Autumn Greetings from our Director!
The Grace of Forgiveness
Since its foundation in 1997, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has focused on encouraging and supporting contemplative practices, especially in secular settings. Our experience is that these practices have the potential to awaken the heart to love and open the door to the direct experience of interconnection and forgiveness. Thousands of years of such experience by meditators are now being confirmed scientifically. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Dr. Richard Davidson, has used brain imagery to show that meditation shifts activity in the prefrontal cortex from the right hemisphere to the left, from fight-or-flight to acceptance and contentment - elements of successful forgiving and loving relationships. The introduction of meditative practices therefore has the potential for and may be critical to the creation of a more loving, forgiving society.
The Center has introduced these practices and resources for deepening them to thousands of diverse people and organizations, including communities and sectors where talking about love and forgiveness is difficult. At a retreat for leaders of environmental groups held several years ago, the directors of two of the organizations fell into each other's arms after a group practice, saying that they wanted to end their feud and work together for the planet. Contemplative practice, especially presented in a safe manner in secular forms and settings, is becoming a socially acceptable way to explore common deeply held values and reach the source of love and forgiveness.
Practices that are specifically designed to open the heart and deepen connection to others (like metta practice and lectio divina) work directly to foster love and compassion. Others cultivate the capacity for giving and receiving forgiveness for oneself and others; supporting these are practices of letting go, grieving, and reconciliation. And other practices, which develop capacities from simple stillness to the cultivation of wisdom, develop awareness from which the actions of love and forgiveness can grow. As we cultivate positive qualities, the negative emotions and capacities are diminished-states like anger, rage, frustration, impatience.
As Thomas Merton has said, "Contemplation is awareness of the reality of an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. It is a sudden gift of awareness, and awakening to the Real, within all that is real." He describes practice as leading to a "deep, luminous, and absorbing experience of love" which "floods your whole being with its truth and substantial peace." Teachers from all traditions say that contemplative practices lead us to the immediate experience of love within ourselves, so we are free to love others.
Contemplative practices give the opportunity for loving and forgiving even if the person loved or forgiven is not present or available to us. They also reveal basic unity and wholeness. Contemplative practices remind us of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "interbeing" or interconnection and what Merton calls the knowing that "everything that is, is holy." Both true forgiveness (one person's moral response to another's injustice) and reconciliation (two parties coming together in mutual respect) are more likely when one has the contemplative appreciation that we are not separate, and that we all yearn for the same healing. As Bishop Desmond Tutu has said, "We set great store by communal peace and harmony. Anything that subverts that harmony is injurious, not just to the community, but to all of us, and therefore forgiveness is an absolute necessity for continued human existence."
The escapes of our unreflective materialistic American lives allow or even encourage us to forget about unresolved relationships and the joy and support of loving friendships, can lead to thoughtless behaviors that cause pain and suffering to others. Contemplative practice shifts our understanding of what is important in life, including relationships, emotional stability, and a community based on spiritual values, freedom, and love.
But I think it is important to be clear and humble about the role of practice. There is also mystery in both forgiveness and love. Some would call it grace, others karma, but it is outside the control of our will, of our rational mind, and even our intention, no matter how noble. I recently found a note to me on a torn envelope from 1970, Kenchi, India. I had asked a friend what he thought I should do for my spiritual path. The note said, "Purify and wait for grace. Love, Ram Dass."
Here lies a profound connection between practice and love and forgiveness. Practice is purification. It shows us the attachments or ways of being that are keeping us from being able to love and forgive unconditionally. We act out being more loving, more forgiving through one of the many methods. We might recite a word like love or trust over and over, or hold an image of the person in our minds and send her or him loving, forgiving thoughts. We see where we are holding on to ideas and emotions that are not relevant to the present. We see that refusing to forgive is trapping us in the past. We see the possibility of change. And simply acting or practicing this way has a transforming effect. There is a story about a pickpocket who became a saint. He had been acting like a saint in order to move through crowds, the better to be able to pick pockets. But he acted like (practiced being) a saint so often that after some time he had become a person who only did saintly acts .despite his intention, he forgot about stealing and became a saint.
Actions transform us, and if we do them with energy and commitment, over time they can transform us unconditionally. Paul Tillich said that "forgiveness is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all." But there is often more to deep, or unconditional, transformation than the "work" of practice, whether it is practice to love ourselves, others, or God. When liberation does come often there is the mysterious element of grace or karma. That is, you can practice and practice and become a more loving and forgiving person, but the leap into full, unconditional love or forgiveness can be unexpected and doesn't even seem to be related to the practice. We fall in love suddenly (with humans or God), or the heavy weight of resentment and anger lifts spontaneously in the most unlikely moment, we are free.
So why practice? First, practice leads us toward love and forgiveness. More important, practice teaches us to live wholeheartedly in the present, realizing its inherent value no matter what the content. It shifts the emphasis of our lives from achievement of a pre-established goal (even love or forgiveness) to a concern with the process of growing, loving, and forgiving. And it makes grace more likely, and more effective. We may fall in love, but if we have practiced being a loving person, and developed the capacity to let go of our negative emotions and desires that life be a certain way, we are more likely to benefit from grace, to deepen the love, to sustain the forgiveness.
In the Jewish calendar, the season of autumn signals the ending of one year and the beginning of a new one, a time for reflection and atonement - a thoughtful email from the Shalom Center received today says that "its timing offers all human beings a chance to look at that moment of new openness. All of us and each of us, individually and collectively, can take stock of our actions and try to turn them in the direction of wholeness, harmony, peace, justice, healing."
As we enter this time of the year, our own practice can help to "bring us home" to what truly has meaning in our lives. May your contemplative practice sustain you and lead you toward the liberation of forgiveness.