This issue originally published as A Course for Teachers
to Action A Gift
One of the most loving acts in any relationship is forgiveness. It is a gift both to the forgiver and the forgiven. Recently, while giving a service on the topic of Attitudinal Healing, the question of forgiveness as a detrimental behavior came up. The concern focused around people subject to child or spouse abuse, and possible complicity with the abuse by forgiving. These issues will be dealt with later in this issue. To some people, a call to forgiveness brings up troubling images, from denying anger ("Make up with your sister; tell her youre sorry") to allowing criminals to get away without consequences.
So, lets discuss what forgiveness is not. Jean Callahan, writing in New Age Journal Sept./Oct. 1993, says that advocates of forgiveness "are not talking about patriarchal noblesse oblige, turning the other cheek, condoning offensive behavior, letting the bastards off the hook, pretending everythings fine when it really isnt, making nice, denying anger or any of the other popular definitions."
Forgiveness is an act of the heart, a way to ease our tender heart from the burden of hatred, resentment, outrage.
The life stories most of us bring to a discussion of forgiveness are not those of severe personal abuse trauma. They are smaller tales of being hurt. Jilted by a girlfriend, fired from a job unfairly, ridiculed by the third grade teacher.
Some of us hold on to anger at people we dont know personally. The recent death of Richard Nixon was a catalyst that touched off blazing fires of resentment which had been dormant or smoldering for decades. Many of us were astonished at the power and weight of the anger we still carried. Nixons death also was an occasion for many people to let go of the past pain which has tethered their hearts to the symbol which was the man. As they forgave him, they healed themselves.Pseudo-forgiveness
The ego can be cunning in its internal counsel on this subject. If your ego allows the concept of forgiveness at all, it is with the mixed message "Forgive but dont forget", i.e. do not completely forgive or you will be vulnerable. This kind of pseudo-forgiveness reinforces separation, negates the inherent underlying oneness of all human hearts.
Another ego-angle on forgiveness is the superiority version: I can forgive you because I am superior to you. I am quite above this (and you are a guilty bastard worm, far below my interest).
In this case, the "forgiven" person is still judged as separate, less than, essentially unequal. This condemnation may not even be conscious to the ego-driven mind. It may be that the anger is repressed, where it can cause havoc to ones emotional and physical health.
One may hold a personal grievance, a grudge that they hoard like a jewel and will forgive "over my dead body." Perhaps so, since animosity exacts a very high price physically as well as spiritually. To think that forgiving another will be doing them a favor (which they dont deserve, having wronged us) is to forget that forgiveness is an act of self interest. Redford Williams, MD, in his books The Trusting Heart and Anger Kills, argues that clinging to anger is the trait most likely to trigger heart disease.Forgiving is Not Condoning
A particular misconception about forgiveness is that it justifies or condones hurtful behavior. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to hold people accountable for their actions, to protect ourselves and others from harm. As Robin Casarjian, author of Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, states, "You can even forgive someone and at the same time work very hard at getting them convicted for the crime theyve committed."
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in Women Who Run with the Wolves, writes, "It does not mean giving up ones protection but ones coldness," and, "One of the most profound forms of forgiveness is to give compassionate aid to the offending person in one form or another. This does not mean you should stick your head in the snakes basket, but instead respond from a stance of mercy, security, and preparedness."
Jack Kornfield, in A Path with Heart writes, "while you forgive, you may also say, Never again will I knowingly allow this to happen. "
Forgiveness does not melt our psychological boundaries. Such boundaries maintain our identity as a discrete person in the world. It is especially important after our boundaries have been violated, to lovingly locate and reinforce them. In this task, it is forgiveness, not outrage, that will be our strongest ally. Holding to anger and desire for retribution actually weakens boundary, as you are tied to the perceived offender with "the lariat snare around your ankle stretching from way back there to here." And while forgiveness helps one firm up psychological identity, it simultaneously melts the spiritual boundaries that have promoted the illusion of separateness.
This is one of the lovely paradoxes of life, that we, in the consensual reality of human incarnation, have boundaries, discrete identities; while at the same time we are all joined in Love. (Gerald Jampolsky says, "Love doesnt care what we call it": Brahman, Goddess, Christ, oversoul, Spirit, Wisdom, buddha nature, God).Difficult Issues
Some very difficult issues have surfaced in this discussion. Isnt it wrong to forgive a child abuser, for instance? There is a pattern which abused children often display: in their need to belong to a family, their need for parental love and approval, their need to stop the hurt and the fear, such children are quick, too quick, to forgive abusive parents.
This is such a problem, premature forgiveness, that some child abuse therapists advise against forgiveness, even labeling it a form of collaboration with the abuser.
This is not a simple issue. An appropriate response to abuse may be grief, with all the well known stages, including anger and depression. No one can tell another how to grieve, but simply support her/him as the personal patterns of grieving unfold. Likewise, no one can impose a timeline for forgiveness.
Eventually, however, after weeks or after years, a person may come to a point where rage and fury, grievance and grudge serve only to sap ones physical and spiritual strength. The same grief and rebellion that may have sustained one through confronting and leaving an abusive circumstance and establishing a self-identity may, when it has outlived its usefulness, become a burden, a weight that now slows our growth.
There is a well-intentioned argument that in cases of severe harm, such as child abuse, that forgiveness is inappropriate until the perpetrator makes amends. This may look good in theory, but has high costs in reality.
