Forgiveness - A prayer for change
From the book Healing Relationships by Lama Choedak Rinpoche
Today I will release all unhappy experiences from my past and free everyone connected with those experiences. The hurt, pain and suffering I and others have experienced are due to the unfortunate circumstances we have contributed to because of our own ignorance, disrespectfulness, carelessness and excessive defilements. Knowing that everyone acts under the influence of delusion I now realise that no one has intentionally caused any of the harm I have experienced. I have long been exacerbating my suffering by holding on to my own distorted perceptions as the truth.
Today I will let go of all misunderstandings and confusion. From my past mistakes I shall learn to be mindful, so that I shall not repeat these mistakes and cause unnecessary suffering to continue. No one can undo the past, but I will take some good from these mistakes. The past has no power or control over me.
In the past I have suffered because I have projected my own negativities onto others. This has been the cause of all the damage to my relationships with others. I will not allow this to continue any further, as I have now reclaimed my sense of conscience. My forgiveness will not only remove the residues of unhappy experiences from my mind, but it will uproot negative feelings people may have about me in their minds. If I release the negative thoughts of ill-will, blame, anger, shame and revenge from my own mind, only good will return to me and those around me.
What has happened is already past and I have now fully recovered from these experiences. It is timely that rise above these problems and free myself and others from these memories. Had I not gone though these experiences, I would not have matured and become as strong as I am today. As all things move forward, I must flow with the winds of change and not hold onto negativities. I will not stay as foolish as I have been in the past, but instead will awaken myself.
As I release all negativities, everyone concerned will be set free and forgiven. I shall let the stream of my life flow naturally and not stagnate. I forgive myself for each and every mistake I have made and I forgive everyone who has harmed me in any way, knowing that only good will come from applying understanding to every experience. Each mistake I have made is a stepping stone to greater understanding and to greater opportunities. I bless every experience of the past. May all be blessed!
This prayer sums up the essence of the idea of forgiveness that we need to learn. Unfolding the problem of not being able to forgive is the only way forward, so it is important for is to see how much of a problem it can be and, in particular, how it has been the cause of problems for us in the past. We also need to consider how much of a problem it could continue to be in the future, lingering like a cancerous disease I hat has long been with us and for which we have not yet found a cure.
Fearing the future consequences of not forgiving - by remembering the hurt and pain we have already experienced as a result of not forgiving - we are at a very important juncture. By taking the initiative to look into teachings on forgiveness, we can learn to no longer let the past pollute our present and future.
Suffering from lack of forgiveness
Suffering from lack of forgiveness
Using the model of the Four Noble Truths, which was the first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment, we shall identify the symptoms caused by our lack of forgiveness. Many of the problems or sufferings we encounter in life are largely connected to our unforgiving mentality. If we feel anger, what is it caused by?
Our anger is often about something that happened years ago that we have been carrying around and replaying in our mind. We are angry about something because we simply haven't forgiven the person responsible for the event that triggered our anger in the past. We carry on and ‘update' our anger, magnifying it and exaggerating it. In the process, we feel sorry for ourselves and develop hatred towards others. We tell our story to a select group of others, trying to win them over to our side so they will agree with us, just increasing the suffering further. This is how anger is kept alive for so long. We cannot let go of this because we keep the flame of anger burning, which in turn affects our enjoyment of the company of others, and even of the food we eat. Indeed, it may destroy whatever pleasures we might otherwise enjoy.
Symptoms of an unforgiving mentality
The symptoms of an unforgiving mentality are hatred and resentment. We develop hatred towards what we have done and where we have been, sometimes even wishing we had never entered into a relationship. With that kind of regret, we may even begin to dislike ourselves. When we cannot forgive others, this is due to our lack of gratitude towards I hem; it is as if they never did anything good that is worth remembering. Ingratitude dominates our minds when we have difficulty forgiving.
We encounter loneliness if our lack of forgiveness leads us to alienate ourselves from others, building walls around us so that others can't reach us. They want to care for us, but instead we just alienate ourselves due to our unforgiving mentality. We try to run away because we can't face the reality of our own negativities; and, in doing so, we also find that we can no longer face others.
A further symptom of our inability to forgive is the sense of self-pity or insecurity that overtakes us. If we dwell on the past too much we continue to hold onto our resentment, no matter how small the mistake that was made at the time. As ~ result of this we become restless ó we are no longer happy with what we are doing. Instead, we want to do one thing and then another; and then, in the middle of doing that, we suddenly want to do something else again. We find it hard to stay settled and therefore we have no sense of stability. This can affect our health, our ability to sleep well and our capacity to enjoy the company of others. Our ability to trust others is diminished and our capacity to be thankful also declines. Our mind becomes hollow or empty, as if we were a lost soul. We forget the right things to do and fall into bad habits because of this forgetfulness, engaging instead in the very things that are harmful to ourselves and to others. We may become easily agitated; our mind becomes fidgety, restless and fearful like a wild animal. Any distraction will tend to upset us, and our thoughts can become very negative.
