♫ ♫ ♫ “The Power of Forgiveness” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫
“You’re mean to me
Why must you be mean to me?
Gee, honey, it seems to me
You love to see me cryin’.” ~Billie Holiday
Over the course of my life, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of forgiveness. When we hang on to the past, when we continually bring into the present moment our grudges from the past, we can’t find peace. By clinging to the past and whatever pain we might have experienced there, we’re effectively building a phantasmal prison in which our hearts and minds dwell, and that prison functions to warp and bend our perceptions, plunging us deeper and deeper into delusion.
Often when relationships get into trouble, it’s the baggage of the past that’s weighing them down. This happens when people will not let go of that baggage. You would think people would want to let go of heavy, painful baggage, just in the same manner as a person would want to put down a heavy burden while taking a long walk. If you can move more freely, who wouldn’t choose to do so?
It’s a funny thing, though, being human. Sometimes we cling to painful baggage from the past because, in some form or fashion throughout the years, we’ve convinced ourselves that the baggage somehow defines who “we” are, and that if we release the baggage, we’ll be in some kind of frightening free-fall whereby we no longer know ourselves or what we’re about. It’s much like how people often define themselves by opinions and views.
This tendency seems to be particularly pronounced when people are clinging to hurts from childhood. It’s as if they formed their self-image partly by building up defense mechanisms against those old hurts, whether anger, jealousy, self-hatred, a need to always be “right,” or all of these in combination. And as adults, they experience great difficulty in letting go of these defense mechanisms, since those have become so ingrained that they seem to define the self. But do they really? Can they really?
When we cling to defense mechanisms rooted in the pain of our pasts, we’re continually creating a self that’s defined by something which no longer exists. The past, no matter what might have happened back there, is gone. The past is no longer here. The only thing here is now, and the only thing now is here: the present moment. If we let the past go, then every present moment becomes a clean slate to which we can pay attention and utilize to stop the cycle of anger, blame, and finger-pointing. We set ourselves free, not only from the past but from our ongoing perceptions, the painful moment-by-moment re-creations of something we carry forth like spectral barnacles which are no longer truly with us but whose hooks we tell ourselves we still feel in our backs.
Just as we can choose in every moment to be kind, we can also choose to forgive. Hanging onto the past is a conscious choice. Forgiveness is also a conscious choice. The former keeps us in a prison of our own making; the latter sets us free. If we have been deeply wronged, the act of forgiveness doesn’t mean that we condone what the other person has done. What it does mean is that we open our hearts and minds in order to extend understanding and compassion to the person who has behaved in a hurtful manner.
In every present moment, we have the power to create relationships anew. Let’s say we hold a grudge of the sort, “She’s been mean to me.” Well, maybe that’s true. But if we’re honest with ourselves, can we claim we’ve never been hurtful to her? And we can’t fully know what caused her to behave the way she did. To admit we have behaved badly and/or we cannot possibly know everything about a situation can be humbling, but humility is actually the very tool we need to break these ongoing negative cycles. When we’re honest enough with ourselves to see and admit that it takes two to tango and that each party has played his or her part in contributing to painful dynamics, we free ourselves to make peace with one another in the here and now, so that we can move forward together with kindness and compassion, thereby strengthening our relationships, not degrading them.
Forgiveness and unconditional love walk hand-in-hand. Unconditional love requires courage. Love is frequently misunderstood as something we give to or withhold from others based on whether they stay in the parameters we have set for them. It’s the old “I’ll love you as long as you do what I want you to do, say what I want you to say, and avoid doing or saying anything that makes me uncomfortable.” But that’s not love. It’s the opposite of love, which is control. Most of us have done that kind of thing out of fear, whether insecurity or hurts rooted in the past which we worry might rear their heads again in the present. Basically, it’s about protecting ourselves.
What is this “self” we try so desperately to protect by holding grudges, perpetuating anger, and refusing to forgive? The self is nothing more than an accretion of experiences. Likewise, perceptions are only perceptions; they aren’t set in stone. Memories of the past are malleable. They’re based on whatever our perception was at the time the events happened. Perception is in no way absolute, any more than anything else in our changing and impermanent world, including our changing and impermanent selves.
Forgiveness opens us back up to unconditional love through relinquishing control. When we recognize and acknowledge the ephemerality of the self which changes from year to year, month to month, day to day, and moment to moment – the ephemerality not just of our selves but of other selves – we find the courage to be vulnerable, opening ourselves to the possibility of love that expands far beyond the limited kind of thing associated with the love of “mine:” that is, “my” husband, “my” mother, “my” friend, or “my” child.
That limited kind of love is based on a sense of ownership: this person is “mine,” therefore, he or she must do or say what we want, otherwise, we’ll make them suffer by withholding lovingkindness from them and by refusing to forgive. When we fill our present moments with this ongoing anger and resentment, we’re creating for ourselves a misery of our own making, which simply doesn’t have to be. When we acknowledge that we don’t sit high up on some lofty, unimpeachable perch in our judgments of others – picking and choosing, “I love you for this, but by golly, I’ll make you pay for that” – we can get relationships back on a healthy footing by letting go of rigid expectations, broadening our views, and opening our hearts and minds to the whole person – his or her possibilities and mystery – instead of putting the person and ourselves in narrow little mind-boxes.
No more “us” vs. “them;” no more “me” vs. “you.” We feel not separation but connection. We no longer impose conditions on love. We set ourselves free from our inner control freaks. That’s the power of forgiveness. Through forgiveness and letting go of “me” and “mine” and the controlling feelings that arise from the ego, we develop our capacity for unconditional love, peace, and joy.
I’ll close with wise words from Zen Master Dōgen (yes, I’m a Dōgen Fan Girl 😉 ):
“Do not be concerned with the faults of other persons. Do not see others’ faults with a hateful mind. There is an old saying that if you stop seeing others’ faults, then naturally seniors and venerated and juniors are revered. Do not imitate others’ faults; just cultivate virtue. Buddha prohibited unwholesome actions, but did not tell us to hate those who practice unwholesome actions.”