I was struck by how my brilliant yogi friend, Talia Sutra, put these two words together in an Instagram post. Talia is a deeply aware soul and a fantastic writer. She’s Israeli but her mastery of English often blows my mind, the way she stacks and arranges her words in just the right way. It’s always enough and never extra.
I have a hard time with forgiveness. It is something I want but don’t come to easily. I recently realized that it’s a skill like everything else, and it was a skill I wasn’t taught growing up. It just wasn’t seen or practiced in my large, crazy family. There was simply no way for me to model it. I have forgiven myself for that. We can’t read if we don’t know the alphabet. In my family grudges were fiercely gripped like wild horses trying to run away. No one wanted to let go of anger, resentment, or past wrong doings. Then you’d have lost your leverage, and leverage was power. Mistakes, both intentional and unintentional, were lorded over you for eternity. Everyone’s past history was always open to present attack. No one truly wanted to move on, which is why to this day it’s a family buried under mountains of emotional debris that’s literally generations old. As in any unhealthy family, there were superficial ebbs and flows. Terrifying fights would often lead to meetings during which peace was declared. Treaties for the sake of our grandmother. There were always tears and promises of new perspective. Family first. That is, until someone upset your ego. Any offense immediately cleared the path of perspective, inviting in every perceived wrong move you ever made. Adults attacked children surprisingly easily. Aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, siblings; it was this giant black ball of tangled yarn. No one knew how to get out. I think it never occurred to anyone to want to. It just was what it was. We were used to it. When I began to actually disentangle myself physically and emotionally, that was met with an onslaught of evil threats and criticism. Attacks on my character, my disloyalty, my selfishness, and my stupidity were every day occurrences. This went on for years, and still goes on somewhat, but I have removed myself and my children completely. When we do that it’s out of self protection and self reservation. It took ten years of therapy to make that move through tremendous guilt. The guilt eventually faded, and my estrangement is simply a necessary decision to keep myself safe.
But this has been bothering me for awhile; if I am genuinely in a place of safety and strength that I have created for myself, why can’t I forgive? Why am I so much more evolved than ever yet seemingly unable to let go? Letting go includes other people who have upset me greatly, say someone in my neighborhood who deeply offended me. I’m not a baby and don’t get upset easily. If I have cut you out there is a reason. But all my reasonings, however factual and justified, have caged me in. They are forms that have indeed formed a fence around my heart. I realized in yoga today that I hold on to these grudges as another way to keep myself safe. Grudges are the mind’s way of protecting ourselves. The mind, especially the ego, is designed for this purpose. Don’t talk to her, stay away from him, block them etc are the mind’s survival guide. It’s sweet in a way. And after a lifetime of feeling unprotected by various caregivers, I listen to the mind because someone is FINALLY on my side. The voice in my head is rooting for me, and that feels good. It’s a warped kind of support that I deserve dammit! We are wired to stay away from what harms us. Basic survival mode. Remaining stuck within the cinder block cell of a grudge initially feels safe. They can’t hurt us in there. Until it feels suffocating. That’s when it’s time to explore the past, in order to practice shifting into presence. I also realized in yoga today that I equate forgiveness with allowing someone back into my life. Having been raised in an environment in which there were zero boundaries of any kind, physical, psychological, or emotional, “forgiveness” following any sort of altercation meant that person once more had full access to you. They could hit you, insult you, stab you in the back, and throw you under the bus all over again. Steal from you, betray you, scream at you, threaten you with abandonment. You get the picture. Who would ever want to forgive anyone with that model? So forgiveness to me became scary. It meant I was offering myself up for sacrifice. The concept of boundaries is still new for me, and so I asked myself while in the home base of downward dog, “What if forgiveness is just an internal endeavor? What if forgiveness means letting go but not letting back in?”. All I’ve read on forgiveness teaches that it’s really for you. To free yourself from past formed pain. It’s meant to be a spiritual release, not a re entry into being a shmuck. I have been working so much with discerning between what is form and formless. I very much grasp the truth of this. I get it. And so I know that like all other thoughts and feelings, grudges and resentments are forms too. It’s why they feel so heavy. They are emotional tumors that clog our true nature, which is light, loving, and free. It just seems silly at this point in my journey to choose to continue weigh myself down. I’ve done so much work to align myself with openness and release; it’s foolish to prevent myself from further progress. I can release old anger while still protecting myself. I can internally relieve myself of that burden while keeping myself safe externally. Forgiveness, like all else, must include myself. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so hard to forgive others. That feeling they didn’t deserve it was a direct reflection of me not believing I deserve it either, for certain shameful things I’m currently grappling with. Forgiving doesn’t excuse. And change can’t occur without radical accountability. The people I didn’t want to forgive never demonstrated an iota of remorse or accountability. There was a ton of blaming others, deflection, transference, denial, and flat out lying. But never true accountability, and so the vicious cycle continues to this day. It’s time for me to exit the board game, though I haven’t played in years. If it’s true that forgiveness of others is a gift you give yourself, then I’ve finally reached a place where I am confident that I deserve that gift. Forgiving anyone who really hurt me doesn’t make any past actions ok; but it allows me to maturely recognize their own pain and confusion and maybe take it less personally. It just feels like it’s time. Time to keep exploring what I need to forgive myself for as well, to be fully accountable of my own errors and the pain I’ve caused others. I can only shift if I really look at myself with honesty. Honesty on that level is scary but that’s really the biggest gift of all. It’s what helps us give our loved ones what they deserve from us. How can I want forgiveness when I struggle with granting it? It’s time for more consistency in this area. I can admit it.
At my Zen Center Selichot service (pre Rosh Hashanah atonement ceremony), my beloved monks asked us what we want to take with us into the new year, and what we want to let go of. Forgiveness popped into my mind but my body contracted. My stomach clenched in frustration at not knowing how. Our hearts are designed to forgive, but our minds tell us we can’t or shouldn’t. We are meant to have this internal battle in order to reach the place of ease that always lies underneath the noisy dialogue.