Once upon a time there was a king who took care of the poor, built roads, bridges and hospitals and passed fair laws. But the king had one flaw: pride. He decreed everyone should call him “Luminous and Noble Divinity.” And everyone did. Well, almost everyone. One old fisherman wouldn’t.
The king had the man dragged before him: “Why do you refuse my proper title?”
“Good king,” the fisherman replied. “It isn’t out of rebellion or disrespect. It’s because I don’t see you as a luminous and noble divinity. I can’t say it sincerely.”
The king was suspicious and tossed him into the dungeon.
A year went by. The king had the old man fetched to him. “Are you ready to address me properly?”
The old fisherman bowed his head, “My king, after sitting in your dungeon for a year, I still don’t see you as luminous and divine. I wouldn’t be respecting you if I lied.”
“Perhaps I fed you too well,” the king said. “A diet of bread and water may help.”
Another year went by. The fisherman was skinny. His clothes were threadbare. “Now will you address me properly?”
“I’m sorry,” the old fisherman sighed. “But honestly, I still don’t see you as luminous and divine.”
The king waved him back to prison. But he was curious. What was the old man really thinking?
He told a minister to have the man released. The king disguised himself and secretly followed the fisherman to his shack.
The fisherman’s wife was overjoyed to have her husband back. As the two talked, the king hid and listened.
The woman’s countenance turned dark as she spoke about the ill treatment from the king.
“Yes,” said the old man, “He didn’t treat me so well. But he’s not so bad. He looks out for the poor. He builds roads and bridges and piers. His laws are just.”
The king was flabbergasted to hear kind words after years of punishment. Suddenly the fisherman seemed luminous, noble and divine compared to his own pettiness. The king stepped out of the shadows. His eyes were damp. “You speak well of me though I have wronged you,” he said. “I ask your forgiveness.”
The fisherman said, “What I said was true, O Luminous and Noble Divinity. You are a good king despite your ill treatment of me.”
The king was taken aback. “You called me ‘Luminous and Noble Divinity.’ I don’t understand. Why now?”
“Because I can say it sincerely,” said the fisherman. “You asked for forgiveness. In this you appear luminous and noble.”
There is a luminous and noble divinity in all of us: a soft spot of deep, sensitive aliveness. In the West we often refer to it with God language: “spark of divinity,” “God within,” “inner light.” The East uses different metaphors: pure consciousness or consciousness without an object, pure awareness or awareness of awareness.
But whatever we call this luminous core, it’s in everyone of us. It’s in you and me. It was in the fisherman and the king. It was in Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi. Its in Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner. It’s in the guy who cut you off in traffic last week and it was in you when you accidentally cut that woman off last week. It’s in your newborn grandchild. It’s in all the people sitting around you.
Sometimes it’s hard to see this soft luminosity. It’s hard when the person is prideful or suspicious, like the king. It’s hard when someone is abrupt, morose, stressed, controlling, or scared. And it’s hard to see in others when we are prideful, short fused, moody or shrunken in fear.
It’s easier to see when someone sincerely speaks well of us, like the fisherman speaking of the king. (Ever notice that: someone speaks well of us and a defensiveness drops that we didn’t even know we had.) It’s easier when, like the king, someone genuinely admits their mistakes and asks for forgiveness.
But however we get there, when we see that soft spot, forgiveness opens up.
To forgive someone is not to condone their actions. If appropriate, we may still hold them responsible for what they did. To forgive is not to believe our forgiveness will magically change them so they’ll never harm again. We can forgive and still have defenses. To forgive is not necessarily to reconcile. In reconciliation, two people bare their souls, own what they did wrong, rectify the wrong if possible, promise not to do it again and mend the relationship. It takes two people to reconcile. But it only takes one to forgive. Forgiveness is part of reconciliation. But we can forgive a person even if they won’t reconcile with us.
To forgive is simply to give up hope of changing the past. We release the tension, like a tug of war in which we decide not to pull on that rope any more. We let the past be in the past and move forward.
However we get there, when we forgive or sincerely ask for forgiveness, our luminous and noble divinity shine. We feel this psychologically as release of tension. We sense it spiritually as a lighter countenance. And we can measure it medically. It’s true: forgiveness has quantitative health benefits.
In one well-known experiment, volunteers were connected to stress detection equipment that measured blood pressure, heart rate, muscular tension, and galvanic skin response. Then they were asked to recall two experiences: one of betrayal by a parent, the other of betrayal by a partner.
From these descriptions, it was easy to divide the volunteers into two categories: those who forgave easily and those who didn’t. Those who had difficulty forgiving showed higher signs of stress. Their histories revealed more health problems, visits to the doctor, anxiety, and depression.
Forgiveness promotes spiritual, mental, and even physical wellbeing.
If the ability to forgive were part of our constitution – if it were something we inherited like eye color or height – those who forgive easily would be blessed. The rest of us would be doomed.
