To forgive is an act
True forgiveness means you actually have to do something. Early in my practice I did not understand this myself. Clients praised me for teaching them how to DO forgiveness. Yet I always responded with surprise, I did? I work intuitively. So, even though I spent some 20 to 30 hours working with them, I could not remember exactly what I did or the steps that made it work.
I found part of the answer in a set of YouTube lectures by Ajahn Brahm, a Buddhist monk . I am not a Buddhist scholar but I like Buddhist perspectives. He describes 4 ways of letting go.
Step one, Let go of the past
To let go of the past does not mean to forget. And forgiving someone does not translate to condoning the act. I can forgive you but I may never want to see you again. I may forgive you, but never want to share dinner with you ever again. I may forgive you, but I will tell you what you have done is wrong; and I don't want you to do it again; and, if you do, I am going to do something to stop it. I may forgive you, but I will never forget what you have done; I will learn from it.
These responses are not the same as dwelling on it. To let go of the past does not mean to forget, but simply not to suffer it, not to carry it.
Two Buddhist monks were walking along the river. Along came a beautiful woman, looking at the other side of the river, wondering how she might cross as there was no bridge. The elder monk offered to carry her across. He picked her up, waded across the river and deposited her on the shore.
They parted ways and the monks continued their walk along the river. The younger monk commented, “I wonder what that woman is doing right now.” The elder monk responded, “I put her down over an hour ago, why are you still carrying her?”
Like the younger monk, whether intentional or not, whether known or not, you carry a lot of burdens unnecessarily. The idea of forgiveness is to travel light. Shed the unnecessary burdens that cause suffering.
To let go of the past is also to recognize you cannot walk in the same river twice. The past is the past. The Bible says, “…and it came to pass.” It (the past) did not come to stay. Good, bad or ugly, it is over and done. There is nothing you can do to change it. The only thing you can change is how you perceive it.
Acquaintances ask how I work with people who have been sexually assaulted. The short answer is, I tell them, “I cannot change what has happened to you. What's happened to you is horrible. What the perpetrator did to you is awful. I cannot change that. But I can help you stop suffering it today; so that when you talk about it, you no longer have to cry about it. You no longer have to suffer it all over again. It will get to a point where you don't even have to swear when you think of that person. You will neutralize the emotions. It becomes nothing more than another story.”
Life is a book of many chapters
So many people have no chapters, but live life as one long, continuous movie scene that goes on and on and on. It is important to occasionally pause and acknowledge the end of a chapter.
Having grown up in Malaysia, part of the British Commonwealth at that time, the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence in the Queen’s English is called a full stop. At the end of every sentence and chapter there is a full stop.
And books. I like physical books. At the end of many chapters there is a blank page before the new chapter begins.
In my work clients learn how to be the author of their life. Punctuation is important. Clean breaks between chapters are important. And yes, the story line is important, even if you do not have full control of it.
You don't get to write the beginning and you do not know where it might end, but your choices influence everything in between. If you like your life so far, congratulations. The bad news is it is over and not to be repeated. If you don't like your life so far, congratulations; that part of your life is over and you can choose to do better from this point forward. The good news is that today is a blank page. What are you going to put on it? How are you going to write it?
The past need not dictate your present or future
Binge watch a dramatic series on Netflix. Notice how easily characters are killed off, and storylines come and go. Such episodic programming begins with a ‘pilot’, after which every new episode and season begins with a blank page.
Imagine you have a blank page that represents Today. How much of Today do you want to spend rehashing the past? How much of Today do you want to spend fretting about the future? How much of Today will you waste repeating bad habits you have convinced yourself you deserve? Is that a book you want to read? Is that a movie you want to watch? Has the negativity reached enough of a climax that you are ready to consider the turning point; that point when dire circumstances are overcome and a happy ending is in sight.
Step two, Stay in the present
The key is to stay in the present, which is the second way of letting go. Ajahn Brahm says to be content with the now, be content with the moment. Staying in the moment is crucial to maintaining sanity and good health.
Back to the discussion of dwelling; it can be taken positively or negatively. To dwell is to spend an extended time thinking about something. I believe in dwelling long enough to come up with a new idea.
Trying to forget about it; "Oh, don't talk about it, it just makes things worse;" simply does not work. But neither does simply talking about it. If the only purpose of rehashing is to fix blame (on yourself or another), it just adds fuel to the fire.
The preferable alternative is to dwell with the purpose of arriving at a harmonious solution. That is time well spent.
If you play a circumstance over and over and over again in your head; dwelling on it negatively; very soon it becomes your truth, which influences your characteristics, which are signs of your character, which guides your destiny. That is a very scary sequence.
When you think negative thoughts, you talk negatively, you behave negatively, and you invite negative energies into your life.
Negativity becomes your life and your reality. You hang out with people just like you because misery loves company. And eventually, as you grow tired of the negative consequences, you finally ask, how did I get here?
Step three, Give and expect nothing in return
When you feel anger or depression, take something you own and give it away. You will be surprised how good that makes you feel.
