Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Forgiveness as a Quality of Mindfulness

Although ‘mindfulness’ as a practice is not easily definable,  the father of secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD., is most widely quoted with his definition: "...paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." It’s this ‘non-judgmental' aspect which connects us with the forgiving nature of mindful awareness. 

Although it is possible to find our way to this non-judgmental acceptance of the ‘way things are’ through the practice of awareness alone, it’s helpful to cultivate the heart as well; the ‘heart practices’ directly connect us to a non-judgmental way of being. Forgiveness can be cultivated through practice, similarly to other ‘divine' states, or heart practices which include Lovingkindness and Compassion.

Some of these heart practices are also taught within the MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction curriculum in order to help cultivate a ‘non-judgmental’ heart. Ultimately, mindfulness is not different from this way of engaging the world, as true kindness is open and aware, not holding onto anything; and awareness is inherently compassionate and forgiving. Two sides, really, of the same coin.

Mindful awareness is a way of relating in the world without clinging to how we would rather have things be, and instead being present fully with whatever  is actually happening. This is a constant act of forgiveness. We begin to notice the way in which the mind constantly looks for ‘something else’ when engaging in the practice of mindfulness, and we begin to see how uncomfortable this is. In essence, staying present is a continuous act of forgiving ourselves and forgiving our experience for not being what we’d like. So forgiveness practice is not only an adjunct practice to mindfulness, it is inherent within it. In addition, at times when there is agitation or stress, forgiveness practice can help to calm the mind and help it to more easily ‘accept’ things as they are and create more ease in accessing non-judgmental awareness, (and, we can also learn to be mindful and forgiving of our non-acceptance!)  

Quite often the person we most need to forgive first is ourselves.

Even if we are upset with another, it is in soothing our self-judgment that enables us to forgive someone else; I have found this to be the key to forgiving others, finding the place of injury in myself and bringing a kind and forgiving awareness toward this, as we are often caught in self-recriminations for some part we played in allowing another to cause us harm. (“Why did I trust this person…?”, “If only I’d done X instead of Y, I wouldn’t have been in that position…”)

Usually when we think of forgiveness, however, we think about extending forgiveness toward another who has caused us harm. One of the important things to recognize in this regard is that cultivating a forgiving heart and the act of forgiveness is not something that can necessarily be done quickly or easily. Often times, when someone ‘forgives’ too quickly, it is not a true forgiveness that comes from the heart. And it’s also important to recognize that there is a difference between ‘reconciliation’ and forgiveness. Reconciliation involves a re-establishment of trust and mutual understanding when there has been a rupture in a relationship, and that is something that must happen with both parties involvement and intention to heal. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t require another’s participation, but rather relies on our own recognition that many factors came together and created the situation, and the suffering and delusion from which it arose. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that we continue to enable another’s harmful behavior; it doesn’t mean we don’t take care of ourselves or don’t pursue corrective actions. Forgiveness does have us recognize the others’ humanity and it releases us from holding onto to negativity and anger. 

The 5th century Buddhist scholar, Buddhaghosa, gave us a quote regarding the result of holding onto anger toward another; “… By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” It’s also important to remember that forgiveness practice is really mostly for ourselves, even when it is directed toward another. However, by finding forgiveness in our own hearts we may end up affecting those around us as well.

Forgiveness phrases, how to cultivate forgiveness

There are practices which can help us to incline the mind toward forgiveness, and by inclining the mind the heart will follow. The recitation of phrases, intentions or prayers, over time, can rewire our brain toward a different default; instead of going directly to blame and anger, our thoughts fall more easily into what we have cultivated instead.

The following phrases are those which have been offered to me by my Buddhist teachers:

For any way that I have caused harm to myself
Through Judgment, action, self-blame, indifference
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed,
May I forgive myself.

May I allow myself to be a student of life
And to make mistakes.
May I forgive myself.
And if I cannot do so in this moment
May I be able to forgive myself in the future

For any way that I have caused harm to you
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed
I ask for your forgiveness

May you accept me with my imperfections and mistakes
May you allow me to learn from my actions
May you forgive me
And if you cannot do so in this moment
May you be able to forgive me in the future

For any way that you have caused harm to me
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed
May I forgive you
May I allow you, too, to be a student of life and to make mistakes
May I recognize your humanity, in the midst of my pain
May I forgive you, and if I cannot do so in this moment
May I be able to forgive you in the future

May I let go of wanting the present moment to be anything other than it is
May forgiveness naturally flow through the pain and suffering of the mistakes and injuries of life

The prayer of St. Francis can also be very helpful in cultivating a forgiving heart:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In the end, the practices of mindfulness, compassion, kindness and forgiveness converge and there is no longer any difference. The skill in developing a stable and open heart comes out of becoming more fluent in them all.

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