First of all, abusers rarely make amends. Waiting for either a change of heart or even an admission of wrongdoing may be futile, and may freeze the injured person at one stage of development, locked in while revolving around the same anger and pain. Ones whole life may pivot on this, and it may serve to lock ones life to the abuser. It may be a very different connection, and healthier, than the active abuse situation, but these two lives are still bound with chains forged of anger and guilt. The victim in this situation will probably never break those chains if the criteria is remorse and apology from the offender.
In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes notes, "When a woman has trouble letting go of anger or rage, its often because shes using rage to empower herself. While that may have been wisdom at the beginning, now she must be careful, for ongoing rage is a fire that burns her own primary energy... The fieriness of rage is not to be mistaken as a substitute for a passionate life." Pinkola Estes writes eloquently on the symptoms of outdated rage, including cynicism, fear, ennui, helplessness.
As a Jungian therapist, she has used four levels of forgiveness:
To forego: to take a vacation from thinking about the person or event. Not leaving work undone, but consciously detaching; and nurturing the wounded psyche for now.
To forebear: abstain from punishing. This is a containment that allows the issue to coalesce, to focus it rather than allow the poison to flow everywhere.
To forget: This is not unconscious repression, nor pretending the offense didnt happen. It is conscious forgetting, letting the event move off center stage of our mind. To "refuse to dwell," when one consciously stops obsessing, one can begin to create a new landscape, new life for emotions and thoughts to dwell on.
To forgive: To abandon the debt. This is not surrender, "It is a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment, which includes forgiving a debt and giving up ones resolve to retaliate. You are the one who decides when to forgive and what ritual to use to mark the event." Signs that forgiveness has occurred, that you really have forgiven in your depth, are the tender heart which feels sorrow rather than anger, the freedom from waiting, empathy, and a passionate power more malleable than any rage.Non-Sectarian Spirituality
A Course in Miracles emphasizes experiential learning rather than theological knowledge, stating "a universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary." In this global village that the world is becoming through rapid transportation and instant, mass communications, we need a multicultural ethic of tolerance to survive. A major feature of a workable human ethic is a non-sectarian spirituality.
Ravi Ravindra, Chairman of the Department of Religions at Dalhousie University in Halifax (he is also Adjunct Professor of Physics), wrote, "A universal spirituality is at the very root of all traditions, but is continually lost in theological exclusivism or in scholastic partiality, or in evangelical enthusiasm, and needs to be rediscovered and restated anew again and again." People follow different spiritual paths. Each tradition has its own "center of gravity," and even each individuals path is different from all others. But at heart, all true soul paths are expressions of Source yearning for Source.
Our faith is that which we can each name, validly, with an infinite fluidity of names. The names are keys to our heart. Names are countless, and ultimately the names are only human attempts to stir the remembrance of that which cannot be named, but can be experienced. When the garments, the trappings, the details are removed, we perceive that religion means just its literal translation: relinking; healing the dream of separation. And forgiveness is key to such healing.Dying
A discussion of releasing long-standing grievances would be incomplete without mentioning both apology and forgiveness when dying. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, writes: "To the man who cried out: Do you think God will ever forgive me for my sins?, I would say: Forgiveness already exists in the nature of God, it is already there. God has already forgiven you, for God is forgiveness itself. "To err is human and to forgive is divine." But, can you truly forgive yourself?... Havent you read how in some of the near-death experiences a great golden presence of light arrives that is all-forgiving? "
Sogyal Rinpoche encourages the dying person clear the heart. To heal estrangement by both forgiving others and by asking for forgiveness. If one suspects that someone cannot grant you the pardon you seek, its unwise to confront that person directly. No one can impose a timeline on anothers forgiveness. But, if one leaves a message asking for forgiveness, he or she "can die knowing they have done their best. They will have cleared the difficulty or anger from their heart. Time and time again, I have seen people whose hearts have been hardened by self-hatred and guilt find, through a simple act of asking for pardon, unsuspected strength and peace."Hurricane Lamps
Forgiveness is a creative act. We may create many ways to allow peace into our hearts, to allow healing. One technique is developing your Witness. Observe your thoughts, acts and other people from a detached internal witness. This is not a judge, for one of the things your witness will observe, with frequency that may astonish you, is your tendency to make judgments about so many people.
Consider adopting this viewpoint: Most human behavior is either an extension of love or cry for help. Sometimes, these behaviors are very twisted cries. Usually they are unconscious, but they are cries of fear, seeking love. Practice giving love rather than finding fault.
Try visualizing a flame of pure love within everyone. As an adolescent, I designed a poetic theory that each of us is like a hurricane lamp. Some people have clean glass chimneys that allow light to show, some have a build-up of soot and grime that seems to dim the light. No matter how thick the grime, I believed that the light was there, even if I could not see it. Nor was the actual light any dimmer than anyone elses. All were equal in illuminating power. Some people tended their chimneys better, that is all.
I still believe this theory. We could feel compassion for those, including ourselves, who neglect to clean our lamps, for not only do we fail to shine, but we are also less likely to perceive the love light in others. Gerald Jampolsky discusses forgiveness in similar terms, a matter of perception, "seeing the light instead of the lampshade."Meditation
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
[Replace "you" with he, she, I, all beings... see yourself, then others, cradled in the heart of lovingkindness.]Volume Extension
Originally, A Course for Teachers was to run as a volume from September through June with a two month recess for the summer. We intended to publish ten issues per volume. The response to the newsletter has been so positive that we decided to extend the issues in Volume 1 from ten to twelve. All subscribers will automatically have their subscriptions extended. We hope you have found A Course for Teachers useful. Subscription renewal notices will be mailed with the August issue.
© 1994 Jeannee Hand-Boniakowski