Another symptom of an unforgiving mentality is that we develop a fear of responsibility. We do not want to take responsibility for helping others, so we no longer have the pride or joy of others being able to count on us. Our sense of self-confidence is depleted and we withdraw from doing things that may be beneficial for ourselves and others. As a result, we begin to fear intimacy; we no longer want to know others too closely. This fear of intimacy and lack of trust in any place, time or activity is due to fears that dominate our mind. We begin to fear things that may, in fact, never happen because our mind is so well accustomed to bringing them forward, just as if we were using a fast-forward control. Due to our anxiety we think ahead to things that may never eventuate. This engenders a degree of hopelessness so that we lose our sense of optimism. We become pessimistic; life almost becomes hollow, as though it was a mistake and we should never have had it. In this state of mind it seems that anything would be better than what we have now.
Our fear of taking responsibility, along with our perception of the dangers of intimacy, causes us much suffering and unhappiness. Even though we may have a comfortable home, a good job, indeed anything we have hoped for, when these fears dominate our mind we become firmly stuck in the past. We have lost our ability to see the beauty of our companions, of nature, our freedom or even our health. We may be physically healthy, but our mind has lost the ability to enjoy our good health.
Another symptom of someone who is unforgiving is that they become critical of many things; they are very negative, always seeing problems in life. They are adept at being obstructive, focusing on what they or others cannot or should not do. This tendency to always focus on what is wrong is a distorted perception; if we have such a perception we will always see others' defects, failing to recognise their goodwill towards us. When someone wants something from us, we see this from the point of view of what they want, rather than being pleased that they want us to help them.
If others stop contacting us it might be because they are busy doing something else, but instead we think they are ignoring us. Then when they do contact us we are suspicious, wondering what they want from us. This is an animalistic type of mentality: very fearful and unable to stay comfortable for any length of time. Being very negative, our mind doesn't know how to feel calm, peaceful or thankful for what we have, let alone for what others have given us.
Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, our mind is not where we are. Our mind selects the wrong information and, fed by this distorted data, it becomes scattered. Having a scattered mind, we lose focus on what is important in our life, thinking of negative things; and not knowing why we are thinking that way, we become very disturbed by our own misconceptions. All of our thoughts may begin to disturb us and we may develop fears that our health, our property or our wealth are in danger; we may imagine all sorts of things that might never happen.
Ironically, we also choose not to think about some things that certainly will happen. We do not want to think about the fact that we will die; but if we did stop to think about it, this would solve all our problems because we would realise it is pointless worrying about anything. Everyone fears death and it is quite a valid fear, but we don't spend enough time thinking about it. The fact that our lives are impermanent is a real cause of concern that we don't often choose to concern ourselves with; rather, we quite regularly invoke unnecessary, non-existent fears. We worry about what might happen to us in the future and often find ourselves being overtaken by these groundless concerns.
Our anger, resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, insecurity, restlessness, fear of responsibility and so on are symptoms of anger towards the objects of our love. People who have been kind to us, who have brought us up or cared for us still play a very important role in our lives. The relationships we have with people who are very important in our lives, such as our immediate family, will continue whether we choose to acknowledge this or not. Our father is still our father, whether we like it or not. So, if we harbour anger towards our immediate family, we continue to suffer and will eventually become completely trapped in our negativity.
Many of us have an unforgiving mentality to some extent. Some hold onto it for a short period of time, while others prolong it, making it worse. However, some of us, while not forgetting unpleasant events, just aren't bothered by them any more. By using our intelligence, we can learn not to be too caught up in the past. Even though we may not have taken action to forgive ourselves or others, we should at least not allow ourselves to continue to be adversely affected by past events. The mere passage of time makes it possible to heal past hurts. It is worthwhile considering how long is long enough to just forget the past and not be overcome by worry or resentment about unpleasant experiences any more.
If we continue to be worried or hurt about something that has happened in the past, we are prolonging it. The longer we continue to hold onto our worry or hurt, the more intense or serious it becomes. If we learn to just let go of it, its impact may be very brief. So forgiveness is trying to `cut' the problem short, to be the `director' of our problems. When we use the word `cut' in this context, we mean we should be able to make the movie we want by editing it here and there, not leaving anything in our thoughts that doesn't add something positive to our script for practising forgiveness in the future.
If a scene in a movie is edited out, often it's because something went wrong: the actor smiled when he shouldn't have smiled, or walked too fast or did something else that wasn't in the script ... `Cut!' In the same way we can just cut out whatever we are doing that is not bringing us benefit. If we recognise it is time for change, we must decide when it will be the right time to do so. Will it be when we turn sixty years of age, or when we reach some other milestone? Will the day we retire be the day we are we going to change, all of a sudden finding ourselves able to forgive? There is no time in the future that is a better time - the time is right now, today, right here!
Therefore, at this moment, which is the right time to act, we should resolve to deal with grievances we don't want to brood over any more. We can list those things we need to drop - such as misplaced beliefs and perceptions - and resolve to uphold a new vision for the future that appears more inspiring.
With this resolve, having recognised the potential for suffering caused by our unforgiving mentality, we are able to realise the First Noble Truth. Our unforgiving mentality has not only continued to make us suffer; it has also perpetuated the suffering around us. If our relationship with someone is becoming sour, it is common for our loved ones to be worried about us and about our relationship. If they continue to get the message that things are not going well, they may become so worried that they may wish they didn't have to discuss it with us any more. They may just continue to worry, while hoping that some positive change will take place. So our unforgiving mentality is not just our concern; it can affect many other people. On the other hand, if we can report that we are patching up our differences, those who care for us will be relieved; they will feel released from worrying about our difficulties.
Having a vision of what forgiveness can achieve is important. Forgiveness liberates us and our loved ones, and their loved ones and their loved ones' loved ones - the ripple effect can be vast. In 1989 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to His Holiness the Dalai Lama because he was forgiving. He was sincerely forgiving of the events that had taken place during I lie communist Chinese invasion of Tibet. As the secular and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, he took on part of the responsibility for what had happened by acknowledging the karmic share of the Tibetan people for the wrongs they may have done in the past. At the same time he saw the futility of maintaining anger - not that he had very much to begin with! On behalf of all the Tibetan people, he declared t hat to seek revenge or harbour bitterness and anger was not the way forward. Instead, he stressed the importance of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and other positive states of mind. Those who awarded the prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama may not have attended his teachings, but they would have seen the ripple effect of the spirit of his teachings on forgiveness and compassion.
We all need to have this kind of positive vision of the benefits of forgiveness. We also need to know how much suffering we will continue to create if we brood on our lack of forgiveness. Understanding the First Noble Truth, the noble truth of suffering, comes from recognising the suffering we have caused by our previously unforgiving nature. This understanding ennobles us to do something about it and to no longer be trapped by it. A truth can only be `noble' if we are willing to change our attitudes and behaviour. If we do not resolve to change, our understanding of the suffering caused by lack of forgiveness cannot ennoble us - it can only continue to cause us suffering.
So how does the acknowledgement of suffering become a noble truth? It can only do so when we know what to do with our suffering, no longer letting it have control over us, because we clearly know the causes and conditions that are maintaining it. This is like making a firebreak to stop the spread of a bushfire: knowing how a fire will spread, we recognise the effect that making a firebreak will have. In the same way, when we know how to intervene to stop increasing the suffering caused by our lack of forgiveness, we feel a remarkable sense of accomplishment. In this way, we can begin to receive some benefit from the suffering we have caused in the past, as we now know how to stop creating the causes of further suffering. We can now take responsibility for all the suffering we have endured by recognising that it was partly caused by our own ignorance and negativity; we take responsibility for our past suffering and resolve to no longer create the causes for future suffering.
When we have recognised how hard it is to live with the suffering caused by our lack of forgiveness, a month, a week or even a day seems too long to live with it. We can no longer imagine ourselves continuing to create the same causes of suffering in the future; we are determined to change and this determination is a "definite conviction". The definite conviction in our mind is what makes us truly realise a noble truth and this is what ennobles us. Having a determination to change is like finding our hair is on fire. When suddenly we realise our head is burning, we can't just think, `What I am going to do? Perhaps I'll just have a drink first and think about it' - we have to act quickly to put the fire out. We won't waste any more time; we will take action straight away before the fire burns us even more.
In his Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, the Indian Buddhist sage Shantideva said that just as someone caught in a fire that might spread between houses will not waste time hesitating to remove fuel that would help it to spread, likewise when we are burning with the fire of anger, the main symptom of lack of forgiveness, we must try to put the fire out quickly to stop it spreading further. This is another implication of the First Noble Truth, which is the noble truth of suffering: the suffering of burning hair is relatively minor, but if it gets to our skin it will create much greater suffering. So we try to put the fire out while it is small.