January 5, 2003
Jill and Brian were so happy about the pregnancy. Together they went to checkups and childbirth classes. At four months, they had painted and furnished the little room that would be a nursery. At five months they had settled on a mid-wife. At six months, Jill left her elementary teaching position to rest and prepare for the birth. At seven months, Brian was okayed to take a month and a half of paternity leave when the baby arrived.
Jill was in labor a little longer than anticipated but everything went well. They named the baby Sara Jeanne.
Unfortunately, Sara Jeanne cried a lot. They fed her, changed her diapers, and she cried. They snuggled her and sang to her and still she cried. The doctor and the mid-wife diagnosed colic. They made suggestions, but nothing helped. The baby cried.
Jill and Brian's mood shifted from joy to worry to frantic concern to despair. Their dream of a baby was turning into a nightmare. And still, colicky Sara Jeanne cried.
Finally, Brian was so depressed and exhausted that he said to Jill, "I've had it. I can't take it any more. I'm going to close myself in the bedroom and sleep for a few hours. I don't know what you are going to do. But I'm going to sleep."
Jill lay down on the carpet in the middle of the living room with the crying baby on top of her. She felt like a complete failure. She was flunking the thing she cared most about and had a crying baby to prove it. Tears slid down her cheeks. She was too exhausted to help little Sara or resist her own feelings. She let down into deep sadness and sobbed uncontrollably.
The effect was miraculous. As Jill relaxed into the sadness in her body, the baby relaxed as well. As Jill started crying, the baby stopped crying and fell asleep. A few hours later when Brian woke, he found them both sleeping sweetly in the middle of the living room.
This is the first Sunday of the New Year. The New Year is usually represented by a newborn baby. I hope 2003 does not start colicky. New Years is also a time of New Years resolutions. But I think forgiveness of past misdeeds is a far more effective way to change than steely determination.
So, this morning I want to talk about forgiveness. It can feel as miraculous as a colicky baby relaxing and falling asleep. It can be as restorative as a long overdue nap. It can feel as refreshing as a cloud of despair suddenly clearing.
Yet forgiveness is complicated. The term is used to refer to two different processes. One is forgiving ourselves for the bad things we have done to others and to ourselves. The other is forgiving those who have done bad things to us. Until we have let down enough to forgive ourselves, we will not have the depth to forgive others in a meaningful way. So I'll leave that topic for next week and focus this morning on forgiving ourselves.
Forgiving ourselves is part of a cycle of guilt and forgiveness that can involve our whole body: hands, feet, head, gut, and heart. The cycle starts symbolically with our hands and feet. This is to say we do something we should not have done or walked away from something we should have done.
From there, it goes into our head: we have thoughts about what we did. We have judgments about our actions. Our thoughts might be skillful discernment or unskillful condemnation. But one way or another we evaluate our behavior.
From there, the cycle goes to our gut. We feel remorse, guilt, shame, or regret.
If the process leads to genuine forgiveness, sooner or later it moves into our heart. We hold our thoughts and feelings in our heart. We let them be whatever they are as we just observe. We are present. With time, there is a sense of release. This is the core of self-forgiveness.
From this core, the process flows back out to the gut and head: our mood shifts and our thoughts become less condemning and more understanding. And finally, the process might move out to the hands as we do what we can to correct our misdeeds. Or resolve to never do it again.
So this is the cycle: from the hands and feet to the head and gut to the heart and back out to the head and gut and hands. Let's talk through this process and look at each phase in more detail.
The cycle of guilt and forgiveness often starts with our hands and feet. It starts with something we have done or walked away from without doing. What’s important is not some metaphysical or philosophical code of right and wrong. What’s important is our personal values. We have all done things large and small that conflict with our own ideals.
The old adage says, "It’s the truth that makes us free." And the truth is that, intentionally or unintentionally and with malice or goodness in all our hearts, we have all done things we wished we hadn't.
Perhaps you fudged on your taxes. You said you had to work late when the truth was you wanted to work late. You stayed silent when you knew speaking up would get you in trouble. You "borrowed" something without asking first. You wished someone ill.
Pause for a moment to recall some of the bad things you’ve done. …
Notice that intentions count. There is a difference between intentionally and unintentionally doing wrong. Yet, we can judge ourselves or feel guilt even when we do something unintentionally. Actions count as well as intentions.
