In response to a recent letter, “Should we forgive everything?” we received the following additional questions:
I thought the true philosophy was to love one for all that they are but more so for what they are not! When it comes to deciding to choose self-love over abuse, that's the dilemma...let go and move on!
Forgiveness is a complicated subject. Everyone involved has karma that has to be faced and worked out. Seldom do you have simple, happy endings.
On one side is the person who feels offended, even abused. On the other is the transgressor, whose actions, words, or attitudes caused the injury. There is also how you feel in your heart, which may be different from how you need to respond outwardly.
From the beginning of my spiritual life I adopted the policy suggested by Swami Kriyananda of trying to understand any question from the highest perspective. For me this means asking: What would Swamiji do? How would Master respond?
Most of the time, their way of being is far above what I can achieve, but keeping their example in view illuminates the path that I am walking, tells me which way is forward, and gives me some idea of how to get there from here.
You would think that the lives of saints and masters would be free of disharmony. In fact, the opposite is true. Great souls seem to attract hurt and betrayal, usually inflicted by people to whom they have opened their hearts in loving friendship. There are many reasons for this. One is simply the dual nature of this universe. Whenever light ascends darkness tries to snuff it out. Not a pleasant thought, but one proven again and again throughout history.
The other reason is that these great souls incarnate to set an example of how to live in this world. We incarnate because we have karma to live through -- unlearned lessons that have to be faced. They have no karma of their own, but take on the appearance of karma, or the karma of their disciples in order to help us learn right action in all circumstances, no matter how difficult.
Several of Yogananda’s long-time disciples later turned against him, even dragged him into court, and tried to destroy both his work and his reputation.
After one treacherous disciple left the ashram and moved to another part of the country, every year Yogananda sent him a case of mangoes, and every year the disciple sent the case back unopened. Yogananda said it would take a few lifetimes, but in the end that disciple would return and soon after he would achieve spiritual freedom.
Swami Kriyananda has had to endure extraordinary persecution from his own gurubhais. For twelve years they dragged him through the courts attempting to destroy his work and his reputation. They even tried to take over the copyrights to his books and music! It would not have been dharma to let them succeed. He had to fight back, with great energy and determination. Inwardly, though, his love for them is unchanged.
And looming over any discussion of forgiveness is the crucifixion of Christ, and his immortal words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
This kind of forgiveness may be beyond us now, but it is where we are going. Still, we have to be practical in our idealism. It doesn’t work to paste upon our limited consciousness an ideal of behavior we cannot yet achieve. That is a recipe both for failure and guilt. Then we have the original problem plus a psychological complex on top of it. Definitely not the road to freedom!
I always start with the simple thought, “God knows what He is doing with me.” I may have desires and opinions, but He knows. Even if, in worldly terms -- i.e., viewed from the outside -- the situation seems entirely unfair God knows what He is doing with me.
He can be trusted to bring me what I need at the time I need it, and to give me the strength to use what He sends for my own highest good.
Yes, this is idealistic. Yes, most of the time I can’t get there right away. There may be many long days and nights of wrong attitude before the light dawns. But even if I fail to achieve right attitude in the moment, I do my best not to define myself by my mistakes.
I make a distinction between those actions, attitudes, thoughts, and feelings I commit and those I am committed to. I find this helps. Even in the worst of moods, a part of me still remembers: Eventually I will get over this. I know that I will because wrong attitude makes me suffer, and I don’t like to suffer.
All we ever experience is our own consciousness. If our inner life is filled with anger, resentment, grief, and disappointment life is pretty miserable. Even if circumstances give us every reason to feel justified in our misery, the question is: Who suffers?
Christ-like forgiveness is the high destiny we all must reach for the sake of our own happiness.
I read a very touching article in a magazine about a woman whose daughter was murdered. Even after the man who did it was sent to prison for life, the mother continued to seethe with anger. Finally she realized that her anger was killing her. The man who took the life of her child was taking her life as well. She decided to go to the prison and confront the murderer in the hope of finding some resolution.
At first it was difficult even to be in the same room with him. But she felt she had no choice, so she persevered. Gradually she began to see him, not as a monster, but as a fellow human being who had also suffered much in his own life. The end of the story is that they grew close and she became like a mother to him.
She never condoned what he did but she accepted it. Not as good or beautiful, but as a reality that had to be faced. Expansion of consciousness happened also for the murderer. He had no comprehension of the suffering his action had inflicted. Only in getting to know the bereaved mother did he come to understand that his actions had consequences.
