Tonight I was going to write an original blog, but sometimes I stumble across one of my earlier writings and find that it articulates very well for me what I might have struggled with this evening. In searching for what piece to repost, I ran across one that was not from any of my Lenten blogs, but could just has well have been as it is about one of my favorite things: forgiveness. I don’t mean that sarcastically; thinking about forgiveness and the act itself is incredibly meaningful and powerful. Forgiving another person or being forgiven represents pure freedom for all involved. True forgiveness given and received is one of the greatest spiritual gifts a person can receive. So I invite you to reflect on the place forgiveness has had in your life and share in the comments here or on Facebook. Enjoy.
Day 14–The Power of Letting Go
At the end of life, our questions are very simple: Did I love well? Did I live fully? Did I learn to let go? ~Jack Kornfield
I was talking to a friend on the phone the other night. It was actually a person from whom I had been estranged for some time. We spent a long while just catching up on all that had transpired in our lives since the last time we’d talked several months earlier. Her sister had died–one to whom she had been particularly close–and we talked about the grieving process she was undergoing. I listened carefully as we spoke, checking in with myself to see if I could feel any lingering aftereffects of our earlier estrangement and the circumstances leading up to it. I discovered that much of the scar tissue I had accumulated over the years had healed cleanly, and although there’s likely still a few remnants of old pain lingering in the various nooks and crannies of my psyche, for the most part our conversation felt easy and natural as it had back in the day when we’d been friends. It was a sign to me that I had indeed been able to let go of much of the emotional baggage that not only didn’t serve me anymore, but would actually begin to hinder my progress and stunt by growth if I didn’t let go.
I’m a big believer in the power of letting go and its corollary–forgiveness. It seems to me that the letting go process involves at least two-steps and can happen in any order: in order to be able to truly move on you have to (1) let go, and (2) forgive. Letting go means exactly what it sounds like: there are some unhealthy elements in most relationships. The key to getting healthy is to release anger, frustration, and fear, as well as expectations and attachment to outcomes, and embrace the possibilities of what is in front of you. As long as I am holding on to my ideas, opinions, grudges, righteous indignation, etc. then no it makes it that much more difficult to attract good things into my life. In order to let good things come, I have to let other things go.
Nearly every day I offer lovingkindness–wishes of good will and consideration–to a variety of people in my life. The Buddhist principle of lovingkindness meditation (metta) that I learned during sitting meditations and classes when I was in California is a practice I regularly engage in, though I do not consider myself Buddhist. As part of the practice, I offer wishes for myself, and various others (loved ones and friends, teachers, acquaintances, strangers, all beings), including my “enemies.” At first when I considered this, I couldn’t really decide who to put into the “enemies” category, but as I thought about it more, I realized that these are people who I needed to forgive. It is an odd assortment of people with whom I struggle: from people who have hurt me deeply, old bosses who treated me unfairly, various people in my life who in one way or another caused me hurt or injury. When I put it in those terms, while my list of “enemies” had been relatively small, the list of people I struggle with and need to forgive was substantial.
I’ve written about forgiveness before, a lot in fact, and I still have a great deal to learn and a lot of growing to do in this area. Offering metta has allowed me to flex and strengthen my forgiveness muscles as well as foster goodwill toward everyone. I am also aware that forgiving the people who’ve hurt me doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve let go of the impact that they or their actions have had in my life. Both forgiving and letting go are each processes; that is, they are very rarely immediate and instantaneous. I may forgive a person as sincerely and earnestly as I can in a given moment, only to later be confronted with the realization that I am in fact still hurting. It doesn’t mean I didn’t forgive, it doesn’t mean I didn’t let go. What it means is that I forgave as much as I could at the time, but the wound is deep and so the forgiving must be also. So I have the opportunity to forgive again. And again. And oh yes, again.
I’ve described this process as being like a coil or spring that gets wider as it coils upward: you forgive at one point and it circles back around and you have to forgive again, only this time the circle is a little bit wider. As the forgiveness spiral coils upward the circle gets wider and wider until you’re forgiving less and less often, until eventually it rarely comes around again. I’ve diagrammed it rather poorly below, but hopefully the image is good enough to make the point.
So as I sat talking to my friend I checked in with myself to test how well I was doing with both forgiving and letting go. I realized that I’d come a long way, but still have a bit further to go. With each cycle around the coil it has gotten easier, but it isn’t easy. Not quite. Not yet. Forgiveness and letting go are processes. And as much as we in our “instant gratification” society might wish it to be otherwise, processes take a while to unfold. But if we’re willing to put in the work, in the end we’re better off for having forgiven and let go. Because, in the end forgiveness is really much more about us than it is about the person who hurt us. Forgiveness is a gift I give myself as well as the person I am forgiving.
Did I love well? Did I live fully? Did I learn to let go? I sure hope so, at least I’m working on it.