But forgiving is more like a skill we learn or a quality we cultivate that lightens our lives.
So I’d like to talk about the light of forgiveness.
This is the first Sunday of January – a time when many people practice their New Year’s resolve to improve their lives.
This time of year I like to remind myself that habit is stronger than will. Will power can suppress a bad habit for a short time. But it takes so much energy that soon we tire and the bad habit reasserts itself.
Forgiveness is a better way to illuminate and uplift our lives. This is my annual forgiveness sermon.
This year I’d like to talk about the relationship between forgiveness and the luminous and noble divinity that is the core of all of us.
As a way to move further into this topic, I’d like to share a Buddhist understanding of emotions. I spend the first five weeks of my recent sabbatical in meditation. So this is also a way of offering you something from the sabbatical time you gave me.
In the West we make a clear distinction between emotion and thought. The Western Enlightenment idealized pure reason and saw pure emotion as its enemy. Ever since, reason and emotion have been seen as opposing universes.
Buddhism doesn’t see such a clear distinction. It sees feeling, thought, and perception as interdependent and co-mingling. And current brain research supports the Buddhist perspective. Any area of the brain that is activated in strong emotions is also activated in thinking and perception. The circuitry involved in thinking and emotion co-mingle.
So when we talk about emotion from a Buddhist perspective, we are talking about thinking and cognition at the same time.
Buddhism has three different categories of emotions. These translate crudely into English as “gross emotion,” “subtle emotion” and “very subtle emotion.”
In the West, all emotion is seen as a surge of energy. We see “e-motion” as “energy in motion.” Love, anger, desire, compassion, fear, anxiety, joy … are different kinds of energy waves.
Buddhism recognizes these surges as well and calls them “gross emotion.”
Subtle emotion, on the other hand, is not an energy surge. Subtle emotion is a structure in the mind that potentially distorts perception and thinking. The University of Chicago psychologist Eugene Gendlin calls them “felt sense” as compared to a transient surge. They are like a subtle mood or cloud that obscures.
For example, when we are strongly attracted to a person, we focus on their positive qualities and overlook their negatives. We see their soft brown eyes and miss the spinach in their teeth. This distorts our mental image of who they truly are in their totality.
When we strongly dislike someone, we focus on their negatives and miss their positives. We notice their bad breath and overlook their thoughtful attention. This distorts perception in the opposite way.
I have a close relative who, for the last four years, keeps reminding me that I am an egotistical jerk (though his language is more colorful). Whatever I do or say is distorted to support this image he holds of me. Have you ever known someone who has a set idea of who you are no matter what you do?
Have you ever been in the opposite situation? You were angry with someone and saw them as dense and impossible. The next week, your anger dissipated and you saw them as clumsy and sweet – your image of them shifted with your mood.
Subtle emotions may be accompanied by gross emotions. But they don’t have to be. Sometimes a person is perfectly placid though their perception is badly twisted.
We see this all the time in politics. Someone has strong opinions without feeling strong emotions. But their opinion filters their perceptions: which facts they accept or reject and which commentators they tune in to. These opinions are “subtle emotions” – mental moods that twist the mind until its image of reality becomes ignorant and deluded.
As an outsider traveling in the West Bank I saw this a lot. I could walk through a military checkpoint with several suspicious packages. My American accent, US passport, and Western appearance would cause the soldiers to wave me through without a second glance. Behind me an old woman with a cane, traditional Palestinian dress and headscarf might be searched, doubted, harassed, and humiliated as if she were a threat.
At another time I’ll delve more into my travels in Palestine and Israel and unpack the situation more thoroughly. But for this morning, my point is that subtle emotions afflict perception. The mood itself may be subtle. But the effect can be coarse and destructive.
In contrast to subtle emotion, very subtle emotion is free of distortion. Very subtle emotion is awareness itself.
Awareness usually focuses on an external object, like a flower or music or person, or an internal object like a thought or mental image. We notice the object, but rarely notice the awareness itself.
When the mind is very still and no objects arise, awareness may turn back upon itself – we become aware of awareness or conscious of consciousness. It’s said to be pure because it has no object other than itself.
In the West, we don’t think of awareness or consciousness as an emotion. But pure awareness or pure consciousness has qualities. Since it has no distortion, it sees things as they are. It is clear, wise, non-judgmental, spacious, compassionate, suffused with subtle joy and luminous. It has the qualities that in the West are attributed to a loving God.
In the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading The Cloud of Unknowing, the famous writing of a 14th century Christian mystic. His descriptions of God, Jesus, grace, and contemplative prayer sound identical to Buddhist’s very subtle emotion. The conceptual framework is different. But the texture of experience is the same.
The direct and sustained experience of pure consciousness is rare just as is the Christian union with God. Usually it requires a lot of training.
However, all of us have glimpses of it. When we see a three year old giggling, for a moment we feel that luminous joy. The heart feels spacious. The universe is pervaded with kindness.
