Forgiveness is an interesting subject, in that it is important in both Twelve-Step recovery and Buddhism. It has been a crucial part of my recovery in many forms. It is something that I hope to progress with, as its gifts have been innumerable. Forgiveness to me is accepting that the way something occurred is done and set; It could not have occurred in any other fashion, because it happened exactly as it did. Whether this pertains to others, situations, or myself, it holds true. A popular passage in the back section of the Big Book reads, “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” The Buddhist Paramita Kshanti means patience, endurance, and forgiveness to many. These ideas are universal spiritual concepts, and it is not coincidence that they are found in almost every culture across the globe.
Forgiveness in Twelve Step Recovery
In Twelve-Step recovery, forgiveness is stressed in a few different ways. First, forgiveness is discussed somewhat passively in the Third Step. The Third Step states, “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to our the care of God as we understood Him.” When I first took this step with my sponsor, he talked to me of the subtle gifts this step has to offer. I slowly began to see my ability to forgive others and myself. Today, I still have to work my Third Step every day, and trust that things are happening exactly as they should. I can forgive others when I am upset, and see it as a learning lesson, and occurring exactly as my higher power intended.
In the Fourth Step, we again learn to forgive. We do not so much forgive others, as we begin to see our part in the situation. Through taking a “complete and fearless moral inventory,” we just begin to see that our blame is pointed in the wrong direction. Our forgiveness comes not from a understanding of the other’s actions, but of recognition of our own. In my Fourth Step, I found that almost all of the people, places, and institutions that I resented had done far less to upset me than I had done to them. My actions were generally far more severe, and forgiveness came simply. However, I then had to work on forgiving myself.
In the Eighth and Ninth Step, we must confront those that we had harmed. It is my personal opinion that we should never ask for forgiveness. Instead, we make amends. Merriam-Webster defines amend as “to put right” or “to change or modify for the better.” The key phrase I ask myself and possibly the other party is “What can I do to make this situation better?” I know right off the bat that I only have control over myself. If the other person has behaved poorly, it is their problem. I forgive them for their actions, because I know holding a resentment does me no good. By doing everything in my power to amend the situation, I am able to forgive myself for the character defects I found in the Fourth and Fifth Step. Ten is somewhat of a combination of Steps Four, Five, Eight, and Nine, so forgiveness is essential as well.
Forgiveness in Buddhism
As before mentioned, forgiveness is also an important topic in Buddhism. The Kshanti Paramita speaks of forgiveness and patience. This is spoken of in a way that refers to those who “cause” us discomfort (HA!). Anyway, we must be patient with those who frustrate us, and practice forgiveness. Buddhism speaks in detail of loving-kindness, the idea of love without attachment. When upset with others, I ask myself if I am truly coming from a place of love within my heart.
The Buddhist practice of Metta is the cultivation of love in meditation. We practice thinking of others. The speaker at my meeting tonight suggested, “Try this: Put someone else before you today, and see how your life changes.” With this idea, we practice forgiveness of those who we may find ourselves distraught over. We meditate for these individuals, practice focusing our thoughts on others, and pass positive energy their way. In Twelve-Step recovery, many people suggest that we pray for those who we resent, which is essentially the same idea.
Buddhism also offers a method very similar to the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Steps. When we perform an action that causes negative karma, there are things we may do to amend the karma. One of these things is to recognize that the action was harmful (Fourth Step). Next we must vow to not behave this way again (Seventh Step). Finally, we must right and wrongs (Ninth Step). It is amazing how these ideas parallel those of the Twelve-Step programs.
Forgiving the Self
Amending bad karma, practicing Metta, and taking the Twelve Steps offer us a way to forgive ourselves. I heard an absolutely amazing story today that I wish to share here. It was told to me like this, and is a true story:
A man in Twelve-Step recovery had to go through the trauma of losing his father. Furthermore, his father was murdered. Every few years, this man flew to Canada, where he gave testimony of the trauma it caused on the family. He gave this testimony to the parole board, hoping to keep the man locked away. He did well in the periods between the visits to Canada. When the time came near to testify to the parole board once again, he broke down. Everytime, for a few weeks before and after.
For over a decade the man had to periodically relive the trauma of losing his father to murder. At one point, the man was waiting at the airport for his plane from Montreal to Los Angeles. He was a wreck, angry at the man for what he had done, and making him relive the emotions over and over. He called his sponsor, who told him he simply needed to turn the situation over to his higher power, and trust that there is a reason behind everything.
The man was sitting in first class on the plane, when the His Holiness the Dalai Lama enters the cabin. He sits a few rows in front of the man, surrounded by guards. To say the man was shocked is a severe understatement. Here he was, 32,000 feet in the air, sitting behind the Dalai Lama. The man outlined his predicament with his father’s murderer on his “barf bag.” He handed it to one of the guards, and politely asked/gestured to pass it along to the Dalai Lama.
After a few minutes the guard asked the man to trade seats with him, so he could sit next to the Dalai Lama. Upon meeting the Dalai Lama, the man (who was actually a professional comedian) said, “It is an honor to meet you, God.” The Dalai Lama sarcastically replied in his broken English, “I have never heard that one before.” The man replied, “How about hello Dolly?” The Dalai Lama simply chuckled.
The Dalai Lama and the man spoke for over two hours on the plane flight about the situation. The advice the Dalai Lama offered is absolutely precious. He said that the man must forgive his father’s murderer. He said that as long as he refused to let the murderer off the hook, he himself remained on the hook. Only by forgiving the incarcerated man, and ceasing to try to keep him in prison could the man free himself. The Dalai Lama also offered that after this was done, the man could begin to forgive himself. He could forgive himself for putting himself through the pain of returning to the trauma year after year. He could forgive himself for not forgiving the man for his actions.
The man got off the plane, called his sponsor again, and told him the story. He has since found true inner serenity with the situation.
There are several reasons I find this story intriguing. First, the Dalai Lama was willing to talk to a random stranger on an airplane, to be of service. He put another far before himself. Second, the Dalai Lama covered the idea in Twelve-Step programs that resentments only hurt ourselves. It was eating him away, while the man in prison did not suffer from the resentment. Also, the advice included that the man would not be able to free himself and forgive until he forgave others. The Dalai Lama stressed that the discontent of the situation was the man’s own causing, and within his power to ease. Finally, I love that the Dalai Lama, who many consider one of the most spiritual people on this planet, has a good sense of humor. He laughed at the man’s jokes, showing good spirit and a light heart.