While on vacation last month, I started thinking about the relationship between forgiveness and freedom, liberation. What is it about forgiving oneself, and another, that causes a lightening up, a feeling of relief, a feeling of having a slate wiped clean, a chance to start over?
No sooner had I decided I wanted to contemplate and write a blog post about forgiveness, than up popped onto my Facebook feed an announcement for a workshop about forgiveness to be held over Passover/Easter weekend. What a treat.
It was a small gathering of nine people and two facilitators. Eileen Barker of the Path of Forgiveness is a mediator and a well-known teacher about forgiveness (and she has a good web site). She was joined by Michael Gelbart, an East Bay psychotherapist and workshop facilitator. Both were delightful, and so was the group and the whole two hours we spent together.
The theme was “Nothing to Forgive,” and it turns out that this was the fourth in a series of workshops in advance of a weekend retreat that Michael and Eileen will be leading in May in the North Bay area. I’m too over-extended right now to consider going but I may attend a retreat with them in the future.
Forgiveness is a subject I want to study and practice and make a focal point of my life. It’s not that I’ve never thought about or engaged with forgiveness. It’s that it now presents itself as an absolute necessity for happiness and spiritual growth. And yet, I am now just scratching the surface as to what it’s all about.
The workshop began with each of us being asked what brought us there. At such gatherings, one assumes confidentiality, and so I’ll say nothing about what other people said.
What I said is that I want to work on forgiving my own thoughts. It’s not that I’m out there doing a bunch of bad things to people and need to be forgiven. Nor is it that a lot of other people are doing bad things to me and that I need to forgive them. My cutting edge with forgiveness these days is that I notice my own aversion in the form of thoughts and things I say to myself, and then I add to that suffering another layer: I get mad at myself for having negative thoughts about other people and about myself. It can become a vicious circle, and I have to frequently remind myself to let the mind chatter subside.
Eileen took on the task of trying to summarize the huge subject of forgiveness with just a few ideas. She said that there are multiple conversations going on under the rubric of forgiveness. On one level, there is the need for person A to forgive person B or persons B, C, and D. That’s one conversation. A whole other conversation involves self-forgiveness: A needs to forgive herself – that’s where my quandary often lies.
A third conversation was the subject of the workshop: the idea that, from a certain vantage point, there is “nothing to forgive.” What was done by A to B or by A to A herself is OK. One can say that something was “meant to be” which has all sorts of philosophical problems, namely that it seems to absolve a wrongdoer of responsibility, and it can lead to a “who cares” attitude. Saying there is “nothing to forgive” can also mean surrendering to what has happened, the results of choices that were made, without looking to assign blame, let alone exact revenge.
We talked about how saying “nothing to forgive” is not at all about condoning misdeeds, individual or societal. Nor is it about the one who experiences hurt and pain not feeling the hurt and pain, including anger.
“Nothing to forgive” is a kind of mysterious state of awareness, a place where all is well, not in spite of — but in addition to — what has happened and who done it.
We talked about these issues a bit, but what I really got out of the workshop came from our experience with the “nothing to forgive” theme.
Eileen led us in a meditation in which she repeated three sentences and we were to feel our own physical and emotional response to each, and then we shared the results with each other.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the three statements were: 1) There’s nothing to forgive; 2) Everything is the way it’s supposed to be; and 3) There are no mistakes.
If one reads these lines and thinks about them just with the mind, one can spin out all sorts of counter-arguments and objections. Fortunately, that’s not what we were doing. We were simply observing our own silent feelings as these statements came to us.
Everyone had a slightly different response. I felt myself clenching up around #2, that “everything is the way it’s supposed to be.” But when Eileen read #1 and #3, I just felt a nice, peaceful feeling in my heart, and I felt: “yes, that’s the place where I’d like to hang out and spend more of my time.”
Again, I don’t at all mean that no one’s responsible for bad behavior, that there are no accidents or intentional atrocities. Turn on any media channel at any moment. On the most basic level, we’re swimming in a sea of wrongness: from the thief in the neighborhood, to the Wall Street crooks, to the violent armies of terror all over the world. I would not have been at this workshop if it was about white-washing any of this.
I don’t know if I can articulate it here, but the way I experienced it at the workshop is that there’s a sort of “binocular” view that is available to us. At one level, there is identifiable and assignable wrongdoing, and each of us needs to protect ourselves and others, to the extent possible.
On another level, deep in the heart, there is a feeling of empty, clear spaciousness, where the worst of the worst can be held, and where there is no retribution needed. That, I felt during our time together, is a place of forgiveness, a kind of station where one can rest, stay for maybe just this moment. Or maybe it’s imminently possible to stay, and stay, and stay there for a long while longer.