When we feel the soft spot in ourselves or sense it in someone else, we glimpse this inner luminosity. It seems wise, innocent and pure.
Now, what does this have to do with forgiveness?
Lack of forgiveness – holding a grudge – is a kind of mood or felt sense. It is a subtle emotion and mental affliction that distorts perception. Specifically, it interferes with our ability to see that soft light within, the pure divinity in the person, call it what you will.
Lack of forgiveness may be accompanied by gross emotions – hurt, fear, anger, spite or sadness. But lack of forgiveness can also be devoid of stormy emotions – like a day of perpetual overcast.
On the other hand, we can feel hurt or angry and still be quite forgiving. We see the soft spot in the person even as we feel upset. So we don’t blame them in a condemning way.
So lack of forgiveness itself is not a gross emotion. It is a subtle delusion – subtle in that it is hard to feel directly. Still, it drains our enjoyment, reduces our vitality, distorts our thinking, and weakens our health. And if we have power over the person, it endangers basic human rights.
So, let’s get practical. If we are stuck in grumbliness, if our mood is unforgiving, if we see how it is sucking the life force out of us, how can we forgive and move on?
I’ll offer three strategies.
The first strategy is the most obvious: try forgiving the person or forgiving ourselves. Say, “I forgive you;” “I forgive myself.” Deep down, all of us want the release of forgiveness. Sometimes we can jumpstart forgiveness with a gentle push.
Then it opens up naturally.
But not always.
If it doesn’t open up, we go to the second strategy which takes us deeper: intentionally look for the soft spot in the person.
Perhaps someone has been yelling at us. Rather than tighten up, we step back and look at them more sensitively. Beneath their anger is hurt or fear of being hurt. Beneath this is a soft spot of tenderness they are trying to protect. This is their humanness and inner light. When we glimpse this, forgiveness starts to open up.
Or perhaps someone is filled with egotism like the king in the story. The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote that egoism is the ego’s attempt to lift itself up after it has sunk into self-hatred. If we sense closely, we can see the self-hatred and the softness beneath it. With this, forgiveness opens up.
But not always.
If our hurt or fear is weighty or our vision has been overcast in grudge for a long time, forgiveness may be just a short break in the clouds that closes again.
If this happens, we go to the third strategy. We set the whole situation aside for a while and put our attention on something uplifting. We might meditate, pray, reflect, or write in our journal. We may talk with a good friend or play with small children. We might surround ourselves with beauty, art, music or nature. We might engage in physical activity. … You know what works for you.
As we feel some measure of joy, ease, or happiness, we are touching our own soft core, divinity and inherent spaciousness. We recognize the light in us.
After feeling this, we bring our focus back to the person we haven’t been able to forgive. Now, the grudge may have lost some appeal.
Remember, in forgiving, we aren’t condoning the deed, opening up to getting hurt again, or reconciling with the person. We just lose interest in investing life force in some event that is over. We give up trying to have a better past. We let the past be in the past and come into this moment.
We don’t push the issue away. But we release it. Life is precious. We see how holding the grudge, however deserved it might be, darkens our life. We give up the tug of war and move on.
And if, after doing this, the darkness comes back again, we relax and forgive ourselves for how difficult forgiveness can be. We honor our intentions.
Then we do it all again: find our luminous core and see our emotional distortion and see the light in the other. We go back and forth until our grudge gradually wears out. And it will wear out. Dark unforgiveness cannot survive for long in the light.
Let’s close with a little forgiveness. Remember, forgiving a person is not saying what they did or what we did was okay then or will be okay in the future. It is only letting it be in the past. Come into the present.
You might want to close your eyes.
Think of someone in your life with whom you feel stuck. A hurt or wrong has been committed. It stays with you and may darken your life. The person may be a loved one, a friend, a casual acquaintance, or even ourselves. Sometimes forgiving ourselves is the greatest hurdle. …
Take a moment to step back from the person (or from yourself). See them from afar, as if you were observing from a hilltop. You see not only the difficulty. You see the larger context going on around them and going on around you.
Know that there is a soft spot in them and in you. A vulnerable openness. A precious aliveness that sometimes asks to be protected. Sense this deep sensitivity that may be hidden beneath brash behavior or fear or hurt.
Just picture that light within them. Sense it in you. …
Now say to them, ”For the things you did consciously or unconsciously, for what you said or didn’t say, for the ways you have slighted or injured, violated or forgotten, I forgive you.”
Or say, “For the things I have said and done or not said or not done, for the ways I’ve been hurtful or neglectful, I ask forgiveness.”
… I forgive you. … I ask your forgiveness. …
See their light and your light and use whatever words come most naturally to you …
I forgive … I ask forgiveness. …
Copyright 2011, Doug Kraft. First to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, on Sunday, January 2, 2011.
I gave at least one talk on forgiveness each year, often right after New Years. Below are links to some of these talks: