Yesterday I watched a phenomenal speech by Jack Kornfield, called The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness, from the Greater Good Science Center. It really got those gears turning in the ol’ noggin. I turned it on after my workout, as a way to keep my attention while doing a good long stretch session. Instead of stretching, I kept getting up to pause the video and take notes!
As I started watching, I told myself it was just for curiosity’s sake, to learn about forgiveness from the Buddhist perspective. I have to admit that there was a part of me that was thinking proudly: I certainly don’t need to work on my own powers of forgiveness!
But this is what I learned, after watching the lecture and taking the Greater Good’s forgiveness quiz: I am not a very forgiving person. OUCH! It hurts a little to see that written out! This realization was quite a blow to my self-esteem and a great reminder that there are always things I can be working on to change my approach to life for the better. It’s easy to fall into the oblivious rut of believing my life just is as it is and there’s not much I can do to change it. How stupid can I be? Complacency is death!
A quote from Kornfield:
Forgiveness is, in particular, the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love. Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.”
I’ve always seen myself as a loving person, and I know I am able to give love deeply and to feel great compassion and empathy towards both intimates and strangers alike. But I’d never fully considered the capacity to forgive as an integral part of one’s capacity to love. Thinking back on my life, I see how I have many times actually hurt myself by holding on too tightly to my anger about a particular situation. Most profoundly, I see how terrible I am at forgiving myself. Although I pride myself in trying to assume the best in people and situations, as soon as something happens to knock my ideals from their pedestal I become quite a harsh critic, and that judgmental eye turns even more sharply inward. I am quick to write off a person or situation after just one transgression. This is my self-preserving muscle: one that stands ever wary and is quick to tense and put up walls to shield me from potential harm. Therefore, just as the quote above from the Bhagavad Gita implies, it’s a cowardly defensive mechanism that does not serve me or make me stronger. Forgiveness, on the other hand, calls for vulnerability. By opening up to forgiveness and love, we become more authentic, joyful versions of our selves.
Sometimes it’s the things that make us vulnerable, that tear the heart open, that actually bring us back most fully to what matters, to love, to life; that our vulnerability becomes a place that our hearts depend on for staying alive and open, even when we’re hurt.
One of the most powerful points of Kornfield’s lecture is how he speaks about forgiveness as something that we do for ourselves alone, as a path to personal freedom. He quotes Viktor Frankl, with words based on his experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust:
The last and greatest of all human freedoms: The freedom to choose your spirit no matter what the circumstance in life.
Described this way, the ability to forgive seems like one of the most important skills to cultivate! As Kornfield says so wisely, “It is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering.” Instead, he points out how inner freedom and joy are our birthrights and our obligations as humans. To live fully is to be free. (How simple it sounds, yet how difficult it feels!)
Hmmm, these thoughts lead me to that familiar mantra I find myself returning to again and again: LET GO!