Just give something away. You see, when you perform a targeted, random act of kindness it helps open your heart. Targeted in the sense that you do it specifically to open your own heart. Random in the sense that it does not matter what you give away or who benefits.
Anger and depression are signs your heart is hardened. As you give away something it softens your heart. When you are able to give and not expect anything in return, you are training yourself to just let go of stuff; not just physical stuff, but negative emotional stuff as well.
The idea here is that generosity of spirit pays forward. You do not have to forgive a specific target. As you practice merely an ‘attitude’ of forgiveness, you help your heart open and soften. So that when you really need to do a specific, targeted let-go with an individual, it is then easier as a result of having practiced.
The idea of quid pro quo; that everything has to be fair, an-eye-for-an-eye; is an unfortunate human tendency. It doesn't have to be that way. It assumes that everything is measurable, that more for one person means less for someone else. But you cannot measure love.
The opposite of a hoarder mentality
As you give away something and expect nothing in return you practice the mentality of abundance. Hoarders are very fearful people, scared to death. Their mind spirals downward extremely fast, “If I let go of this mug, I will never have a mug again, and I'll be a homeless woman in the street, and nobody will love me.” She hangs on to a single mug even though she has 25 more. It Is a mentality of paucity, of poverty.
When you practice giving, you practice opening and enlarging your heart. From a place of abundance, you give, “If you want it, you can have it. You need it more than I do.”
Forgive from a place of abundance
The following story is about my father. It describes an act of giving and doing forgiveness. You decide how it fits.
My father ran a machine shop out of the back of our house and we lived there. The workers came from nearby villages. For some, it was too far to commute and they had no place to stay, so they worked in the shop and slept there as well. At the end of the day they would open little foldout cots and sleep in the hallways. My mother cooked daily to feed everybody. She made breakfast for whatever number of people were working for my dad at the time.
We had no toys. We didn't have a whole lot. I grew up sleeping in a small room, on a little platform covered with linoleum. In that small space on the floor I slept with my two sisters, a cousin (who had nowhere to go so my parents adopted her) and my aunt. Everybody had a patchwork quilt and a pillow. We would roll it all out in the evening, and in the morning roll it back up. We had no other furniture so we washed the floor every day.
My father cast copper couplings for pipes. They would heat the copper in a furnace, then pick it up and pour it into molds. There was always a certain amount of spillover and, since copper is worth a lot of money, they saved it.
Most of the workers did not have plumbing at home, so they took their showers at the shop. This was not a western shower; it was water from a pipe; but in Malaysia at that time my family could claim to have plumbing. It gave everyone a chance to bathe before leaving.
Most evenings, one particularly hard-working and trusted worker volunteered to clean up the shop, so he was usually the last one to take his shower and leave. But, as it turns out, after everyone else left, and before he went to bathe, he would steal some of the copper spillover. He put it in a sack and threw it onto the roof at the back of the house where it was kind of low. He would then bathe and leave the shop from the front. It appeared he was going home, but he would detour around the back of the house to retrieve the sack of copper. He stole a little bit every night; just enough to not be noticeable.
Yet one night my father discovered that his inventory was short. Since something was amiss, he watched closely and observed what had been going on.
One evening, as the worker left the shop to take his shower, my dad went to the back of the house, took the sack down and put more pieces of copper in it; in effect filling the bag. Then he placed it back up on the roof. As the worker later retrieved it, he immediately realized it was twice as heavy as it should be, and just as immediately knew he had been found out.
He ran to the front of the house, got down on his knees and begged my father's forgiveness, “Please, don't fire me. My family depends on me.” Surprisingly, my father did not scold him and was not angry. Instead, he asked the thief to get off his knees and said, “No, it is I who need your forgiveness. Somehow I have failed you, that you did not trust me enough to come to me when you do not make enough money to feed your family. What can I do to help you?”
My father made a loyal employee for the rest of his life. Yet, in your own understanding to this point, who forgave whom in that situation?
An average person would be angry, send for the police and have the thief arrested. Vengeance would be justified. “You stole from me. You wronged me. I am in the right and you are in the wrong.” My father’s attitude was, “Where does it end?”
The thief was forgiven. But my father also forgave himself for not knowing an employee well enough be aware of his suffering. He treated his employees like family. His forgiveness came from that place. “You are my family. I have not done right by you. I did not know you were suffering. Why did you not come to me? Now that I know, let me help you. You don't have to steal from me.”
That is the nature of giving while expecting nothing in return. It lets go of the past. By not punishing him for stealing; and, instead treating him with respect; this man would take a bullet for my father. Considering my father had only two years of formal schooling, I see it as an amazing and graceful example of forgiveness.
When you perform random acts of kindness it opens our heart. So, give and expect nothing in return. What can I give you? You need it more than me. Life becomes easier when your heart is open and you already know how to love.
As a critical moment arises where forgiveness is necessary and appropriate, you will have already developed your forgiveness muscle.
Names and specific circumstances have been revised to protect the confidentiality of the clients.