiveness to ourselves because we think it means letting ourselves “off the hook” undeservedly. Yes, it is a way of letting ourselves off the hook, but no, not undeservedly. Nobody “deserves” to suffer. If we never learn to forgive ourselves, then we will simply continue to create the myriad patterns of violence that weigh us down on a daily basis (the greatest of these being the unwillingness to remain present in the face of our own difficulties).
Here is a simple meditation to try:
a) First, establish a period of mindfulness of the breath. Simply, feel its coming and going at the tip of your nose or inside the nostrils.
Then, remember a time when you caused pain to another person. Feel the pain that it also caused to yourself. How does it still hurt you? See if you can feel that hurt in all of its aspects. Now speak to yourself: “I have created pain for others, and in so doing, I have created pain for myself. Mostly this has occurred because of my own lack of mindfulness and ignorance. Is it possible that I can find a way to forgive myself?” Listen carefully to your heart. It has a message for you.
b) Then, remember another time when you hurt someone. See the event as completely as possible, recalling the place and time and as many environmental details as possible. See the effects of your words or actions on the other person. Let it sink in. Now, in your mind speak to the person in this way, without worrying about the exact words:
“ Dear ____. On this day that I remember, I caused you pain through my words and/or actions (as the case may be) due to my own lack of mindfulness and ignorance. I am sorry. Please forgive me. I vow never to act again in this way toward you.” Take a few moments to let your words echo in your heart.
c) Now, recall a situation in which you were hurt by somebody else. Again, try to remember as many of the aspects of this situation as possible. Now in your mind, speak to the other person: “Dear ____. On this day that I remember, you caused me pain because of your words or actions. Although there may still be some residual pain on my part, I want to forgive you. Please accept my offering of forgiveness.” Again, take a few moments to let your words echo in your heart.
Bring your attention back to your breath for a few moments, and simply rest.
Please remember that the act of forgiveness is not really so much for the other person. Forgiveness is for you!
David has been practicing various forms of meditation for over 25 years, and has been
teaching ongoing classes and retreats in a variety of settings for the past 15 years,
mostly through Deep Spring Center. He is especially interested in helping practitioners
access their own “in-dwelling wisdom.” He is now in the process of forming a new
meditation group in the Ann Arbor area