The Heart of Forgiveness

Couple in kitchen with serious expressions on their faces. Middle-aged woman with blonde hair lays her head on the shoulder of middle-aged man with grey hair. His hand is on her shoulder.

“Give up contention.
This is called finding the unity of life.”
-Lao Tse

As human beings, we hurt one another. We make mistakes. Because of unskillful thoughts, speech, and actions, we do harm to others and ourselves. Yet without reconciliation, we only deepen the harm and increase our suffering. This aspect of suffering pierces the heart. The primal mystery of being human relates to the heart and to a state of unknowing which can paradoxically be penetrated through vulnerability.

 

Understanding Our Interbeing

“Interbeing,” a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who has been deeply engaged in bringing Buddhist insights to the United States since the 1960s, reflects the fact that I am in you and you in me. There is no separation between the parts and the whole. So if I’m angry with my parents for what, in their ignorance, they may have neglected in terms of my well-being, it translates into hurt against myself. We are never comfortable when we are estranged from those who are a part of our life, because there is actually no separation. Independent of our mind’s grievances, we are one.

What does “we are one” mean? Often the mind has a hard time wrapping itself around the reality of things, rather than the image, or outer form, of things. I remember first hearing, “We are one.” I was singing a Christian song; it went something like, “We are one in the Spirit/We are one in the Lord.” It felt very comforting to an alienated child whose parents had just divorced, but I really didn’t know what it meant. The comfort transcended understanding and was felt as warmth in my heart; it was an initiation into the Buddhist concept of “no mind.” “No mind” is the mind before thinking. It is the presence in presence, or as Kabir evocatively reflects, “It is the breath within the breath.” (1) No mind is all heart; it is love without attachment, without obstructions to comfort, and brings us to the concept of forgiveness.

Beginning the Process of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is recognizing the need for reconciliation. “Reconciliation” is defined as “to meet again.” This “meeting again” begins by looking at the obstructions that are actually aspects of our own self: our pride and need for self-protection. In order to affect this clearing and removal of obstacles, there needs to be a willingness to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech, and thoughts, and to be willing to create a new beginning, a new place to share common ground. We decide we are willing to give up our hurts and pardon others for what we see as their wrongdoing. We can learn to ask others to forgive us our mistakes and, most difficult of all, we can learn to forgive ourselves. The key to this process is the concept of “letting go,” or the Buddhist idea of non-attachment, which is an aspect of the impermanent, transient nature of existence.

The practice of forgiveness, usually between two people—although it can also take place between more—involves several steps. It begins with appreciation and then proceeds through expressing regret, hurt, and difficulties. In reconciling, it is important to begin with acknowledging appreciation. As we are an amalgam of wholesome and unwholesome deeds, we begin with the positive to set a tone of mutual respect and willing presence. We are so easily aggrieved (through our egos) that we need to feel safe. By expressing appreciation we can affect safety for one another.

The second step is expressing regret, which requires humility and the willingness to let go of our pain and pride, our fear of being wrong. This is a difficult part of the process, because typically we want to blame and criticize rather than accept the letting go and vulnerability that accompanies regret.

The third step is expressing our hurt with mindful, loving speech, also without blame or criticism. We are speaking so that the other person can listen to our words. Our goal is to affect a heart opening, a place where our words can land and be received. During this process strong emotions can arise. It is best to stop and breathe. The other person can join you in this breathing until the feelings dissipate. In sharing pain, strong emotion can be necessary, but it is also fleeting.

Forgiveness as Transformation

When we suffer, we don’t suffer alone. We share with all humanity the pain of feeling abandoned, misunderstood, or forsaken. Forgiveness is the archetypal antidote that Christ offered on the cross when he said, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) In his great agony, he brought compassion to his persecutors and in doing so transcended personality (personalization) and suffering.

This is available to all of us in the act of forgiveness. Clearly, it is a hard place to access when the heart is hard, but when we soften our hearts, it is the only natural response to our shared pain. This softened space is a transformative one. It also reflects the fragrance and essence of the heart’s spaciousness.

Forgiveness seems to be the most elusive of abilities, yet also a kind of natural cycle, where the pain and suffering of intimate self-reflection and judgment opens our hearts to our shared humanity. My work with others seems to find a new level of compassion when I sit with my own dark core. In fact, it opens my eyes to the blessing of the “tickling” sensation of my raw heart in all its vulnerability. (2) I slow down, tears come, and a new union with love and life find expression.

References

(1)

“Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine
Rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals
Not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
Around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Student, tell me, what is the Beloved?
It is the breath inside the breath.”

– Kabir

(2) Trungpa, Chogyam. (2003). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

© Copyright 2010 by Linda Jame, LCSW, therapist in Katonah, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 7 comments
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  • Sigrun

    Sigrun

    June 29th, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    I was abused (sexually, physically) for more than ten years when I was a child. My perpetrators say they haven’t done anything wrong and tell other relatives that I am a lier. I will never forgive these two people who made my whole childhood a hell. And I think it is disrespectful to try to push me toward forgiving when I don’t want to forgive, as did my former therapist.

  • bob

    bob

    January 15th, 2014 at 5:00 AM

    It is tragedies of traumatic measures like you have suffered that make us chained prisoners for life. Only if we choose to live life in freedom from these bondages then we must choose to forgive and let go of our awful experiences and people from our pasts in order to walk in the now and step toward a future of freedom.

  • RICHARD

    RICHARD

    June 29th, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    Why is it that we notice even the slightest wrong done onto us by others but are not as careful when we ourselves do something wrong to others?! Its very ironic and I do not think anybody will have the answer to this one!

  • Linda Jame, LCSW

    Linda Jame, LCSW

    June 29th, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    Dear Sigrun:
    Firstly, forgiveness in your case does not make sense. It seems that you are still in contact with this individual and that you have tried to confront him but there is denial. I’m very proud of you for your courage in finding the strength to speak your truth. Given that the perpetrator denies culpability and maintains that you are lying, it is important for you to create some boundaries to establish your own sense of safety. You need to work through your strong feelings that naturally accompany the trauma you’ve identified. It’s important for you not to be further assaulted whether it be by his denial or family system collusion. I respect your strength, your position, and I value your reminder that for a sense of safety acknowledging wrong can be the only way to begin to trust again.

  • jonathan

    jonathan

    June 29th, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    forgiveness is something that most of us only say we have granted but deep inside we do not even know what we are talking about! we may say we have forgiven a person but be averse to them and treat them with suspicion thereafter but then this is not forgiveness. forgiveness is when we start to forgive them from our heart and hold nothing against them after we have actually ‘forgiven’ them!

  • Kelli T

    Kelli T

    June 30th, 2010 at 4:25 AM

    If you do not allow any forgiveness in your life then you cannot allow any happiness in your life. What a sad way to live.

  • kate

    kate

    June 30th, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    i do not believe anybody is guilty of any deed until and unless it is proved otherwise…and if it is proved that they are actually guilty,then i do not think there should be anything called ‘forgiveness’!

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