Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

August 30, 2009—September 16, 2009

August 30, 2009
Too many counselors, both spiritual and therapeutic, promote forgiveness too readily. Most serious issues of “forgiveness” either have to do with childhood or with situations that (whether we know it or not) have in the present moment triggered childhood pain or trauma. My concern is that what I call “premature forgiveness” may be dangerous to mental and spiritual health. Buddhist approaches to forgiveness tend to put the emphasis on the person in our childhood who has done the harming—their ignorance, their suffering—when what is really necessary for our freedom is an even deeper understanding of the harm, of how deep a wound, they inflicted on us.

Key to ultimate mental or spiritual healing is not just reciting our stories: “My father was an alcoholic and beat us something terrible.” “I was so ashamed that my mother thought I was stupid.” The key lies in reliving our child’s pain, in its full intensity, in our adult’s present (and in our adult’s presence) so that we can know, in a cellular way, how bad it was. This knowledge allows us to forgive ourselves fully for our own brokenness. To forgive others before we have such knowledge can cut us off from healing. We think we are healed, but we do not yet fully know our own stories.

In a sense, without knowing the full impact of what the devastation was for the child, we don’t even know what it is we are forgiving. (It’s rather like having read a synopsis of “King Lear” without having seen the play—we can recite what happened, but we don’t feel its full meaning.)

Forgiveness, of course, is an immensely important step towards cultivating lovingkindness. However, the most sensible thing I heard or read about it—long before I was ready to forgive—was that we forgive in order to free ourselves, not to bestow a gift on the other person. From a Buddhist perspective, it allows us to live not only freer of second arrows, but more in the present, less clinging to the past. I think it would be useful to do away with the word “forgiveness” entirely and instead to speak of “healing old angers.” When we can heal those angers by our self-compassion, by listening to the anguished child as nobody did at the time, we can then naturally move towards a larger compassion for the person who has wounded us, and towards our larger spiritual connection to all sentient and suffering beings.

September 1, 2009
We need to be aware of the difference between the self-pity of the child and the compassion we can feel as an adult towards the true suffering of the child that we were. Self pity is the child’s form of self-compassion.

September 16, 2009
If dukkha originates in desire, as they say, what does that tell us about our dukkha of origin—the dukkha that arises out of stored childhood pain?

The dukkha that comes from childhood (and it is my belief that whenever we feel dukkha it is dukkha that has been released from our childhood storehouse) represents intense desire—the desire that our childhood might have been different. “They should not have done that! They should not have treated me like that!” is all grasping, desiring. Therapy, Buddhist practice, whatever allows us to separate from our childhood pain, frees us from our dukkha in the present. The only caveat is: Unless we re-experience the intensity of the child’s yearning, her grasping for love, understanding, recognition, tenderness, unless we allow ourselves to know as an adult observer how terrible it was for her unformed soul; unless we can feel with powerful adult conviction “They should not have done that!”; unless we feel profound adult compassion for that child within us: we risk minimizing the seriousness of the abuse or neglect and so—this is the price paid for premature forgiveness—we risk undervaluing ourselves.