By Jack Kornfield
The karmic patterns that we create through our hearts transcend the limitations of time and space. To awaken the heart of compassion and wisdom in a response to all circumstances is to become a Buddha. When we awaken the Buddha within ourselves, we awaken to a universal force of spirit that can bring compassion and understanding to the whole of the world. Gandhi called this power Soul Force. It brings strength when powerful action is needed. It brings tremendous love and forgiveness, yet stands and speaks truth as well. It is this power of our heart that brings wisdom and freedom in any circumstance, that brings the kingdom of the spirit alive here on earth.
For Gandhi this spirit was always connected to his heart, always open to listen and ready to respond to the world by sharing the blessings of compassion with all beings: “Beyond my non-cooperation there is always the keenest desire to cooperate, on the slightest pretext, even with the worst of opponents. To me, a very imperfect mortal is ever in need of God’s grace, ever in need of the Dharma. No one is beyond redemption.”
MEDITATION ON FORGIVENESS
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. —Longfellow
Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts of spiritual life. It enables us to be released from the sorrows of the past. Although it can arise spontaneously, it can also be developed. There is a way to cultivate forgiveness through an ancient and systematic practice. Forgiveness is used as a preparation for other heart-centered meditations, as a way to soften the heart and release the barriers to our lovingkindness and compassion. Through repeated practice, over and over, we can bring the spirit of forgiveness into the whole of our life.
Before you can do forgiveness practice, you must be clear about what forgiveness means. Forgiveness does not in any way justify or condone harmful actions. While you forgive, you may also say, “Never again will I knowingly allow this to happen.” You can resolve to sacrifice your own life to prevent further harm. Forgiveness does not mean you have to seek out or speak to those who caused you harm. You may choose never to see them again.
Forgiveness is simply an act of the heart, a movement to let go of the pain, the resentment, the outrage that you have carried as a burden for so long. It is an easing of your own heart and an acknowledgment that, no matter how strongly you may condemn and have suffered from the evil deeds of another, you will not put another human being out of your heart. We have all been harmed, just as we have all at times harmed ourselves and others.
For most people forgiveness is a process. When you have been deeply wounded, the work of forgiveness can take years. It will go through many stages—grief, rage, sorrow, fear, and confusion—and in the end, if you let yourself feel the pain you carry, it will come as a relief, as a release for your heart. You will see that forgiveness is fundamentally for your own sake, a way to carry the pain of the past no longer. The fate of the person who harmed you, whether they be alive or dead, does not matter nearly as much as what you carry in your heart. And if the forgiveness is for yourself, for your own guilt, for the harm you’ve done to yourself or to another, the process is the same. You will come to realize that you can carry it no longer.
To practice the formal forgiveness meditation, let yourself sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your body and breath to be natural and easy. Let your body and mind relax. Breathing gently into the area of your heart, let yourself feel all the barriers and holding that you have carried because you have not forgiven, not forgiven yourself, not forgiven others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. Then after breathing softly into the heart for some time, begin asking and extending forgiveness, reciting the following words and allowing them to open your forgiving heart. Let the words, images, and feelings grow deeper as you repeat them.
Forgiveness from others: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion. Let yourself remember and visualize these many ways you have hurt others. See and feel the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret, and sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then one by one, repeat, I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.
Forgiveness for yourself: Feel your own precious body and life. There are many ways that I have betrayed, harmed, or abandoned myself through thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them, visualize them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from all these actions, and sense that you can release these burdens, extending forgiveness for them one by one. Then say to yourself, For each of the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of my fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.
Forgiveness for those who have hurt or harmed you: There are many ways I have been wounded and hurt, abused and abandoned, by others in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly. Let yourself picture them, remember them, visualize these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release yourself from this burden by extending forgiveness if your heart is ready. Now say to yourself, In the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger, I see these now. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. For this reason, to those who have caused me harm, I offer you my forgiveness. I forgive you.
Let yourself gently repeat these three directions for forgiveness until you can feel a release in your heart. Perhaps for some great pains you may not feel a release, but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself in this as well. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice, and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time, you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your practice, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving-kindness.