I’m very much aware that there has been a longer-than-usual gap between my last email and this one, and I’m grateful for the various messages that I’ve received in this time: thank you. As for many of us, these have been challenging days for me. However, it’s genuinely uplifting and inspiring to see how the community of learning around this course is supporting its members and also offering support to others.
I’m very familiar with the feeling that I’m not doing enough or that what I’m doing isn’t good enough, and I know may of us are living with that feeling at the moment. Sometimes we need an external voice to reassure us: the touch of a loved one, an affirmation from a teacher or boss, a quiet thank you from someone we helped in the grocery store. Today, I’d like to share a little token of affirmation with you, since it’s yours rather than mine: ...
... this month DeMystifying Mindfulness was named as ‘One of the Best Online Courses of All Time’ (2020) by ClassCentral. It’s humbling to see how our experiences together on this course have benefitted people, and I wanted to make sure that you’re aware that its modest successes are thanks to you: thank you.
The main reason I’m writing, however, is to share a little reflection on a question that has now been sent to me by very many of you; it seems to be in the air in various ways. Unlike previous notes from me during this period, it’s not specific to life during a pandemic, although it appears to be arising in many of you in that context. And, sharing in honesty with you, it’s something that’s also weighing on my heart rather heavily at the moment. This is the question of forgiveness.
More concretely, how can the practice of mindfulness support the endeavour to forgive those who (seem to) have perpetrated some form of harm or injustice (against us or others)?
At the outset, then, I’m assuming both that forgiveness is something we wish to cultivate, and that mindfulness might offer us some particular insights into how we might accomplish it. I accept immediately that not everyone will inhabit these assumptions for all kinds of reasons, but such assumptions fit within the framework of our course of study. Further, I am assuming that forgiveness doesn’t replace action to right the wrongs of the world, but it changes the spirit and impact of that action. If you like, forgiveness empowers skilful action.
It’s hard to imagine that any of us is unfamiliar with the raw feeling of being wronged. Perhaps it’s just the frustration of feeling misunderstood by someone close to us? Or perhaps it’s the deep agony of surviving violence, trauma, or injustice? It’s that pain, that suffering that leads us into the space of forgiveness. Without it, what do we have to forgive?
Perhaps a good place to start with this is simply the realization that we are not the only ones who experience suffering – it’s entirely normal. If you’re far enough through our course, you might recall the first of the Four Noble Truths, the reality of suffering? That is, there is nothing necessarily wrong with you or with the world when pain or injustice arises – they arise all the time, everyday, for everyone. As you might recall from the second of the Four Noble Truths, if we want to reduce our suffering, we must accept that pain and injustice are inevitable marks of existence. The acceptance of this truth is a step on the path towards diminishing the additional harms we do to ourselves by raging against the very fact of wrongness in the world.
It’s worth remembering here that accepting the inevitable existence of pain and injustice in the world is not at all the same as condoning or even forgiving the actions of people who seem to cause them. But perhaps this acceptance enables us to soften our hearts a little? If not this pain, there would be another. Perhaps you can feel the difference between attributing pain itself to the actions of another, and identifying how this particular flavour or tone of pain finds its origins in the behaviour of that other? It might feel like a small difference, a slight softening towards that other person, but small things matter. They are like seeds.
It’s also important to remember that we’re often our own worst enemies in these situations. I for one judge myself very harshly if I become angry or resentful of others, even when I feel wronged by them. It’s in my character to see such responses as failures, and I aspire to go through my days without these emotions. But, of course, I fail. And then I hate myself for failing. And so my suffering is intensified by the damage I do to myself. Everyday.
So, what do I do? I practice being free of anger and resentment. I practice. I don’t succeed, but I practice.
One of the things that practice has revealed to me is that very demanding, dynamic emotions often serve as shields for our more sensitive, vulnerable emotions. For example, we might find that we jump into anger to protect ourselves from feeling something else ... something like grief, or sadness, or vulnerability itself. Likewise, we leap into vengeance as a way to shield ourselves from the vulnerability of forgiveness.
