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The "F" Word: Forgiveness

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.




Episode 005:

The "F" Word: Forgiveness

Not long ago, I wrote about how I’ve come to understand the spiritual path as basically the path of really growing up, becoming a mature human being in the fullest sense of the word. Norman Fischer talks about this in his book, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up.

I am increasingly convinced, too, that the spiritual path is primarily about learning to let go, learning to relax into our basic nature. Everything I have studied or practiced, so far, seems to point in that direction. These two ways of viewing the path are not necessarily in contradiction. Truly growing up, and truly letting go, are perhaps two different ways of talking about the same thing.

One of the essential steps towards authentic maturity is forgiveness. Forgiveness, which is so essential to our emotional well-being and spiritual growth, is one of the most basic acts of letting go; its opposite, resentment, is the very definition of holding on, clinging to something in the past that has caused us emotional pain. To the degree that we cling, we suffer, and we make others suffer with us. To the degree that we let go, we are free.

People in Twelve Step programs, recovering from addiction, are asked to undergo a process of self-reflection that includes taking an inventory of their fears and resentments and other emotional bogeymen. For those who are willing to do this work honestly and thoroughly, and to follow through on letting go of what they find, it can be a life-changing process. For most, it is perhaps the first time in their lives that they have actually opened the door to their own subconscious and had a good look inside; it may be the first time they have faced their own demons unflinchingly and been willing to confront them without recourse to old habits of avoidance and acting out.

It is only in doing this work that most people realize how deeply their lives, up to that point, have been clouded and corrupted by those inner demons, the wellspring of all their self-destructive behaviors. And they generally discover that, of all the demons they encounter within, none are as pernicious and destructive, as antithetical to growth and well-being and recovery, as resentments. The possibility and the necessity of letting go of the old, festering resentments that have driven them begins to dawn once they are able to see their own demons clearly. Those who are willing to follow through, at that point, and actually let go of their resentments are usually the ones that move forward and continue recovering and growing spiritually. Those who do not let go of their resentments are usually the ones that fall back into old, self-destructive patterns and relapse into addiction. The willingness to let go of resentments is a measure of an individual's capacity for truly growing up.

Letting Go of the Need to Be Right

The act of forgiveness demands a price that we are often unwilling to pay. That price is letting go of our need to be right. We cop resentments for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes another person (or group of people) has really done something harmful and malicious, and we were the victim; other times, they simply failed to provide what we wanted or needed, and our egos were offended by their failure.

In either case, we hold on to our resentment because we feel they have done us wrong. Not until those bastards get down on their knees and beg for our forgiveness are we even willing to entertain the idea of forgiving them. They don’t deserve our forgiveness, we tell ourselves; they deserve our scorn, and our rejection, and all the waves of moral outrage and anger we can emanate in their general direction. In some cases, we even tell ourselves that they deserve our vengeance. We want to get them back, to cause them pain in return for having caused us pain. At a minimum, we think, we should withhold our love and respect and courtesy, and force them to their knees by starving them of what they need from us. If the other party's actions were truly malicious, then we feel especially justified in hardening against them, and the idea of letting go and forgiving them is abhorrent to us.

What we fail to see is that the one who suffers most from this tangle of negative emotions and thoughts is not the person who has wronged us. It is us: our own minds and hearts become choked by the growth of these parasitic weeds. The other person might even go happily about his business and remain oblivious to the steaming pile of malice that we excrete for his consumption every time we are in his presence. But each time we do so, we end up being the ones with our faces rubbed in it. The painful effects of our resentments are felt primarily in our own hearts. But instead of recognizing the pain and doing the sensible thing – letting go and forgiving – we cling stubbornly to the source of our pain and insist upon carrying it around inside us. We nurse it like a precious child growing inside us – which is what it basically is. It is the embodiment of our own childishness, our refusal to grow up and let go.

To put it in stark, theological terms, it is the Antichrist, to whom we give birth each time we wallow in and act upon our resentments; it is Mara, the outer representation of all those inner demons that appeared within the mind of the Buddha on the night he attained enlightenment. Just as with the person in Twelve Step recovery, it was through facing his inner demons with total honesty and self-compassion, refusing to buy into their story-lines, and letting each one of them dissolve into emptiness, that the Buddha overcame the last vestiges of his own resistance to awakening. It was in that moment that he became the ultimate grown-up.

