Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
The marvel of forgiveness is this:
when we can completely forgive someone the tantrum they threw this afternoon,
we are at the same time beginning to forgive ourselves for every tantrum we
have ever thrown at others.
You can see how practical a step it is to take. All those other people may long since have forgotten what we did and said — maybe some of them didn’t really care much in the first place. But deep in our own minds, every single storm has left its mark. Every storm has burst a little hole in consciousness through which angry thoughts, angry words, and angry acts gradually seep into our daily life.
In this sacred act of forgiveness we are mending thousands of these little holes. It relieves us of part of the tremendous burden that all of us carry within, healing our consciousness and taking the pressure of anxiety off our mind and our nervous system. And it makes us much less likely to get provoked the next time someone rubs us the wrong way. This is the miracle forgiveness works.
Only those who forgive others will enjoy the healing power of forgiveness in themselves, because in showing mercy to others we are being merciful with ourselves as well. The reason is simple: only then are we abiding by life’s most fundamental law, that all of us are one. If I give love to others, it means I stand to benefit from that love as much as they. Not necessarily immediately, not necessarily directly, but that love has to come back to me; for I have added to the measure of love in the world, the mystics say, and I am part of that whole. Similarly, if I add meanness, stinginess, resentment, hostility, then sooner or later that sort of treatment will be shown to me.
This is not so occult as it may sound. After all, when someone treats us unkindly, isn’t it natural that we begin to avoid that person, speak curtly, even be unkind ourselves? When a person is regularly unkind, it conditions our expectations; then, when that person surprises us with something thoughtful — it does happen! — we may shun him anyway, simply out of habit. It is the same with kindness: when we can count on a person to be loving, we give our love freely in return, and allow a wide margin for those rare times when he or she might act otherwise. That is how our responses to life come back to us.
In Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, this commonsense principle is called the law of karma. The word karma has been much misunderstood, but its literal meaning is simply action, something done. So instead of using exotic language, we might as well refer to the “law of action,” which states that everything we do — even everything we think, since our thoughts condition our behavior — has consequences. It is a law of life, which no one has stated more clearly than Jesus: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be meted unto you.” Paul puts it more tersely: “As we sow, so shall we reap.” If we sow mercy, we shall receive it in ample harvest.
Never in the history of human relations has any problem ever been solved except through greater love, endurance, and forgiveness on the part of some person.
I’ll tell you what methods I use. First, I often get letters from people who have been hurt by a parent, partner, child, or friend ten or twenty years ago. Those little memories have become obsessions, inflated far out of proportion, like a huge balloon. The episode plays itself over and over in the mind: what he did to me, and what I am going to do to him when he gets in my way again.
We are all subject to this stimulus and response reaction; to change it, we have to break the nexus between the two. Unfortunately, that connection can never be broken intellectually. Although the intellect is a most valuable instrument, it is not well connected with the will. That explains why even brilliant scholars and great artists can behave just like ordinary people when they have emotional problems. The stimulus response nexus lies much deeper in consciousness than the intellect can reach.
Often these resentments are buried so deep in consciousness that we are not aware of the extent to which they undermine our security, drain our vitality, and interfere with our personal relationships.
Here it is not very effective to analyze the wrongs we have suffered and then forgive them one by one. If I may say so, often the wrongs are not wrongs at all; it is only that our self-will has been violated, not infrequently because we failed to understand what the other person did or said. Instead, it is much more effective not to dwell on the past at all.
Second, whenever painful thoughts arise about injustices done to you in the past — and all of us have suffered injustices, just as all of us have inflicted them — my suggestion is, don’t speak about it, don’t write about it; as soon as possible, go for a mantram walk. Start repeating “Rama, Rama” or “Jesus, Jesus” or “Om mani padme hum” or “Allahu akbar.” It will be a real wrestling match between your painful memory and the mantram, but I am prepared to bet my shirt on the mantram. The memory will fight back, but in the long run it hasn’t a chance.
Most of us perhaps are not even dimly aware of how, under the surface level of consciousness, old resentments keep burning, old hostilities keep flaming up. A sudden agitation, or a sudden depression, is often caused by old resentments which we still harbor in the depths of our consciousness.
I once saw a big book entitled “The Dynamics of Forgiveness,” and I could not help wondering what the author would have done to me if I had written a strong review against it. He probably would have come to the Center and given me a piece of his mind. Writing books about forgiveness, reading about forgiveness, and talking about forgiveness do not enable us to forgive. When we rely upon our own capacities, I do not think it is easy for us to forgive, but when we repeat the mantram, we are calling upon the Lord to help us transform all our resentments into love.
Finally, meditate regularly, morning and evening, using the great inspirational passages from the mystics. These passages have filled every nook and cranny of my consciousness with noble ideals so that there is no possibility of any harmful thought or any injurious image getting in.
I have very little doubt that unless you go deep in meditation to forgive, even for people who say they have forgiven, the embers of resentment still cause a lot of trouble inside.
So if you feel angry with somebody, sit down and go through an appropriate passage. Select passages from my anthology God Makes the Rivers to Flow, particularly the Buddha’s “Cross the River Bravely,” the “Invocations” of Ansari of Herat, “The Wonderful Effect of Divine Love” from Thomas à Kempis, and, of course, “The Way of Love” from Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita. When you meditate on a passage that is very healing in its effect, the passage sinks below the injurious thought, which means that it is only a matter of time before you can say no to it.
The ability to forgive is the hallmark of the highly evolved human being. There is no more exacting skill. And yet it is nothing more, essentially, than the seemingly prosaic capacity of withdrawing attention at will and placing it where you choose. Whatever distressing words have been spoken, whatever unkind acts have been performed, the mind that has been trained in deep meditation can turn quietly away and focus instead on the loving words, the thoughtful acts, of a happier hour.
Like any skill, this one develops with practice. Suppose you are meditating on the words of Thomas à Kempis: “Love bears evenly all that is uneven.” Suddenly a much louder passage is ringing in your ears. It is as if a car with huge speakers had pulled up next to yours at a stoplight, playing a tape of something someone has said to you that day: “Charles, I think it’s time both of us started seeing other people!” or “Marilou, you’re just not working out as an administrator. I’ve decided you’d be more effective back in your old post.”
The more attention you give to these dissonant voices, the louder they’ll get. The only way to turn them down is to give your attention more and more to the words of the passage: “Love bears evenly all that is uneven.” It is a simple skill, but it has wide applications. When you have a severe personal problem, you are naturally inclined to dwell on it, and when you do, it looms all the larger. Solutions seem more and more distant. Most problems are rather unassuming when you see them in their native costume. They only become unmanageable when you can’t stop brooding on them, dressing them up as Count Dracula or Lady Macbeth.
The mystics are unanimous: love of God makes itself seen and felt as love of our fellow creatures. Only when you have lowered all the barriers between yourself and others will there be no barrier between you and the Lord within. Deliberately, then, from the very first, you begin to chip away at those walls in consciousness. You do it in little ways, throughout the day, by trying to see the needs of others as clearly as your own and to act in harmony with them.
This excerpt on forgiveness is the first of three articles from our Summer 2016 Blue Mountain Journal.