This is an article written by a new brother, who received the Anagarika precepts via telephone in March. It is the second in a series of talks by our prison brothers. Read the first by Bro. Jyoti Priya Karuna in the September Guide.
Recently I was asked to present a mini-course on anger and temper management for Social Services Department of the Branchville Correctional Facility, where I am currently serving a sentence for robbery. Being a long-term prisoner I have come to know anger intimately and have become friends with my more aggressive nature, treating it with a great deal of care and respect. Since I already teach a weekly Dharma group and act as the spiritual head and "sensei" it seemed natural to the powers that be that we expand the program to include a "secular" Zen meditation group to meet weekly. This also led to further small group work in areas of self-awareness, substance abuse and meditational therapy. In other words, the practice of Zen style Buddhism has had a positive impact on the prisoners and staff of the Branchville Correctional Facility.
Nowhere does the need for stillness become more apparent than when dealing with the inevitible frustrations of life. The men are taught to see themselves as unforgiven. In this frame of mind anger arises and the notion that forgiving others is a weakness. Society does not forgive. Families also are frequently unforgiving. The prisoner then wonders what the advantage would be in his forgiving others. Forgiveness is so taboo a topic in prisons that few actually know what the term implies or entails. This is the topic of my talk today: Forgiveness is a way to let go of holding on to resentment. It is a way in which we can keep the energy of life from draining away from us.
There are some things which we need to consider before we decide whether or not we want to forgive another. Forgiveness is a choice that must be freely made if the act is to have any value at all. It is not meant to be an act of kindness to the person who is forgiven, but to the person who is doing the forgiving. It is to the forgiver that the act of kindness is extended. Forgiveness is not so much a one time act as it is a process which unfolds gradually and takes place over a period of time. This is an important consideration, as we can only hold resentments against actions and things which have taken place in the past. Resentment is always about the past, but it takes place in the present. It intensifies over time and it is anger that is being resented.
To deal effectively with the anger present in the here and now about things and people that existed there and then, we must examine our attitudes and challenge habitual responses to the thoughts we cultivate in our hearts. We can live healthy lives in the present without dealing with the anger in the past. Reconciliation is not the issue. One does not have to forget the abuses of the past, or even reconcile with the person who has committed the abuse. In forgiveness we are simply letting go and getting on with life.
We don't ever have to forgive. It is a choice that we make. We do not have to forgive anyody before we are ready to do so. Nobody can force us to accept an apology or to make amends. The act of accepting an apology or forgiving another loses all its value if it is forced and not freely given. It is only wholesome if it is done without hesitation and with absolute surety. We do not have to rush into it. Yet at the same time, we ought not to wait until it is too late and waste time by making excuses as to why we should not forgive. We must be honest with ourselves and examine if we are reaping pleasure and benefits from our resentments. This may translate as the freedom from guilt and responsibility we sometimes get by blaming others instead of accepting the reality of the situation. Sometimes resentment may give our lives a heightened sense of excitement or even an excuse to be more abusive to others, to be violent, or to behave irrationally.
Forgiveness is not condoning unexceptable behavior or making excuses for others. It means that we let go of the obsession we have with wrongs commited against us and refuse to let that person hurt us anymore. In forgiveness we neither pretend the past did not happen nor forget the past. We simply choose to live in the present, remembering some things so that we don't hurt ourselves again. Put in another way: we remember without hate.
We sometimes resist being forgving because we fool ourselves into thinking that we are being too kind to the person or people who hurt us. After all, we were the one that got hurt. Why should we be nice to them? This is a terrible injustice to ourselves. We alone carry the burden of our anger and we carry it everywhere we go. We have to suffer the pain over and over again every time we choose to remember and relive the experience in our minds. Each time we remember, the cuts get a little deeper and the anger a little stronger. The cost of resentment is high and for many of us too high to pay. Resentments limit our freedom to act. We spend time avoiding people and places we associate with anger and the pain. We spend much of our time in vain attempts at self-defense against imaginary enemies and let the important things of life pass us by unappreciated. We punish ourselves by refusing to forgive.
Forgiveness is not a one time event that is completed the first time we say that we forgive someone. It is a work in progress and may last our entire lives. There are times that we may think that we have forgiven someone, only to find thoughts and repetitive actions of hostility arising in our lives again. Then we may feel the additional burden of guilt in our hearts. But forgiveness can be sudden and simple. There are times that we feel a sudden release and joy as we let go of the burden that we have been carrying. In these moments It seems that the desire to forgive has been there since the beginning. Such instances happen, but they are rare. Usually, the process is not quick and simple. Usually it is a slow journey uphill and against the rotation of the earth.