Letting go of the need to be right can arouse fear in us. Our resentment springs from a self-protective impulse, however mistaken it may be in its application. We draw a little circle of moral indignation around ourselves and shout at the other person: “Look! Do you see this line? You crossed it!” That circle becomes our ego’s territory, and we are hyper-vigilant against any further incursions. We think we might die if we cede that territory, if we let that circle dissolve; then the whole world will run rough-shod over us, and we will be annihilated. But the more tightly we try to defend the circle, the more easily we are offended. Taking this state of mind to its natural conclusion, we end up at war with everyone in our lives, all the time. No one gives us the respect we deserve, and we become cynical and embittered and prickly, looking for a fight everywhere we go.

Who could be more chronically unhappy than such a person? We would do well to ask ourselves: “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be right?” The choice is always ours.

In Buddhism, we talk about spiritual qualities like compassion or generosity, but we also talk about their perverted forms: idiot compassion, or idiot generosity. Compassion is feeling the suffering of others, and acting out of concern for their well-being and happiness; idiot compassion is simply enabling someone's destructive behaviors and fooling yourself by thinking you're helping them. Similarly, there is forgiveness, and then there is idiot forgiveness. Idiot forgiveness can crop up in co-dependent or abusive relationships, when someone has harmed you out of maliciousness or total disregard, and you forgive them in order to continue making yourself available for the same abuse. The other person is not open to transformation and healing, and you basically make yourself into a doormat by continuing to forgive and forget. In such cases, the true power and purpose of forgiveness is to allow you to let go of the other person and move on – which may not be what your ego wants to do, but may be the best thing for both of you.


This article was cross-posted previously on One Human Journey. The version there is longer, and goes deeper into the topic of forgiveness: forgiving ourselves, forgiving and seeking forgiveness from others, and the one that may be hardest for some folks -- forgiving our parents for not being perfect. Check it out if you want to explore the topic further.

Have you had an experience of forgiveness that changed you and impacted your spiritual path? Post a comment and share your experience here.  


I'll be on silent retreat next week, and will not be posting here next Tuesday. See you in a couple of weeks.

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Being Happy vs. Being Right

I really enjoyed this article. I've heard the question "Would you rather be happy or be right?" many times, and it always feels like pithy shorthand to me.  I think what it really means - and what might be more useful to people - is "Would you rather stay angry by being the only one who can be right, or would you rather embark on a path to happiness by learning how to accept that other people can be right too?"

Not as short and sweet as the "Would you rather be happy or be right?", but the problem with that question is that the vast majority of people you encounter believe that being right is the key to being happy, so the question just won't make sense - or at best, sounds like some sort of hippy cliche.

Great description of the process of maturation into self/other acceptance. I'm not sure I agree that resentments are generally the most important thing to deal with in self-exploration, but they are certainly one of the most important. I'd put self-compassion, acceptance of death/impermanence, and not taking shit too seriously right up there as important things to embrace on spiritual self discovery.

Right on...

Thanks, Jerry. I totally agree. I hope my enthusiasm about working with resentments and forgiveness did not make it sound like I view this as "always" the most important aspect of maturation and internal growth/transformation. It is one aspect among many, but in my experience it is usually a really big one. But there are also other inner "demons" that need to be faced if we want to be free, and you named several of them. I would also add to that list some common fears that tend to drive a lot of people's actions, such as fear of loneliness or abandonment and fear of looking foolish.

fear of loneliness

yes - that's a good one - and one that really comes up in practice.  My experience with people with addictive habits (both personally and second-handededly) is that fear of loneliness is a huge one, and sitting brings you face to face with that "loneliness" before you get to that place where you realize (intellectualy first, then slowly on more emotional level, at least for me) that "you" are never really alone.

Perfect quote

Someone (Lani?) just posted this quote on the ID Project's Facebook page, and it's too good not to share here. (Thanks to whoever posted it!)

"You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger." - Buddha

Thanks, Dennis

I liked the distinction you drew between skillful and unskillful compassion, as well as forgiveness. I still find myself having difficulty with the term "idiot compassion" but the tools for mindfulness that the term represents are indeed helpful.

"Those who are willing to

"Those who are willing to follow through, at that point, and actually let go of their resentments are usually the ones that move forward and continue recovering and growing spiritually. Those who do not let go of their resentments are usually the ones that fall back into old, self-destructive patterns and relapse into addiction."

got a source for this?


Yes, the only source that really inspires confidence: personal experience and close, repeated observation. I'm no longer part of a 12-step fellowship but I've been around them enough to see hundreds of people get healthy and make a new start in their lives. Those are the ones who do the difficult internal transformational work -- and forgiveness is a key aspect of that work. I've even coached some specific individuals through that process, and watched them dramatically change and turn their lives around 180 degrees. I've also observed, up close and from afar, hundreds of others who don't do the difficult internal work; and like they say in those programs, "If nothing changes, nothing changes." I'm never surprised to see them go right back where they were -- or worse. Quite often, they die from it.

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