The cycle of guilt and forgiveness next moves to the head. We are reflective creatures. We have thoughts about what we did or didn't do. This discernment is important. It deepens our self-understanding and guides our future actions.
However, sometimes our minds get overly enthusiastic. Sometimes they move from discernment to judgment to condemnation. A dispassionate discerning becomes an emotional critiquing. "I did something bad" becomes a global "I am bad."
I suspect all of us are quite familiar with this judging mind. It is universal. In fact, it can be an object of meditation. You may be familiar with the practice of counting breaths. Similarly, you can also count judgments. You notice the thought, "I don't like that racket." Judgment one. "It's bad of me to judge like that." Judgment two. "I'm pretty good at this counting business." Judgment three. And so forth.
Through this practice you can become more conscious of judgments and appreciate how automatically a mind can append an opinion to any experience.
In general, it is usually more skillful to observe the mind's judging rather than try to curb it. First of all, sometimes the judgments are true and objective. They can be helpful. Secondly, even when the judgment is not objective, thoughts are only thoughts. Rather than make too big a deal of them, it is wiser to develop a sense of humor and just notice. Then the judgments lose their power to drive us into action. We are freer to choose to follow or ignore them.
From the head, the guilt-forgiveness cycle next moves to the gut. We see that we have done something to hurt someone and we feel remorse or guilt.
I am not of the school of thought that says we should never feel guilt. I do not believe that it is necessarily bad to feel bad. Not all guilt is an emotional disease. Sometimes it is a healthy response we can embrace. If someone is hurt by what we did, it is natural to feel remorse. There are terms for people who never feel guilt: we call them sociopaths and psychopaths. So if you feel guilt, you can be thankful that you are not a sociopath.
However, sometimes we feel guilt without a precipitating action or thoughts. Sometimes the guilt-forgiveness cycle actually begins in the gut. I have Catholic friends who can feel guilty without doing anything bad. There is a story about a woman who gave her son two ties. The next time he visited her, he wore one. She greeted him with, "So, I see you didn't like the other tie." Some people feel guilty no matter what they do.
The old Catholic and Calvinist doctrine of original sin says that we are bad for being born – we are born in sin. Unitarians and Universalists rejected this idea – we are born pure and wholesome. But emotional conditioning can run deeper than beliefs.
Gut level guilt can also be the aftermath of emotional trauma. I had a client, Paul, who never had a best friend while growing up. His first real buddy was a guy he met in the army in Viet Nam. Late one morning they hopped a ride on an American tank as they came back from patrol in the bush. After riding for fifteen minutes, they switched places. A few moments later, a Viet Cong rocket hit the tank were Paul had been sitting and where his buddy was now sitting. His buddy was blown to pieces, his head landing in Paul's lap. Paul spent three months in the hospital and many months beyond recovering from the physical wounds. But twenty years later, he still felt emotional wounds. He felt guilty for surviving when his best friend died. Objectively, Paul had done nothing wrong. But still he felt guilt and needed forgiveness.
Jill and Brian felt guilty about little Sara Jeanne’s colic. Their intentions were pure. Their actions were informed. But still, they felt so bad that they began to think they were bad. They needed self-forgiveness though they had done nothing wrong.
Some people try to treat irrational guilt with rational thought. They would remind Jill and Brian and my Catholic friend, Paul, that they had done nothing wrong. Occasionally, this helps. But typically it doesn’t. If the guilt was rational, reason might have more effect. Often we can't be talked out of it. Or even worse, we feel guilty for feeling guilty. What we need is a deeper process of self-forgiveness.
The guilt-forgiveness cycle eventually enters the heart. Without the heart there is no healing. When I say "heart," I mean looking at our actions, thoughts, and feelings in an open, accepting way. We don’t try to cover them, change, or make them better or worse. We just see them as they are.
This is what Jill did in the middle of the living room.
Jill thought that if she were an adequate mother, she could comfort her daughter. She couldn't. In her fatigue and despair she felt she must be doing something bad. She had been so focused on taking care of her infant that she was not aware of the self-condemnation in her mind or the despair in her body. Most people are not adequately aware of their bodies.
It may sound strange to say that Jill lay down and opened her heart. After all, she didn't say, "I need to love myself more. I need more compassion and self-acceptance." She did not have a moment of emotional or spiritual clarity. Rather, out of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, she gave in. She accepted that she thought she was a terrible mother. She had no energy left to resist her thoughts or despair. She had no energy left to try to do anything. She relaxed into her body and felt the grief in it. She sobbed deeply. The tension drained out of her.
