So much of our negative thinking is directed at other people and ourselves. Usually in the form of anger if it’s someone else, or guilt (which is just anger turned inwards) if it’s us.
We spend endless hours torturing ourselves over something we’ve done or what someone else did – playing it out over and over, digging the dagger deeper and deeper into our heart. It’s so painful to do this and yet we seem unable to help ourselves.
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.Buddha
We know the solution is forgiveness. But most people have no idea how to really forgive.
And let’s be honest, how many of us regularly spend time practicing forgiveness vs practicing anger?
Forgiving ourselves is hard – and the fact is we rarely if ever do it.
When it comes to other people, we pretend to forgive a lot. But most of the time when we say we forgive, we’re still left with the anger, because we don’t know what real forgiveness is.
So I’d like to share my favorite forgiveness prayer and then break it down as a lesson on how to forgive.
”If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through my own confusion, fear or desire I ask their forgiveness.
If anyone has harmed me either knowingly or unknowingly through their own confusion, fear or desire I forgive them.
If there is anything I am not yet ready to forgive, I forgive myself for that.
And in all the ways that I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle, judge or be unkind, I forgive myself for that too.
Learning How to Forgive Ourselves
In the first verse what we’re acknowledging is that we have harmed others, knowingly and unknowingly and that we did it because we were driven by confusion, fear, and desire. It’s the insanity defense, which is closer to the truth than anything else.
It’s not easy to look at our mistakes, especially when our actions have caused harm.
For the longest time – mostly through my 20’s and early 30’s – I lived with a lot of pain, guilt, and shame. It shaped the way I saw myself and it wasn’t pretty.
When I started practicing Buddhism almost 20 years ago I learned that all of our actions are based on previous causes and conditions. And that a lot of those causes and conditions we have no control over. Often we’re just doing the best we can given the circumstances we find ourselves in.
But when we look at the things we’ve done that have caused harm you can always trace it back to being motivated by fear or desire. This doesn’t mean that every time we act out of fear or desire we cause harm, but when we’ve caused harm it has always been because of fear or desire. It clouds our thinking and gives rise to confusion – we don’t see things clearly anymore.
But even with this intellectual understanding if I was feeling down or stressed I could easily be lured into feeling shame and guilt and think of myself as a bad person again.
Until I found the forgiveness prayer.
By saying it over and over, every day (I say it before every meditation) and contemplating the meaning of the words as I say them, I really have been able to forgive myself.
Forgiving ourselves is hard – it’s where we are vulnerable and exposed and raw. It sucks to look at some of the things we’ve done. None of us wants to admit we’ve caused pain, but if we can’t admit it then we can’t forgive it either.
Forgiving ourselves doesn’t excuse our actions or the results of them. It doesn’t mean we don’t have remorse. But that we understand why we did what we did and why we need to forgive.
Because until we’ve forgiven ourselves the roots of guilt and shame are still there and when they grab hold of us we are more likely to cause further harm – even if only to ourselves.
Learning How to Forgive Others
Understanding the first verse is the key to the second verse – where we forgive others. In fact, I don’t think you can forgive others until you are able to forgive yourself.
When someone has disappointed me, and I’m able to get to a stage of real forgiveness it’s because I have understood the first verse.
I’ve disappointed people too.
I’ve caused harm too.
If I’ve genuinely forgiven myself, how can I not forgive others?
That’s why we forgive ourselves in the first verse. It’s kind of hard to say the second verse and not mean it when you’ve just forgiven yourself for the same underlying motivation of fear and desire.
That’s not to say we can forgive everyone right away either. Sometimes there has been some serious harm done to us. We don’t start our forgiving practice where it’s hardest.
And that’s what the third verse is for. To acknowledge that there some things we aren’t yet able to forgive.
Just because we know we should forgive doesn’t mean we are able to. It’s important we don’t beat ourselves up about that. We can only bear so much and we need to know what our limits are.
Forgiving that which we have not yet been able to forgive is still forgiving – we are still practicing forgiveness and it does lessen our attention with whatever it is that’s happened. And this in its small way brings us closer to peace.
You’d never say to someone else what you say to yourself
The last verse is the acknowledgment of just how brutally we judge, criticize and say unkind things to ourselves.
By recognizing this mostly unconscious habit every time we say the prayer, we become more aware of it, we are reminded that we are doing this.
With awareness, it helps us catch ourselves more quickly while we are doing it so that we can stop doing it. Because every time we forgive ourselves for doing it (when we recite the prayer) we have compassion for ourselves and that starts to win out over the criticism.
Why we fear forgiving?
Part of the fear of forgiving other people is that we think we’ll become punching bags, weaklings and people will walk all over us. Or we’ll continue to do bad things because we won’t have any remorse.
But forgiving someone doesn’t mean there are no repercussions.
It’s important to remove people from our lives that cause us harm – it can be toxic and unhealthy to have some people around us.
But we do so with compassion and understanding, knowing they are being driven by extreme confusion, fear, and desire. We know what a little bit of fear can do to us, some people have a lot more of it and they do become toxic.
Genuine forgiveness means there is no negative residue left in our minds. We don’t wish them ill-will, we only want what’s best for them – even if we never see them again.
And for ourselves, forgiveness doesn’t mean a lack of conscience. Just the opposite, forgiveness makes us more conscious of our actions and increases our capacity for compassion and kindness. It opens our hearts and we are far less likely to hurt anyone, including ourselves, when our hearts are open.
Forgiveness is the Path
There’s not a sage in the world that would tell you forgiveness is not the path to freedom.
So much of our discontentment, dissatisfaction and anger is directed at people – other people and us.
The only way to get past this is to forgive.
And yet, we spend so little time practicing forgiveness. I would suggest most people have no idea how to forgive. It sounds good in theory, but how do you do it?
That’s what this prayer does. If you say it every day, not just once and forget it. But every day, say this prayer and reflect on the meaning of the words as you say it.
Start forgiving yourself for little things first. Then build up to bigger things.
Sometimes you’ll notice something come up that you thought you had forgiven, but now it’s disturbing you again. So you practice forgiveness on this. And remember to forgive yourself for not yet being able to forgive this completely. The best way to remember that is by saying the prayer.
Once you start genuinely forgiving from a view of wisdom and compassion, your mind will be free of so much old anger, shame, and resentment. This is what you want. You don’t want the pain you want to be free of the pain. This is how you do it.
Imagine if every day, every person on the planet said this prayer – what a beautiful, kind and compassionate world we’d live in.