The Power of Forgiveness
Swami Kriyananda has said that the call to expand our state of consciousness, to be kind rather than unkind, calm and forgiving rather than angry and reactive, proceeds from a recognition of our own inner potential. In other words, the duty to uplift ourselves is self-imposed, from within.
How forgiveness liberates us
I read a very touching article in a magazine which illustrates Kriyananda’s point. The article is about a woman whose daughter was murdered. Even after the man who committed the crime was sent to prison for life, the mother continued to seethe with anger. Finally she realized that her anger was killing her, and that the man who took the life of her child was taking her life as well. In the hope of finding some resolution, she decided to go to the prison and confront the murderer.
At first she found it difficult even to be in the same room with him, but feeling that she had no choice, she persevered. Gradually she began to see this man, not as a monster, but as a fellow human being who had also suffered much in his own life. The end of the story is that they grew close and she became like a mother to him.
The woman never condoned what this man did but she accepted it—not as good or beautiful, but as a reality that had to be faced. The murderer also experienced an expansion of consciousness. He had no comprehension of the suffering his action had caused. Only in getting to know the bereaved mother did he come to understand that his actions had consequences.
As he faced and accepted responsibility for what he had done, and truly repented, it was possible for the woman to forgive and open her heart to him in love and compassion. She provided for him an example of the all-forgiving love of God. The channel is blessed by that which flows through it: She, too, experienced that all-forgiving love.
All we ever experience is our own consciousness. If our inner life is filled with anger, resentment, grief, and disappointment, our life is miserable. Even if circumstances give us every reason to feel justified in our misery, the question is: Who suffers? Christ-like forgiveness is the high destiny we all must reach for the sake of our own happiness
When it’s hard to forgive yourself
When I was first starting on the spiritual path I became angry at a friend who I felt had mistreated me. Over the course of some months I found that my inner diatribe against him gradually focused on a few specific incidents. Finally I asked myself, “Why do I think only of these?”
After some reflection I saw that in all those situations, true principles were at stake. Even at the time, I knew something was very wrong, but I didn’t have the courage to speak up. My friend, however, had not been aware of those principles. He had done the best he could with the understanding he had. I, by contrast, had consciously violated dharma, or righteous action.
When I realized my error, I stopped being angry with my friend — and became angry with myself! It took some time longer before I could forgive myself, but finally I was able to see myself the way I saw him: I had done the best I could with the understanding I had. What more can we ask of ourselves or of each other? His error was in not understanding dharma. Mine was in lacking the courage to act on what I knew was right. I was not proud of my cowardice, but there was no reason to be ashamed of it either.
There is no shortcut to forgiveness. Perfect self-honesty, however, will lead us eventually to the point when we can purge from our hearts the need to make someone else responsible for our suffering. No matter what the facts of the situation, the truth is we are responsible for our own consciousness.
Is forgiveness really the issue?
Forgiveness is a complicated subject. Guilt can sometimes masquerade as forgiveness. A friend was describing to me a relationship she was caught in with an elderly relative, who was doing everything he could to take the joy out of her life. As she recounted what he had said, I interrupted to ask, “You just sat there and let him to talk to you like that?”
“Yes,” she said, “I did.”
“I would have walked out and not come back,” I said. “It is not good for him to speak like that. And it is an offense against the Divine within you to let yourself be treated that way.”
Let me add that if my friend had been unaffected, I would have responded differently. If she had been detached and could joyfully give love to an unhappy old man no matter how he treated her, then accepting his treatment might have been a spiritual service worth offering. But she had been deeply affected; all the joy had drained out of her.
To give people the impression that you are there to be abused, that whatever they do is fine, and that their actions have no consequences, is neither love nor forgiveness. Almost always it is guilt or fear trying to pass itself off as these more elevated qualities. It is not always easy to discriminate but it has to be done. Humility is not self-abnegation. It is self-honesty, seeing things as they are.
Years ago Swami Kriyananda received a letter from a woman saying that she was leaving her husband after seven years of marriage. “Whenever I try to meditate,” she wrote, “he turns the television on as loud as possible. When I speak of spiritual things, he makes fun of me.”
Privately, Swamiji said, “She put up with that for seven years? I wouldn’t have taken it for fifteen minutes!”
Should we forgive when there is no repentance?
I once received a letter from a woman whose partner of 15 years had constantly strayed, a result, he told her, of the inner pain he was experiencing from symptoms similar to bipolar disorder. He now told her he had healed and that he wanted their relationship to continue.
This woman asked two questions: 1) Can people really change? and 2)When one commits to love and to forgive everything, does it include inconstancy?
As for the question, “Can a person change?” Of course, everyone can change. We are all divine in our essence, equally children of God. But true healing requires that we take responsibility for our actions and includes, insofar as it is possible, making amends. One of the steps of the 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is to find those you have hurt and do what you can to make amends. Even when it’s difficult, you have to try. Otherwise there is a big gap in your healing.
This woman wrote that her partner attributed his inconstancy to his emotional disorder. But to “explain it away” is not the same as taking responsibility.
There was man who lived at Ananda Village for a time who, after leaving, did his best to harm the community and many of his former friends by aggressively spreading false and malicious rumors about us. His lies caused great difficulty for many people.
Years later, after the dust had long since settled, I happened to meet him again. He came on with great friendliness and then began to speak to me about the importance of forgiveness and healing. His point was that I, as a long time member of Ananda, should be expansive enough in my consciousness to forgive him for the trouble he had caused.
My response was, “Have you changed? Do you repudiate the attitudes and actions of the past? Will you apologize to all those you hurt? Will you take back your lies?”
His answer was carefully crafted. “I’m sorry that some of you suffered.”
I responded, “That’s no answer! Are you sorry for the part you played in causing that suffering?” To that he made no response, which said all I needed to hear. He was not willing to acknowledge that he had acted improperly. Instead he was trying to shame me into believing I would be acting improperly if I didn’t welcome him back with open arms!
I bear him no ill will. But, as I explained to him in no uncertain terms, it would be irresponsible of me to welcome him back into my life and the life of Ananda if he showed no actual proof that he had changed. He was trying to take advantage of Ananda’s well-known generosity of heart.
“Be practical in your idealism,” Paramhansa Yogananda said.
The question is not, “Can a person change?” The question is, “Has he changed?” And if so, “What is the proof?” His assertion alone is not enough.
Returning now to the subject of your straying husband who attributed his inconstancy to illness:
Even though an apology is not in itself the same thing as reform, to apologize is an important first step to taking responsibility for one’s behavior. In the case of the person who had tried to harm Ananda, there had been no apology. There was no acceptance even that he had done anything wrong. Has your husband apologized for his behavior?
If your husband has apologized and is genuinely trying to become a better person, then it is no lowering of standards to forgive him and welcome him back into your life. But you should also bear in mind, until there is adequate proof of its eradication, his potential for falling again into that same delusion.
Yes, love forgives all. To consider yourself a victim, to feel that the world, and the people in it, owe you a certain standard of behavior, is to doom yourself to constant suffering and disappointment.
Forgiveness, however, is not to run away from the truth, but to face it squarely and then see it from a higher perspective. We all make egregious mistakes. Divine Mother understands and forgives our transgressions. It behooves us to learn to see one another through Her eyes.
Nayaswami Asha and her husband, Nayaswami David, are Spiritual Directors of Ananda Palo Alto. For other discussions by Asha, go to Nayaswami Asha.