This is the essence of giving in to the heart: letting ourselves be with whatever we experience in our bodies.
Meanwhile, the baby had been tense with colic and tense with over-eager parents. All the baby really needed was for them to stop trying so hard and just be. She didn't need them to be anything particular, just to be who they were.
As Jill let down, Sara Jeanne could feel this. She was able to relax and fall asleep despite the colic.
This is what forgiveness is like. We accept what we've done, thought, and felt. We stop trying to change anything. We stop trying to have a better past and just accept things as they are. This doesn't mean that we feel better right away. Forgiveness sometimes takes time and patience.
But gradually, the heart is able to sort out our actions and intentions. Gradually the heart can sort out the discernment from the condemnation. Gradually the heart can sort out the irrational guilt from the natural remorse. This leads to the alchemy of release. We call this forgiveness.
The cycle of guilt and forgiveness does not always end here. It may flow back out to the gut and allow it to relax. It may flow out to the head where old habitual judging looses its power. And it may flow to the hands that take corrective action if appropriate.
This out flowing of forgiveness helps you reflect objectively on past actions. You see why you acted the way you did. You see your weaknesses and know better how not to get caught by them in the future.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk from Viet Nam. He tells of an American soldier who became enraged at villagers who harbored Viet Cong who had killed his friends. So he made some cookies with explosives in them and left the along the road for children.
Many years later, the retired soldier carried a debilitating guilt at the harm he probably caused innocent children. Thich Nhat Hanh asked rhetorically if there was anything he could do to correct his past actions. The soldier said there was not: it was too long ago and too far away. Thich Nhat Hanh did not condemn him or try to talk him out of his remorse, but said he might use it more skillfully. Letting it destroy his life did nothing to help the children and compounded the tragedy. But he could use it to motivate himself to live more consciously and compassionately. There are plenty of sick, injured, and neglected children in the world. Maybe he could use his remorse to help some of them.
The man followed this advice. He will probably never be without the remorse. But as he engaged to do some good in the world, the cloud that had covered his heart for decades began to dissipate. Helping others was part of this man's self-forgiveness.
You may not have done something as extreme as making exploding cookies (though some of us here might have). Yet we have all done things to injure others. Remorse teaches us by focusing our attention. Is there something you can do to correct the wrong? If so, it is wise to do it. If not, let it become an intention to not repeat the harmful action. We come out humbler and wiser and more conscious.
I raise the topic of self-forgiveness today because this is the first Sunday of 2003. It is a time of New Year's resolutions. Resolutions are intentions to behave differently.
As we've seen, intentions are part of the cycle of guilt and forgiveness. But they are only about 5% of the process. They are just the tail end. Most New Year's resolutions are feeble and ineffective because they are the tail trying to wag the dog. They don't do 95% of the work. They rely on will power rather going through the whole process of self-forgiveness.
So, if you make a New Years resolution to keep better control of your temper or to manage your money better or to get more exercise or spend more time with your family, you might want to pause and reflect on what motivated you to make that resolution in the first place.
Consider your hands and feet: what have you done or not done in the past that relates to this resolution? Consider your head: what thoughts and judgments do you have about those actions? Consider your gut: how do you feel about all this? Remember your heart: take it all into your heart and sit patiently with an open awareness.
Rather than make New Year's resolutions, we might start with old year forgiveness. Resolve that comes out of the heart of forgiveness is vastly more powerful than resolve that comes out of will power.
Let me close with some words from Jack Kornfield. These mediations can be repeated as often as you need. Say to yourself:
There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, have betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger and confusion.
Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others. See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret. Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say:
I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.
Just as I have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.
Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Repeat to yourself:
For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend full and heartful forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.*
The person whose love we need most is ourselves. To love ourselves does not mean that all the things we did or didn't do are okay. It just means that we forgive ourselves. Forgiveness performs an alchemy whereby remorse is transmuted into wisdom.
2003 by Doug Kraft. First delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, on Sunday, January 5, 2003
* Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace. (Bantam Books, 2002). p 49-50.
I gave at least one talk on forgiveness each year, often right after New Years. Below are links to some of these talks:
doug, December 30, 2013
Yaakov Reed, August 9, 2015
Every day looking into the mirror I say "I forgive you." Here in this speech you've reminded me that we also need to forgive others. I'll add that to my daily routine.