BY HARV BISHOP
My “rot in hell” list of people I need to forgive is finally shrinking. It has been a difficult journey of baby steps. First, I was able to release the desire for flesh-eating demons to chow down on the folks on my list. It was sufficient that they could quietly rot their days away in hell.
Then, I reached a state of “meh” or Zen-like indifference to those I needed to forgive. It may not seem like much but I found it preferable to revenge porn fantasies about their epic fails due to karmic justice.
I began the hard path to forgiveness following an extraordinarily trying past two years for my wife and I, both in terms of health and finances. My first inspiration was Mitch Horowitz’s book The Miracle of A Definite Chief Aim. As Mitch writes, revenge porn “wastes time in useless ruminations.” It was high time for me to stop wasting time.
The experience pushed me to ask myself and God some tough questions:
What’s being forgiven?
At the highest levels of consciousness, some write, there is nothing to forgive. In Ultimate Reality, all is One, the material world an illusion. But such a view discounts the physical and creates duality between that which is changeless and that which is changing. Spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber says what happens in the physical world may not be ultimately real, but it is relatively real. Such things as love and forgiveness only exist because there is relationship in the manifest universe, he writes in his new book, “The Religion of Tomorrow.” In a world of relationships, ethics is a precondition to an Awakened consciousness, he writes, adding that part of ethical behavior is not returning hate with hate. Therein is my challenge.
Why do people behave unethically?
To say it’s just human nature is too vague. I need something more concrete to work with. At the same time, I recognize the truth of the Buddhist teaching — each person’s acts have infinitely complex causes dependent upon all the good and bad acts that preceded it throughout time. Thich Nhat Hanh writes that we all have good seeds and bad seeds in our consciousness and our actions depend on what gets watered. I recognize that some people on my forgiveness list were inadequately watered in childhood.
One of Rabbi Howard Hoffman’s core teachings is that people are a mixed bag; we all have some some good traits and some bad traits. A similar view was expressed by a dialectical behavior therapist writing about how to psychologically survive the Trump presidency. People are “a complex web.” “Individuals are not selfless always or selfish; they are selfless and selfish.”
In the past, I had a black and white view of people. If someone transgressed I cut them out of my life and I refused to acknowledge their good traits. Removing myself from their space was probably justified in some cases, but ceasing to see their good traits was not.
The always-interesting author Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile) wrote on Medium that throughout history people have been controlled by having to consider how their decisions impact not just themselves, but those they love. For instance, it’s hard to be an ethical whistleblower when livelihood and family are put at risk by one’s actions. This type of power over others has been exercised by monarchs, the mob, authoritarian governments, religious cults and even corporations, writes Taleb. It’s why corporations prefer to hire people with families.
I recognize that some of the people on my forgiveness list are acting within institutions where choices are constrained by the need for a livelihood, and where perverse incentives were present because of the fear of loss of prestige and income and the bureaucratic ineptness in large organizations.
In addition, New Thought can sometimes fall prey to ready-made excuses for unethical behavior. An action may not appear “right,” like laying off someone with health problems, but, hey, we are just helping that person find their greater life expression. None of that accounts for human heartbreak or economic hardship. Of course people can rebound, but that is dependent on economic opportunity, age, race and gender. To pretend that systemic restraints don’t exist is ridiculous. The “greater yet to be” may be there, it may not.
On the other hand, no matter the offense, denying forgiveness implies that people are stuck and cannot change or grow in this world, the afterlife or future lives. It also denies the grace that can come from change. I wouldn’t want to be denied that possibility when I commit wrongs. I don’t want to deny that possibility for others.
All of the above takes some of the sting out of taking these wrongs personally. It doesn’t mean condoning the acts, or singing kumbaya with those that committed the acts. Nor do I think that’s what forgiveness requires.
What is required for forgiveness
To me, most importantly, at least releasing the desire to get back at these people or more accurately in my case, have karma do it for me. I have no desire to associate with them or have them in my space. I think that’s reasonable. But I would like to at least bless them for their highest good. That’s by magnitudes harder to do for one person on my list who committed horrific violent crime, but I’ve set that case aside for the time being as I exercise my forgiveness muscles.
In other cases that meant cutting subtle energetic ties especially with one person in particular, given to dragging others down to feel better.
The spiritual teacher David Spangler writes that there are levels to love. The most basic is simply recognizing another’s right to exist. Another level is wishing them well. By taking each step, we can climb a rope ladder to forgiveness. Spangler followed this process to eventually forgive a child killer featured on the news.
Motivational speaker and life coach Dr. James Rouse says that grudges rob us of our livelihood, energy and love as well impact our health and immune systems. I visualized each of the people I needed to forgive and repeated to myself “I’m giving you control of my health, livelihood, energy and love.” My body and spirt recoiled. It shocked me to the felt reality of what I’ve been doing to myself. The wise words from Mitch, Dr. Rouse and many others reached the heart.
Was I ready to forgive? Damn straight!
My forgiveness practice, recommended by Mitch based on his personal experience is from the book by Richard Smoley called The Deal. I was able to move to it immediately following my felt realization. Tears streamed down my face and I felt lighter. But it also took serious preparation, transmuting emotions and prayer to reach that point. You can find detailed directions on the practice in Mitch’s Miracle of a Definite Chief Aim book and Smoley’s The Deal. Dr. James’s outstanding short video on forgiveness is here.
Forcing myself to blog on this forgiveness challenge these last months has felt very personal and vulnerable. At the same time, it’s held me accountable to follow through on the practice.
Do I have moments of relapse into old resentments? Honestly, yes; in moments of stress and challenge I do. Am I in a better space that when I began this journey to forgiveness. A resounding yes!