Developing a Forgiving Heart

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NL14-7-5by Venerable Mahinda

As we develop our practice of loving-kindness, we may start to feel that although we are trying to practise love and compassion, we somehow seem to be more angry.  In fact, this may be a sign not that our anger is increasing, but that we are becoming more aware of our strong habitual tendency to get angry.  We will also start to become more aware how our unskilful thoughts, speech and body actions cause harm and suffering to others, as well as to ourselves.

The fact that we have so much anger inside shows that we need to learn patience: the patience to endure discomfort or hardship without reacting with anger, blame or any other negative emotion.  Developing a forgiving heart will help us to have the patience and endurance to go through negative or challenging situations with a calm and clear mind.

We can include forgiveness as part of our metta practice, especially when we confront certain emotional blockages when we try to radiate loving-kindness. Sometimes the thought of certain people or situations brings up strong emotions, or sometimes we feel our heart is tight and painful.  Firstly, we need to recognise that we have caused harm to others, in the present and in the past.  Sometimes we may clearly know of certain wrong actions we have done; other times we may not be aware of any wrong we have done in the immediate past. Then we need to reflect, in the long rounds of samsaric existence, it is difficult to believe that we have not done anything wrong. Thus we sincerely seek forgiveness, from our hearts, for whatever suffering we have caused to others.

Next, we need to also extend forgiveness to those who have caused us to suffer. With the understanding of cause and effect, or the law of karma, we recognise that the suffering we are experiencing now, although it appears to be coming from others, is in fact the result of our own negative actions in the past. Likewise, the suffering that others cause to us now will one day result in suffering for themselves. Thus we cultivate compassion for their ignorance and delusion, and forgive them for what they have done to us.

Finally, we need to forgive ourselves. When we recognise the suffering we have caused ourselves and others through anger, hatred and other negative emotions, a deep sense of remorse is bound to arise.  While we may have enough wisdom not to blame others, sometimes we blame ourselves for the suffering we have created.

At this point, it is very important to remember that when we begin the practise of loving-kindness, we start with our own selves. Now that we have become aware of the more unpleasant aspects of ourselves, we need to learn to forgive ourselves for our unskilful and negative actions.   Reflecting that such actions are not the result of wisdom, but of greed, hatred and ignorance, we need to make a firm determination not to repeat such actions again, to lead a righteous way of life, and to cultivate loving-kindness, wisdom and other positive qualities that are beneficial to ourselves and others.

Forgiveness is a very powerful act in releasing the burden of guilt and remorse from our minds. When we do something unskilful, our guilty conscience will condition a sense of restlessness in our minds. If we don’t admit our shortcomings and seek forgiveness from ourselves and others, we will tend to ignore the restlessness we feel by distracting ourselves in various ways.  This is how delusion builds up without our being aware of it. Then we begin to lose respect and trust for ourselves and for others.

That is why the basis of proper mental culture lies in the practice of sila, or moral restraint (ie. avoiding unwholesome thoughts, speech and body actions). Moral restraint frees us from remorse, and the mind that is free from remorse will be naturally calm and composed. Remorse is a great hindrance to our spiritual development and if it is not dissipated, it will obstruct the development of calmness and clarity in our minds.  It can also create emotional blockages that manifest as physical illness or ailments.

Learning to seek forgiveness from others, and to forgive others as well as ourselves is essential for our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The more we develop the ability to forgive and to seek forgiveness, our hearts will become lighter and happier, and our metta will be able to flow more naturally.

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