(From the January issue of “Open Roads”)
I used to be one of those people who felt obliged on New Year’s Eve to get out pen and paper and make lists of what I wanted to bring into my life, what I wanted to keep, and what I wanted to shed. I lit candles, burned incense, and played just the right music. I paid close attention to folks who talked about following that protocol and, when they read back over their lists in December, found that miraculously, the things they asked for came and things they were done with disappeared. Wow, I thought.
A few years of diligently following that practice and I found, for the most part, my track record was about 50/50. I often had miraculous experiences, but not necessarily apropos of my New Year’s Eve manifesto. Please hear me: I’m not dissing this exercise. I think putting pen to paper is a powerful tool for transformation. And I often experienced a sense of tranquility just from bringing a certain reverence to the process. Then somewhere along the way, dawn broke over marble head; maybe it was more about the reverence and less about the process.
What began as setting aside time for focusing on what was wrong with last year and how to fix it in the new year evolved into time simply spent in meditation. Ironically, I found that while I was meditating, nothing was wrong nor needed fixing. Looking at the coming year from that point of view was infinitely more pleasurable.
At some point, I had a GE moment when it occurred to me that perhaps there was a flow to my life, things coming and going, whether I invited it or not. Man as Master of his Destiny became a suspect concept. It brought into question all my beliefs about free will, the Law of Attraction, manifesting, the perplexing notions of “being” versus “doing,” etc. Throw in a growing fascination with and study of quantum physics and I found myself with the makings of a good ol’ conundrum stew. But that’s grist for another mill. Suffice it to say that when I stepped out of that particular mental muddle, I stepped back into some basics.
The 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous has been boiled down to three basics: trust in a Higher Power, clean house, and help others. Whether you’re an alcoholic or not, I think this can serve as a pretty good blueprint for living. In the run up to New Year’s Eve, my attention was drawn to the need for house cleaning. Everyone around me was living in emotional squalor; hoarding their grievances, justifying their resentments, shirking their responsibilities, wallowing in self-pity, inflamed from a feeding frenzy of judgment. It was REALLY easy to see what you needed to clean up; me, not so much. And here was the clincher—your life was a mess and I was suffering.
Interestingly, concurrent with all my watching you, references to forgiveness began catching my attention. My six-year old nephew proudly presented me with a Christmas card that he’d picked out himself from my mother’s stash. I think his reasons for picking it had nothing to do with the message and everything to do with the color and the artwork, but it read, “Forgive Others”. The day after Christmas I decided on a whim to turn on the TV, and Ben Stein appeared on my screen. If you don’t know Ben, he wears many hats, but none so fitting as his acerbic commentary on the subject of his choosing. This Sunday morning, he chose forgiveness. Surprisingly un-acerbic, Stein’s piece was honest and thoughtful, inviting us to “clean out the closets of our hearts” and just forgive everyone of everything. Feeling my heart grow a size bigger, I indulged my emotional sweet tooth with the movie “Chocolat.” I love that movie; it has more than a few of my favorite things—Johnny Depp, Juilette Binoche, Judi Dench, and chocolate, as well as a story of misplaced allegiance, awakening desire, misunderstanding, forgiveness, and redemption.
I watched my life playing out on the screen (not the Johnny Depp/Juliette Binoche part) as Conte de Reynaud, the town’s controlling and pompous mayor, grows increasingly unhappy and upset when the usually well-managed villagers begin behaving in ways he judges as immoral and just wrong. He justifies his judgment on the fact that it’s Lent and people are to resist the pleasures of the flesh. Of course, Juliette Binoche blows into town and opens a chocolate shop, and temptation abounds. Pere Henri, whose sermons are edited by the mayor, is forced to speak out against this immorality.
After blahblahblah, Judi Dench, blahblahblah, Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, blahblahblah, violence, fire, death, etc., the Conte eventually comes around and Pere Henri’s Easter sermon is this: “I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do; by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
I’ve been around long enough to understand that you are my mirror and when I’m only seeing your stuff, my agitation and dissatisfaction grows until I’m completely miserable. I’ve also been around long enough to understand what moves me back into peace. Yeppers, trust God, clean house, and help others. And the one-size-fits-all tool for that job is forgiveness.
If it’s true that resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die, perhaps the opposite would be that forgiveness heals you AND the other guy. I’m not talking about what passes in some circles for forgiveness, a certain spiritual arrogance that says, “I forgive you because that makes me a better person (than you…).”
I’m talking about the kind of forgiveness that has nothing to do with right or wrong, but everything to do with releasing others from our own judgments of their choices and decisions—even if we take some collateral damage or direct hits along the way. I’m talking about the kind of forgiveness that says, I refuse to hold you to your past or keep you locked in to my expectations for how you “should” be in your life. I’m talking about the kind of forgiveness that realizes that, as human beings, we’re all capable of the same horrendous and heinous acts we feel justified in holding others outside our hearts for committing. There is no human or human act that is beyond redemption. THAT’S the forgiveness I’m talking about. That’s the peace that passes all understanding.
Forgiveness isn’t about saying, okay—you did something bad but I’m not going to punish you. It’s about recognizing there’s something beyond good and bad. There’s the mortal mind that sees in duality and judges positive/negative, good/bad, right/wrong, and feels the need to answer “yes” or “no,” to either reward or punish. Yet there’s also a consciousness that has the capacity to see error without judgment—that is our divinity.
You’ve experienced the joy of your heart opening, whether to your child, a beloved animal companion, a parent, a friend, or a lover. Maybe something in the natural world delighted you, a song or a painting, or the best pizza you ever had lifted you up and made your spirits rise. Joy is always present and emerges from an open heart. An open heart is our natural state; we slam it shut based on our human beliefs/thoughts/judgments that tell us we need to protect it. What is non-forgiveness, really, except some attempt at insulating ourselves against the pain of a broken heart?
The people we identify as needing forgiveness have done something that has caused pain on some level in our lives, so we feel justified in holding them outside of our heart. The spiritual teacher and author, Gangagi, has this to say: “When actions arise out of peace, its spontaneity and rapport with the world allow the heart to be broken again and again, without any need to insulate it from the breaking. With each breaking can come an even deeper recognition of what remains unbreakable, and this is the source of compassion and the source of all lasting help in the world.”
My choice in any interaction with another is whether I see their innocence or what I perceive to be their guilt—their divine essence or their human frailties. Either way, what I see is what I’m looking with. As Confucius said, “Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass.” That’s how it works when we’re all connected. One might interpret the oft-quoted Bible verse a little differently—perhaps it is done unto us as we do to others. What goes around comes around. Maybe this is really how the law of karma works.
I don’t know about you, but I’m all about making space for new experiences in this new year. To that end, I offer this prayer from A Course In Miracles:
This is the time in which a new year will soon be born from the time of Christ. I have perfect faith in you to do all that you would accomplish. Nothing will be lacking, and you will make complete and not destroy. Say, then, to your brother:
“I give you to the Holy Spirit as part of myself.I know that you will be released, unless I want to use you to imprison myself.In the name of my freedom I choose your release, becauseI recognize that we will be released together.”
So will the year begin in joy and freedom. Accept the holy instant as this year is born, and take your place, so long left unfulfilled, in the Great Awakening. Make this year different by making it all the same. And let all your relationships be made holy for you. This is our will. Amen.
AMNESTY FOR ALL!