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It is Yogic to Forgive

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.


This past month, I have been working on forgiveness, which yoga philosophy embraces. Yet forgiveness is hard work, so much so that we sometimes carry a grudge for a long long time. Yet, we ourselves are most hurt by a failure to forgive.

In the wonderful book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes a story in which soldiers rescue a man who was held in captivity during a war for decades by war criminals. The rescuers asked him “have you forgiven your captors?” and he said “no, never.” The rescuers then said to him “so they still have you imprisoned then.” Nelson Mandela said the same thing when, after his release from prison, Bill Clinton asked Mandela if he hated his captors. Mandela said ‘”I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them when you get in that car, you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free so I let it go.”

Family situations are often the last ones we forgive. How many times have you heard people blame troublesome attributes of their adult self on their parents? Kornfield describes another situation in which a mindfulness teacher in an Indian ashram recalls his stepfather harshness growing up. The teacher became aware that his stepfather’s death was imminent and thankfully realized this about his stepfather:

I realized that for all these years, he had tried to love me, but because of his own harsh father he could never let his feelings show; he was too afraid. In his own awkward way he had raised me as his boy. And in my own awkward way I forgave him. I went back to visit him. So much in my own life lightened up after that. Thank God for forgiveness.

Some acts may be so awful that they do not seem to deserve our forgiveness, but recall that the one hurt by the failure to forgive is not the enemy, it is the self. It is us who is hurt, drinking poison and hoping our nemesis will die. Only we are hurt. Consider this last story and I think you’ll see what I mean.

A fourteen year old boy killed another teen to prove he was worthy of gang membership. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent, until the verdict was announced. At that point she stood up and said to the killer, “I am going to kill you.” The youth was then taken away to serve several years in a juvenile detention center, where he had no visitors, none except….the victim’s mother, who began visiting him after six months or so. You see, the imprisoned boy had been living on the streets and had no friends or family.

The mother would visit, eventually bringing small gifts. Near the end of his term, the mother asked the imprisoned boy what he planned to do when he got out. The question confused the boy as he had no plans. She offered to help him get a job at a friend’s company, and eventually, to let him live in her spare room. He lived there for eight months, eating her food, and working at the job she got him. One evening, she called him into the living room to talk and said “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?’ The boy said “I sure do, I will never forget that moment.” The mother continued:

Well I did [kill you]. I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That is why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So I want to ask you, since my son is gone and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.

She became the mother of her killer’s son, the mother he never had. Powerful!

Abe Lincoln said the same thing two centuries before, when he expressed sympathy for the plight of the south following the civil war. A Yankee patriot asked him how he “dared to speak kindly of our enemies when you ought to be thinking of destroying them.” Lincoln responded by saying “but do I not destroy my enemies when I turn them into friends?”

As important as it is to forgive others, it is even more important to forgive ourselves. We have all felt regret, shame, guilt, self-hatred, and self-blame, for breaking our promises and hurting others. Once we can finally forgive ourselves, we are on our way to forgiving others. I wish you the lightness that comes from forgiving both yourself and others.

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