Forgiveness, Loving-kindness, and Suffering
The sixth of the Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing outlined by Jampolsky (2000) is that “we can learn to love ourselves and others by forgiving rather than judging. Forgiveness is the way to true health and happiness When we choose to see everyone as a teacher of forgiveness, each moment gives us an opportunity for happiness, peace, and love” (p. 119).
I’ll be the first to admit that I have been an absolute failure at forgiveness. My teenager is fond of saying, “now don’t be bitter, Mom” when I ruminate about having been wronged by someone. It’s so irritating when they’re right. And so reassuring.
At present, I, like most people I know, have been struggling with feeling pressured, pulled, pushed, and contorted by life. I’ve also been nearly overwhelmed by the pain and suffering being experienced by people I care for. There just seems to be too much loss and heartache and suffering everywhere right now. Given my lifelong struggle with depressive illness, being exposed to so much negative emotional energy can put me at risk of relapse so finding ways to work with pain is very important for me and the people who live with me. For most of my life, I have reacted to painful energy in one of two ways: avoidance or complete immersion. Avoidance has taken the form of attempting to push painful energy out of awareness or deny its existence entirely. This is just about as effective as telling yourself to stop thinking about the dripping faucet that is keeping you awake. When the “don’t think about the bear” strategy has failed, as it always does, I have often turned to distracting habits that in and of themselves aren’t particularly growth-promoting or healthy.
In contrast to the avoidance strategy, I’ve also tended toward immersing myself in my own pain and that of others in an attempt to know it so well that it will somehow grant me some kind of wisdom. I’ve tried to acquire the practice of sitting with pain and, while there have been moments of peaceful awareness, I have not learned enough to make this work for me. I just end up drowning.
As a person who has chosen to avoid any particular religious stance (sometimes aggressively so), it has been a challenge to find a context for studying spiritual and emotional growth generally and for allowing my own growth to unfold. Mostly, I just want to find some peace. Studying and practicing mindfulness meditation has recently provided me with a method that, with increasing reliability, allows me to experience pain with authenticity and awareness rather than avoiding it or allowing it to drown me.
There are a couple of practices that I have been using that are helping me to continue to grow. The first is the practice of Metta meditation (Loving-kindness meditation). Even a brief internet search will lead you to numerous explanations and versions of Metta meditation. What they have in common is a progressive movement from loving-kindness directed at self, to others (including those perceived as “difficult”, and finally toward all beings. One description is available on the Metta Institute webpage. As described there, the practice involves repeating expressions of loving-kindness beginning with “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”
“May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”
Remember that forgiveness begins in your own heart. The practice continues with directing these same expressions toward others including friends, family, acquaintances, groups, and even people with whom you have grievances. The phrases are altered by replacing “I” with “you”. Finally, self and other are united by directing loving-kindness to all beings saying “May we be happy. May we be well. May we be safe. May we be peaceful and at ease.”
“May we be happy. May we be well. May we be safe. May we be peaceful and at ease.”
By the time I work through the progression, I usually feel a calm sense of belonging and connection. Sometimes, however, the practice opens the door to painful emotions particularly when directing loving-kindness to individuals with whom I have had difficulties. I am learning to take this experience as an opportunity to acknowledge grudges that are still being held and are therefore holding me back. I loop back to the beginning and direct loving-kindness to myself before returning to the person with whom I associate pain. That association is what needs to weaken for forgiveness to be acknowledged. Some versions of Metta meditation are complicated and long while others are not. I’m a pragmatist. I do what works for me. I even use a short version during my 5 minutes of walking warm-up while riding my horses. I also work through the progression while drawing Zentangles on my iPad.
I sometimes use guided meditations as well. I have a messy, chatty mind and it helps to have another voice to provide structure. I’m very fond of Tara Brach’s guided meditations, for example. In the last week, though, I have been turning to Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of The End of Suffering often, particularly at night.
May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos
Even in the darkest spots living beings are able to hear it clearly
So that all suffering in them ceases, understanding comes to their heart
And they transcend the path of sorrow and death.
The universal dharma door is already open
The sound of the rising tide is heard clearly
The miracle happens
A beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower
One single drop of this compassionate water is enough to bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains and rivers.
Listening to the bell I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve
My mind calm, my body relaxed
A smile is born on my lips
Following the sound of the bell, my breath brings me back to the safe island of mindfulness
In the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.
And so I continue to learn forgiveness.