I learned a delicate practice around this from the wonderful Tara Brach. You can try it right now. Sit into a brief meditation and allow a difficult experience to come to mind – keep it as light as possible (ie. not your most challenging situation, but perhaps a 3 out of 10). Sit for a moment with your anger, inspect it, feel what it feels like. And then ask yourself this question: if I let go of this anger now, what challenging emotions would float up into its place? For me, the answer is often sadness or grief – I am angry because I am hurt, so when I take the anger away all there is left is pain. Even worse ... sometimes when I look at that pain, I realize that its cause is not (only) the actions of another person, but is also something like my own pride: my pride is one of the principal origins of my pain. And I’m the origin of my pride. And it’s so much easier – so much less work – to reside in the anger than in pain or (even worse) to face my own sense of pride or entitlement. You may be familiar with the expression that ‘vengeance is the laziest form of grief’?
Again, the importance of practices like this is not that they instantly enable our forgiveness in one sit, but rather that they are little steps on the path to softening of our hearts towards the sources of harm and injustice in our worlds. Indeed, a practice like this helps us to realize that part of this softening to others might begin with awakening to our own role in our suffering and then softening to ourselves. Given what we know now, can we forgive ourselves for being angry, and then let the anger go?
It’s also helpful to reflect that none of us are innocent of causing harm and injustice to others. While we sit with our anger, it can be helpful to notice what it is encouraging us to do to the world around us. It pushes us to inflict pain, often on others and sometimes on ourselves as well. Perhaps those people who have hurt us (and triggered anger in us) are themselves in pain? Perhaps they are struggling to soften their hearts, too, and failing, and hating themselves for it? They might have done wrong, made mistakes, but (like us) they are more than those actions. And to forgive them, we have to be more than those actions as well.
For those of you who have tried the loving-kindness or compassion practices from our course, you will recognize this intention to offer understanding and compassion to others as ways to live more mindfully in the present moment. And, just as with those practices, we need not believe that offering compassion to others will magically transform them into kinder, more loving people, so we need not believe that offering forgiveness to another will transform that person. Forgiveness isn’t a magic spell that we cast on someone else; it’s not instrumental or manipulative. Instead, the feeling of forgiving changes us: when we look inside we might find a softer and more loving heart, suffering less. Our forgiveness is a gift to ourselves, as well as to our friends and family and community, as it transforms the way we behave in the world around us. So, if it’s the case that the goal of mindfulness practice is to reduce suffering (which was certainly the goal identified for the practice by the Buddha, as you may recall), then forgiveness is an essential part of our work.
Working mindfully with forgiveness in this way also provides some clear insight into the difference between wanting to forgive (ie. formulating the desire to forgive) and feeling forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness seems to emerge gently from the passage of time, merging into something like forgetfulness or perhaps into something like denial. However, like all mindfulness practices, the mindful cultivation of forgiveness relies upon the formulation of the intention to forgive. After all, we have to decide to do the practices, and we have to do them sincerely.
Recognizing this, we must also recognize that we will struggle with forgiveness, even if we ardently want to offer it to someone (including to ourselves): we cannot force ourselves to feel forgiveness; we can’t reason our way to that feeling (at least, I can’t). Instead, we must accept that cultivating forgiveness is going to take time and effort. It requires patience and endurance (you might recall a previous message from me about endurance – virya). It requires us to work through the renewed pain of trauma-triggers at unexpected moments, days later or even years after the events. And it requires us to accept that we’ll stumble and slip and get tired, because we’re human beings. Deciding to forgive isn’t the end of the work, it’s the start. So, we need to be gentle, non-judgmental, and nurturing with ourselves as we do the work.
OK, I think this is more than enough for now. Perhaps I stored up all these extra words over the last few weeks instead of writing a couple more messages to you along the way? In case you’d rather listen to this (and future messages) instead of reading it – which I know some of you prefer – I’ll post an audio file here shortly.
For now, then, as ever, I wish you ease of being and freedom from enmity,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.