There’s a saying, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Mahatma Gandhi was once asked how he could put up with all the injustice and cruelty in the world. He responded, “I’m such a scoundrel myself, I have compassion for all the other scoundrels in the world.” When we consider our own weaknesses and mistakes, and how hard it is for us to change, shouldn’t we be more compassionate and forgiving to others? Sri Gurudev used to say that when we point a finger of accusation at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us, and there’s one, the thumb, standing up— like God—witnessing everything.
Sri Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras speaks of tapas, which means accepting pain as help for purification. All the annoyances and difficulties, injustices and ordeals, make us strong. We are like gold being purified. The problems chip way at the dross in our personalities so that the true gold in us, our divine image, can shine forth. A saintly person once described it this way: “There are two types of people in the world: the saints and the saint-makers.” In other words, there are those who are sent to inspire us, and those who come to purify us. So, the next time you start to get annoyed at someone who pushes all your buttons, thank them instead for showing you your weaknesses and helping you to grow stronger.
The Tirukkural advises: “At all times put up with the excesses of others; to forget them at once is even better.” You may ask, “How is it possible to forget when someone has wronged you?” There’s a story about a spiritual teacher, who, as a boy, had a classmate that treated him very cruelly. Years later, the former classmate came to visit the teacher, where he was received with much kindness. After a while, he asked the teacher, “Don’t you remember how badly I treated you when we were boys?” The teacher gently replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting it!”
Forgiveness is an act of choice. It is not about denying, condoning, or excusing hurtful actions. Rather, it is the letting go of resentment or revenge, even when they seem warranted, and offering instead mercy and love. By so doing, we release the past and let go of negative thoughts and feelings. We become unstuck and can move on in our lives. Energy that was tied up within us becomes available for positive, creative endeavors. Relationships are healed, and we, too, are healed.
Forgiveness and healing are linked. In speaking of forgiveness, the Holy Bible says: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we forgive others, the spirit of forgiveness flows through us, and we, too, receive the benefit. It’s like using a funnel to transfer honey from one vessel to another: the funnel also gets the sweetness. We transfer the honey of divine forgiveness to another, and we, too, are forgiven.
I once met a woman who, twenty years prior, had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. As she was about to undergo aggressive therapy in the hospital, she began to reflect: “Maybe I’m going to die soon, but I don’t want to die like this.” She left the hospital and rented a small cabin. She spent her days visualizing being filled with forgiveness and letting go of anger. That was her entire treatment protocol. Little by little, she felt her strength return. Within a year, she returned to her home and resumed her work. And today, decades later, she is leading a healthy, dynamic life.
Consider the alternative: We hold on to feelings of anger, resentment, and betrayal and make our lives miserable. These negative feelings poison our system and set the stage for serious illnesses. In Chinese medicine, for example, liver problems are associated with anger. If we cling to our pain, to the wrongs we feel we have suffered, we build walls around our hearts. We imprison ourselves and feel the agony of separation, loneliness, and alienation. It’s as if we shut our windows and doors and then cry that we can’t see the Light.
Forgiveness issues can occur on three levels. First, there are the people or events that we need to forgive. Next, there are those from whom we need to seek forgiveness. Lastly, we may need to forgive ourselves for perceived weaknesses or failures. The following exercises offer some suggestions on how to proceed.
Forgiveness Exercise #1
Here is a good exercise to inspire you to forgive others. Begin by purchasing a bag of potatoes. Next, make a list of every person or situation you have not forgiven. For each entry on your list, place one potato in a sack. Carry that sack with you wherever you go for one week. Physically, you will feel the burden, and that pales compared to the subtle energy drain on your system caused by all grievances and unresolved issues you are carrying. After some time, the potatoes may even start to mold and rot. Then, you’ll get a glimpse of how this inner fermentation is preventing you from experiencing the divine fragrance within.
Forgiveness Exercise #2
We may also need to ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness, along with sincere repentance, can heal us, as well as our relationships. Sri Gurudev addressed this point when speaking about reversing cancer. He said if you want to heal the body, you need to burn out the karma that caused the problem. Even if you don’t know what you did, there is something you must have done to create the situation. To burn out the karma, do a lot of repentance. If you know whom you hurt, go to that person and ask forgiveness. If you don’t know what you did, or if it’s not possible to contact them anymore, mentally ask for forgiveness. You could even place a picture of the individual before you and offer your prayers in that way. By such actions, you can purge negative karma and reduce suffering in your life.
Forgiveness Exercise #3
Sometimes, it’s easier to forgive others than it is to show the same compassion toward ourselves. We can be our own toughest critic and judge. Many years back, when I was living at Yogaville West in Lake County, California, I was troubled by an interaction that had occurred with a guest several years before. There’s a saying in the Hindu tradition: “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means, “Treat the guest as God.” God comes to the home in the form of a guest. On one occasion, I had not been very kind or gracious to a visitor, and every time I sat to meditate, remembrance of that event flashed through my mind and disrupted the sitting. One day, burdened and frustrated in this way, I came up with a plan. I couldn’t go to them. So, I decided to design a penance for myself to be executed over the course of a month as an act of atonement. It was challenging, but, with some effort, doable. In my heart, I asked God to please accept my penance.
Those were the “pioneer days” of the IYI. We had little in the way of financial resources and lived very frugally; rarely did we have special treats. The room I occupied was in a solitary location, not frequented by others. With some difficulty, I completed the month. On the very last day, when I returned to my room that night, there was a surprise awaiting me. In the center of my altar, wrapped in gold, was a huge piece of chocolate! I took it as a sign that my penance had been accepted.
We are the ones that forge the chains that bind us, and we also hold the keys to set ourselves free. Forgiveness is one of those master keys. Use it, and watch the love and light in your life grow ever brighter.
(By Swami Karunananda, from the August, 2013 IYTA Newsletter)