In late April we completed One Dharma’s fourth Spring Renewal residential retreat at Bethany Hills in Kingston Springs. We had many returning and experienced meditators, only a few beginners this time. We always welcome people of all levels of experience, but this happened to tip toward a more experienced crowd overall. I’m happy to say that those who were new made it through the weekend like champs.
A number of deep and probing questions were posed during the q&a sessions and I’m sure many participants will be digesting them for a while. On Saturday night we did a guided forgiveness practice and during the closing circle many shared that the practice had a strong impact on them. In particular they discovered a deep and unexpected need to forgive themselves.
Related to forgiveness practice, I have a couple of striking experiences I’d like to share: one from the retreat and another from my own past experience. One person at the retreat gradually discovered that forgiveness is not linear no matter how strong his desire to forgive. Through the guided forgiveness practice, he discovered that he simply wasn’t ready to release a major betrayal, no matter how deeply he wanted to let it go. This was a major breakthrough that helped settle his heart and allowed him to accept his true feelings as a path toward healing.
We may go through a process of forgiveness and feel a release, only to experience the hurt and anger arising again. Many people believe they must forgive at all costs in order to be freed from anger and attachments. Perhaps
in a simpler world, liberation would come this easily. But adhering to this model often leads us to push past the pain or hurt to reach an ideal of forgiveness. In this case, nothing is truly resolved; we only encounter a veneer of forgiveness that is ready to crack at a moment’s notice.
When we can’t forgive, we may find that the hurt and sadness that arose from a particular event is still present in our hearts and calls to be acknowledged, even honored. We need to offer compassion to ourselves, to the pain, before we can begin to let go. This may take while. But gradually this process opens the door to deeper, more genuine forgiveness. When we see our own suffering more clearly, we can more readily see the others pain too and a doorway to true forgiveness may crack open. Or open wide. This doesn’t mean we allow inappropriate behavior from people after we’ve forgiven. We may need to set strong boundaries. Forgiveness does mean that we don’t continue to carry anger and hurt in our hearts in a way that weigh us down. We can’t force the timing and may need to return many times to our broken heart, our anger or pain until the heart at last finds release. Ultimately, forgiveness is done for ourselves, to free us from bondage to the past.
On the other side of the coin, we may at times cling to anger and hurt in a righteous way, reinforcing a feeling of separation of self and other: “I’m right and you’re wrong, and until you acknowledge it, I will hold it against you.” There’s something perversely satisfying about holding on to this narrative even though it keeps our inner needle stuck on anger. When we cling in this way, we can’t access our tender hearts in the present moment, where the hurt can be touched and released.
At one retreat I had a dream about a friend who I felt had betrayed me. In the dream we were squabbling over petty things, each trying to prove the other wrong. I watched myself clinging to my idea of what she should have done, and she kept pushing back that I was wrong. In the dream we never reached resolution, we were stuck in a tug of rope with no winner. When I awoke I saw the absurdity of the situation and realized it was time to let go. Through my dream, my heart was telling that I was ready and soon after our friendship resumed. This situation helped me I realize how precious good friendships are and how much time can be lost over disagreements that aren’t at the heart of the relationship.
So whether you are pushing yourself to forgive before you’re ready, or clinging to a perceived wrong that is keeping your heart imprisoned, finding the way to freedom means honoring what is most true for you in this moment. When we understand that forgiveness is not always a linear process, we can see that it requires patience, courage and compassion. This helps to bring us back to ourselves, to our wise heart, which can reveal the true way to forgiveness.