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At a forgiveness-specific meditation retreat in 2013 at the Insight Meditation Society, Larry Yang opened by saying, “Everyone here has been hurt. And everyone here has hurt someone.”
That opening provided a great relief to me, as if for my whole life I had been trying to prove that I was not someone who hurt others. I could own the ways in which I’d been hurt and had been denying this factor of my own humanity—that I am bound to hurt someone, perhaps not intentionally, but definitely at least unintentionally. I longed to no longer be hurt and to no longer cause pain to others, and I had learned through social justice work that this was the goal, this was justice—the absence of pain. The Buddha would have had a nice chuckle at that one. Pain is part of the human condition—that’s the first thing he taught!
The practice of forgiveness involves forgiving ourselves for the ways in which we have harmed ourselves in thought, word, or deed; considering the ways in which we have each harmed others and asking for forgiveness; forgiving those who have harmed us; and forgiving the First Noble Truth in Buddhism—that dukkha (a Pali word meaning suffering, difficulty, stress) exists in the first place. Given that the past can’t be re-lived, our best option—that is, the path that leads toward individual and collective freedom—is to intentionally and directly let it go, to forgive.
Healing the harm
Forgiving does not mean condoning harm: Harm is never “right” or “just.” If I do not forgive the harm caused to me, the pain will continue to live on inside of me. Of course we would not have chosen acute moments of harm and ingrained, institutional forms of harm. Forgiveness is never about saying that what happened was OK, or that it needed to happen in order for some spiritual growth to occur.
Forgiveness is about how we respond to and heal from the violence that has happened, given that it never should have happened in the first place. Within forgiveness practice, there is room to say “ouch, that hurt,” “that was painful,” and “that was unskillful.” In the practice of forgiving, we make room for those who have caused harm to claim their mistake, to move out of shame and guilt (which is their own pain), and into accountability and transformation. We hold the fullness of their humanity, that someone is more than their worst actions. When someone creates harm, a part of their humanity is shut off, which is painful for everyone involved.
Offering and accepting forgiveness
The forgiveness practice that I practice works in four directions, beginning with acknowledging and turning toward pain. I allow myself to feel the ways in which my body has stored pain, to breathe into all of the surrounding emotions, and to see the stories that my mind has made up about the pain—likely stories of righteousness, resentment, guilt, shame, or rage. Feeling the pain and allowing room for grief and rage are essential in an authentic forgiveness process.
Then, if it feels right, I begin to offer myself forgiveness for harm I’ve caused myself and others, I offer forgiveness to the individuals who have caused me pain, and I ask for forgiveness from those whom I have caused pain, knowingly or unknowingly.
Lastly, I offer forgiveness for the First Noble Truth, a component added by Larry Yang: that pain and sorrow are an inevitable part of this human life. This forgiveness is directed toward large, systemic pain such as police brutality, the separation of immigrant children from their parents under ICE custody, and climate change and its escalating impact on the most vulnerable communities. Forgiveness in each of these directions is profound work that can shift the trajectory of our households, neighborhoods, cities, and world, witnessing pain, processing it, releasing its energy, and learning necessary practices so as to not repeat and perpetuate pain.
Freedom in forgiveness
It is my work to forgive the abusers of my grandmother, my mother, my ancestors, my friends, my lovers, my community, those different than me, and those whose lives follow similar tracks. I must forgive those who preach homophobia on the New York City subway, the murderers of trans women of color, those in my own life who have doubted, denied, or dismissed my own truth of who I am. I could remain enraged at all of these people, historic and contemporary, who cause harm—but that would not enhance my freedom or well-being, but rather create greater suffering for me, as well as toward those who encounter my bitterness and resentment.
Forgiveness involves vulnerability and nobility, courage and presence, and it moves on its own timeline; you can’t force it. I set my intention on forgiveness, for if I cannot offer forgiveness in this moment, I hope to be able to in the future. I incline my heart toward forgiveness.
Forgiveness in four directions
Forgiving one’s self
We are hard on ourselves. We all make mistakes! In forgiving one’s self, we forgive ourselves for the harm we have caused ourselves and others, knowing that we did so out of pain or ignorance. … In our humanity, we create harm. We hurt ourselves. Rather than relating to that with shame, blame, and guilt, can we turn toward it with compassion and attention?
Asking for forgiveness
To ask for forgiveness demands courage, humility, and swallowing pride. It can mean letting go of “the need to be right,” as Swami Jaya Devi says. It means admitting that you made a mistake. We work to be with it and recognize it, rather than covering it up, ignoring it, or denying the pain caused. Asking for forgiveness is a practice of connection, of realignment on the path of love. It gives space for those whom we have hurt to have their feelings and perhaps to drop the burden of those emotions—if not now, then in the future.
In offering forgiveness to those who have harmed us, we aspire to accept someone in their full humanity: their mistakes, their vulnerability, their ignorance, and their potential to change and grow. We recognize that someone who creates harm is not at their best in that moment but is acting from their own hurt. Like some of the other practices, offering forgiveness does not have to mean proximity to someone who has caused harm. You can forgive at a distance, where you feel safe and protected from the person who inflicted harm.
Forgiveness toward the First Noble Truth
Turning toward forgiving the First Noble Truth is heavy lifting. We are invited to turn toward the most profound difficulties facing humanity—things like climate change, the prevalence of domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse, police violence, government corruption, environmental disasters—and accept that this is the way things are, and the way things have been. Being with the truth of how things are is healing in itself; there is a reason honesty and transparency are practices spanning spiritual traditions! When we can do that, freeing ourselves from denial, avoidance, resistance, and dismissal, it frees up our capacity for vision and imagination.