How To Forgive

Everyone deserves to be forgiven, to some degree. And at the same time, the quality and extent of forgiveness really depends on the person who is doing the forgiving. So more often, as a person trying to practice compassion, our question becomes, “Are there some people that we can never forgive?” I think it is difficult to forgive sometimes, with certain people or in a certain situation.

So it’s not just a question about whether someone deserves to be forgiven––everybody deserves to be forgiven––it’s more a question of whether we can actually forgive some people, or not.

And it is absolutely possible that sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we can’t forgive and that’s the fact. So that’s why it becomes so important to train our mind in kindness, compassion and mindfulness, through which slowly, slowly and gradually, we may reach a point where suddenly we feel like, “Oh, it’s OK.” At that point we may think, “There’s nothing to do, or accomplish, by not forgiving.” And coming to that kind of conclusion really depends on our practice of working with our mind. It depends on how skillful we are in training our mind.

Forgiving Skillfully

Forgiveness is not only about protecting ourselves from harm, or how we work with a situation in which we have been harmed. We also have to think about the other person––the one who is causing harm. You know, if we excuse someone too easily, then that’s not going to help that person. If we say oh it’s alright and let them off the hook, so to speak, then they may cause more harm, doing the same thing again and again, thinking, “It’s easy to be forgiven.” So you should torture them a little bit, just for a little while. No, I’m just kidding.

One of my teachers pointed out to me how often teachings on conduct, or how to behave compassionately, are misunderstood. For example, you often hear, “If someone slaps your right cheek, you should show them your left cheek.” You may genuinely have the capacity to endure harm and injustice with patience, which is admirable. But if your thought is to let your attacker slap you again and again, just for the sake of your own good karma (from the Buddhist point of view), or praise from others, or for your own salvation or what-have-you, then that is something else.

At that point, you are actually involved more with your own self-interest than with the other person’s well-being. You could say that even though you are not hitting back or shouting, you are not being truly kind. The most helpful thing you could do would be to stop that person from doing further harm and accumulating more negative karma. You’re more concerned with yourself and achieving some kind of badge of mindfulness, compassion and salvation. So in that sense, putting up with someone’s negative or abusive behavior could actually be considered a self-centered view.

And so my teacher said that when someone slaps you on the right cheek, and when they’re coming back to slap you again on the left, you should stop them right there. Grab hold of their hand and stop them from hurting you. That’s an act of compassion. Because then you’re helping that person to stop creating more negative habits, negative tendencies and negative karma.

It’s the same thing with forgiveness. We need to see not only how we can exercise our own compassion and loving kindness, in this noble practice of letting go and forgiveness, but we also need to see how it can help that person who is doing harm. So in Dharma talk, we call this “being timely and skillful.” This means that when we practice forgiveness, it’s important to find the right time to make that gesture, and we need to be skillful about how we do it.

Forgiveness: An Exercise

Before attempting to forgive someone for causing you or others harm, it can be helpful to go through the following process:

1.      Ask yourself, Am I ready or able to forgive this person? If not, we can continue to work with our mind, to continue to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. Then we can check back and ask ourselves again a while later. It might take a few days, or weeks. In some cases it might be months or even many years before we feel we can forgive someone. And in some cases it isn’t possible for us to do it.

2.     If you feel you would like to forgive them, you can ask yourself, Why am I forgiving them? What is my motivation? Do I want to help them, or only develop my own practice? It is important to be honest in answering this for ourselves.

3.     If you have some sense of wishing for their well-being, then you are already beginning to forgive. Ask yourself, How can I express forgiveness skillfully? What would be most helpful? In many cases it may not be advisable, or even possible, to speak directly to the person who did the harm, but it may be possible to communicate forgiveness in another way, such as through a symbolic gesture that is meaningful to you.
If you feel you cannot forgive someone, don’t be hard on yourself. Be kind to yourself and keep practicing, keep working with your mind. Little by little, you may begin to feel different about the situation. But if for now you can’t forgive, don’t worry. Focus on being kind to yourself and others. That is a wonderful way of bringing benefit into the world, whether or not you forgive this particular person, this particular event, or not.