As he faced and accepted responsibility for what he had done, and truly repented, it was possible for the woman to forgive and open her heart to him in love and compassion. She provided for him an example of the all-forgiving love of God. And she, too, experienced that all-forgiving love. The channel is blessed by that which flows through it -- an uplifting ending to a sad tale.
One of the questions my first letter prompted was, “Aren’t we lowering our standards when we let people think they can do anything they want, then change, and be forgiven?”
We are all on a journey from delusion to Self-realization. Any progress along the path should be celebrated, not punished! If a person has overcome a delusion, has genuinely become a better person, then it is no lowering of standards to welcome that person back with open arms. To do so is to affirm the possibility of expanded consciousness for all of us.
If, however, the change is not genuine, if the misbehaving partner is taking advantage of the forgiving partner and has no intention, or, more charitably, no ability to change his behavior, then we have to go to the next level of complexity: the distinction between inner feeling and outward action.
There is no reason to carry anger or resentment merely because someone you love has proved incapable of responding nobly to the love that you’ve offered. We’ve already been over that ground. Now we come to the question of the appropriate response.
To give someone the impression that you are there to be abused, that whatever they do is fine, that their actions have no consequences, is neither love nor forgiveness. Almost always it is guilt or fear trying to pass itself off as some more elevated quality. It is not always easy to sort this out but it has to be done.
A friend was describing to me a relationship she is caught in with an elderly relative. The elder does everything he can to take the joy out of my friend’s life. As she recounted what the relative had said, I interrupted to ask, “You just sat there and let him to talk to you like that?”
“Yes,” she said, “I did.”
“I would have walked out and not come back,” I said. “It is not good for him to speak like that. And it is an offense against the divine within you to let yourself be treated that way.”
Let me add here that if my friend had been unaffected, I would have responded differently. If she were detached and could joyfully give love to an unhappy old man no matter how he treated her, then that might be a spiritual service worth offering.
But she was deeply affected, all the joy drained out of her. That is why I spoke as I did. Everybody’s karma has to be considered.
We are all equal before God. You are not more important than others, but neither are they more important than you. Humility is not self-abnegation. Humility is self-honesty, seeing things as they are.
You have to be impersonal about yourself. It is not about what you deserve or don’t deserve in a self-preoccupied way. It is a question of dharma, what is right.
I remember years ago a woman wrote to Swamiji to say she was leaving her husband after seven years of marriage. “Whenever I try to meditate, he turns the television on as loud as possible. When I speak of spiritual things, he makes fun of me.”
Privately, Swamiji said, “She put up with that for seven years? I wouldn’t have taken it for fifteen minutes!”
No reason to be angry, but no reason to stay and be abused either!
Another question I received was, “How were you able to forgive the person you wrote about who caused such trouble for Ananda?” In that case, it was no effort. The karma wasn’t personal.
In a situation where I was personally involved, however, I discovered something that may be of value to others. When I first started on the spiritual path I became angry at a friend I felt had mistreated me. Over the course of some months I found that my inner diatribe against him gradually focused on a few specific incidents. Finally I asked myself, “Why do I think only of these?”
After some reflection I saw that in all those situations, true principles were at stake. Even at the time, I knew something was very wrong, but didn’t have the courage to speak.
My friend had not been aware of those principles. He had done the best he could with the understanding he had. To be angry with him was like railing at a three year old for not being able to read.
I, by contrast, had consciously violated dharma. When I realized this, I stopped being angry with my friend -- and became angry with myself! Getting closer to the truth, but still not good!
It took some time longer before I could forgive myself. Finally I was able to see myself the way I saw him: I did the best I could with the understanding I had. What more can we ask or ourselves or each other? His error was in understanding dharma; mine was in lacking the courage to act. Even when we fall short, reality has to be faced.
I am not proud of my cowardice, but there is no reason to be ashamed of it either. There is no shame in being three years old and unable to read. When we rail against what is, there is, literally, no end to our fury, and no way of satisfying it. We have to be practical in our idealism.
There is no shortcut to forgiveness. We have to persevere until we have purged from our hearts the need for someone else to be responsible for our suffering. No matter what the facts of the situation, the truth is we are responsible for our own consciousness.
Pray all the time for the grace of God. Grace changes everything and there is no question then of forgiveness, there is only love.
[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of Ananda.org.]