Of all the virtues that are perhaps the most immediately useful to those of us living what might be called a, “modern” life, I can think of none more potent and applicable than the virtue of forgiveness.
Far from a lofty ideal designed to make the masses weaker, the act of forgiveness musters perhaps the most powerful force we are able to generate as humans, direct awareness of transgressions and a conscious response. In the act of forgiveness, we are showing courage in facing our own propensity for anger, rage, sorrow, hurt and pain. We are forced to come to terms with the hurt done to us, but with our own beliefs about ourselves and our worthiness in the world. If we are continually reacting out of fear and anger for being transgressed upon, it is because some part of us believes that we truly do deserve the criticism and meanness that has been foisted upon us. We react out of a desire to defend our fragility, not from a place of power.
When we are able to actively view and forgive those who transgress us, we are able to come to terms with our view of ourselves. We cannot be harmed, we cannot feel “less than” if we are already secure in our uprightness. This act of forgiveness is really an acknowledgement of our own upright nature, an acceptance of our innate humanness and thereby an acceptance of the humanness of those around us.
By the same token, this practice of power should not be taken as license to condescend to others. By admitting our flaws, our hurt and our often less than perfect image of ourselves, we can then recognize that everyone we meet, from butcher to baker to investment banker, often has the same warped sense of self, accompanied by similar senses of self-loathing, self-pity and less than kind inner monologues.
This, of course, can only really be accomplished if we know in our hearts that we really are trying to be better versions of ourselves than the days previous. If we can honestly say to ourselves, “I am trying each day to be a better person than the day before,” than we are already on the way to mastering forgiveness. In so far as we continue to aspire to be upright and conscious actors in our own lives, even our mistakes will be honest ones; we will not think less of ourselves as we strive to overcome past temptation, instead we will be delivered from our own, sometimes less than virtuous, impulses. This, in a sense, requires faith in a better version of ourselves.
It is this faith, it is this constant attempting to be better than before, to embody an ideal, that allows us to look at our past missteps and see them for what they are: moments of failure that will allow us to grow into better people, that is, if we’re willing to honestly look at our past actions from a place of compassion for ourselves and for those who we have harmed.
This intense vulnerability, and indeed humility, is perhaps the hardest aspect when it comes to forgiveness, and yet vulnerability to ourselves and the humility to admit our humanness are necessary preconditions to cultivate before we can forgive ourselves or others. We have to be willing to be vulnerable with our feelings and our own internal processes before we can face ourselves with honesty.
A practice I have found invaluable in the pursuit of forgiveness of self and others is the practice of Metta (loving-kindness) meditation.
The practice is as follows:
- Carve out some time for yourself
- Grab a seat with an upright spine
- Take a few deep breaths to get yourself into the moment
- (As metta is first practices towards oneself, as often we have difficulty extending compassion to others without first extending it to ourselves,) Picture yourself, with all your flaws and humanness and mentally intone the phrase, “May I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I be well.”
- Really mean these phrases. Let yourself sink into the intentions behind them, of wishing yourself happiness. It is this intention, of wishing yourself and others happiness, that will provide momentum for the rest of the practice.
- After a short period of directing this loving-kindness towards yourself, picture someone you appreciate, who has perhaps rendered you assistance or for whom you otherwise care deeply for, and, slowly, mentally repeat the phrases, “May you be peaceful, may you be happy, may you be well.”
- As you continue this practice of repetition, again allow yourself to marinate in the intention and meaning of the words. Do your best to connect any sensation of happiness or loving-kindness that may arise with the phrases you are repeating, thus strengthening them for use in future practice.
- After another short period, continue visualizing different individuals in your life who you may know well, or who you may have only just met. Continue to repeat the phrases and allow yourself to sink into the intention behind the words.
- After some time, you might picture someone that is difficult in your life and repeat the phrase, “May you be peaceful, may you be happy, may you be well.” (This, for some, is the most difficult part of the practice but by the same measure can be the most important)
- Continue to work with visualizations of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, animals and even those who might be difficult to be around until it feels natural to conclude the practice.
Keep in mind that sometimes during metta practice, feelings of hurt, anger or sadness can arise. Take these emotions as signs of your own courage as you dare to face your true feelings about yourself and others. Aspire to wish others happiness anyway.
You are appreciated for not only who you are, but who you are capable of becoming. If you feel the pull towards honest appraisal of yourself and forgiveness for yourself and others, we welcome you into the lineage of light.
BUDDHA’S TEACHING ON UNIVERSAL LOVING-KINDNESS
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.
For those interested in learning more about Metta meditation, the above is from the Sutta Nipāta of the Khuddaka Nikāya, the last book in the Sutta Pitka of the Buddhist Pali Canon. We encourage you to check it out!