There are times that we nurse wounds that are so deep that we feel that they will never heal. Even when we are certain that forgiveness would help us we are often pulled in many directions and uncertain of our course and destination. Forgiving occurs when we want to forgive. This is why it takes time. We are often pulled in many directions and uncertain of our course and destination, Forgiving occurs when we want to forgive and we need to be patient with ourselves, expecting gradual changes and not instantaneous miracles. Without the added burden of discouragement, the freedom of emotional release becomes inevitable.
We can change the way we think by challenging our deepest and most treasured beliefs about ourselves, life and others. When we discover that an old message is not valid or has become a prison in itself we must develop a new language that will enable us to act out freely. This means constant affirmation and not just resignation. It does not do us any good to claim that we have forgiven a person and then continue to bad mouth them and think of them in diminishing terms. We need to learn how to appreciate that person, and that can only be done through an overhaul of the attitude. Sometimes this requires us to act as if we appreciated the person until we really do. In tantric Buddhism this is called "Placing the goal directly on the path." We may feel foolish when we first think. "How would I engage this person if I really did appreciate him?" But we must be consistent and keep at it. This is, after all, a practice and not a perfection.
It is impossible to change habitual practices and behavior over night. It may be helpful to get rid of concepts such as comfort and ease at this point. Life is suffering, remember? Meditation and visualization is a most helpful technique for relieving ourselves of the stress and rage of resentment.
The present may be affected by resentments and anger we harbor from the past. Sometimes forgiving someone from our past or even someone deceased seems pointless. Maybe we don't want to let go of the anger because we aren't yet finished with the grieving process. We may even feel these people hurt us so badly that they never will deserve forgiveness, not from us, not now. In this case we are condeming ourselves to hate that person forever -- and he doesn't even know it. We have essentially given over control of a part of our lives to someone who doesn't even exist any longer except in the confines of our imagination. Sometimes we feel resentment at someone because they have the same faults that we see in ourselves and we refuse to admit to this. At this point we have to ask ourselves about the cost of these kinds of resentments and thoughts we are nurturing. Are these thoughts worth the cost? We do, after all, create the substance of our world through the thoughts we generate.
Reconciliation is not the final goal of forgiveness. Recon-ciliation means to become friends again with the one who has become your enemy. That is not the point of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves when we get on with life. We may have had an abusive spouse or parent. Forgiving them doesn't mean that we have to be their friend and forget the abuse. It means that we go on with life and leave them behind in the world they create for themselves. You don't have to be a part of someone else's hell realm.
Reconciliation may or may not be a part of the forgiveness process. If reconciliation does not follow on the heels of forgiveness then that is okay too, because you have already gained freedom from the pains of the past. This was the initial goal of the act of forgiveness anyway. The mission is complete and new karmas are formed.
Maybe we damaged and hurt the people we resent. This is common. You hurt me and I want to hurt you back. If I am successful then you can resent me too. When this happens then our hearts become as muddy as theirs and the process of hating is once more perpetuated. In these times we feel the need to forgive ourselves for what we did to others and the hearts we have damaged, and that includes our own.
It is hard to forgive oneself. We feel tremendous guilt and shame over the pains and actions we have caused. We heal our shame by recognition of our own humanity. We have done wrong, but we are still basically good people. We can, if we allow ourselves, hold our head up in dignity. We can accept ourselves just exactly as we are. We can heal the splits and wounds in our own hearts by recognizing our own innate worthiness. We have made mistakes and that may or may not be okay. It is in the recognition of those mistakes that we empower ourselves to be better people, kinder persons capable of enormous compassion.
I began this talk with the grandiose sounding title, "Forgiveness Among the Unforgiven," The point is that as convicted felons we are generally unforgiven by the world at large. For the rest of our lives we will be labeled as the worst thing we have ever done. This seems to be an injustice. It is important to remember that just as hate cannot be conquered by hate, unforgiveness cannot be conquered by resentments. Just as hatred is conquered by love, so too, resentments are conquered by forgiveness. Forgiveness is possibly the toughest thing any person can accomplish, so much harder is it for a prisoner. Thus, when a prisoner does not let go of resentments and anger through the karma of forgiveness, the prisoner becomes his own keeper. This is surely one way of defining hell.
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