Forgiveness: When Past Meets Present

Today feels like a great day to talk about forgiveness. I won’t lie, simply finding the words to begin this conversation has been several rewrites in the making; it’s not an easy topic. The reason I want to speak to this today is because there have been several instances throughout the past week where specific moments from my past have been brought to light again. Moments which were difficult to experience and uncomfortable to relive. It’s a funny thing in how we can recognize these patterns that reappear in our present life, which speak to such formative memories, whether we wish to remember them or not. 

Without dredging up too many details of the past, the various circumstances of which I was reminded involved situations in which my life had been negatively affected by someone, both through my own youthful mishaps or through unfortunate events beyond my control. The memory of these occasions, most of them all a decade or more in the past, still incites fierce emotion for me. My first instinct is to push away at the uneasiness and file it all away so as not to disturb my anxieties, but this week was different. Uncanny though it was to have these several memories arise in such a short span of time, their clustering appearance really allowed me an opportunity to examine what it was about these skeletons in my closet that caused such discomfiture. Unfortunately, this opportunity to reflect kept arising as I lay down to sleep at night, such a convenient time to be introspective… (saracasm).

But what kept surfacing for me during these nighttime analyses was that I had been harboring a lot of anger toward a few individuals (this wasn’t a surprise), but when I really stopped to question why I had any reason to maintain this anger, and what even brought it about in the first place, I found that all signs pointed back to deep-rooted anger, disappointment, regret, unworthiness, and jealousy toward myself (this was a surprise).

Before I go any further with this psychological rant, I would like to note that I spend a lot of time being introspective in my day-to-day life. As I’ve matured into my 30s I actually enjoy questioning my actions and feelings (thank you, yoga!). I’ve always been an exceedingly perceptive person with the ability to make many unbiased assessments of my life, and I’m trying to say this in the least egotistical way possible because, don’t get me wrong, I make many mistakes and misjudgments. Until this week, however, I hadn’t been brave enough to turn my introspection toward certain events of my past. 

Self-realization manifests itself in many forms. It isn’t always as peaceful as meditating under a Bodhi tree or as dramatic as discovering that you were adopted. Each day offers us a chance to understand and accept truths about our lives. We are also offered the chance to repress or ignore these truths. And truth, stubborn and persistent though it is, will allow itself to be ignored, yet is there any one action that more affirms something’s presence than by ignoring it? We may turn our backs on something, but this does not revoke its existence.

Once I allowed myself to realize that this dredged-up negativity really had its roots in feelings toward my Self of the past, I was able examine the feelings that remained for some of these painful relationships. Forgiveness was what I wanted to feel; to forgive these people for wronging me, insulting me, inhibiting my growth. I searched for this forgiveness in vain, however. It would not come, it could not come. For how could I possibly forgive someone else for the way in which I had treated myself. In no way am I trying to garner all the blame for mistakes I may have made, but the true forgiveness was that for which I had for the girl I once was, the actions she took, the decisions she made, the people she surrounded herself with, the affectations she’d allowed to consume her, and the struggle she’d created by trying to find her way. Once I stopped judging the person I once was, I was able to stop judging the people with whom I had been involved: romantic partners, friends, family, and self-created rivals. In finding self-forgiveness, or at least beginning the process of it, I was able to understand why I could not forgive the others. As jaded as I had felt for years and years, blaming these people, it was my own darkness that was limiting me. 

I realize that just got pretty deep considering that I was exceedingly vague about the circumstances that prompted me to write all this, but I promise you, we’re going to come full circle.

When it comes to forgiveness, whether towards oneself or someone else, it comes down to a matter of living in the past. The need to forgive is fueled by the presence of resentment. To harbor resentment is to maintain affectedness over an incident that has already occurred. The varying intensities of prior incidents do condition the individual response that one has toward the offending party, but when it all begins to boil down, a grudge is a grudge; a lifeline to the past. 

In yoga, we speak a great deal about “coming into the present moment.” When we step to our mats, we take efforts to leave behind that which ails us physically, mentally, or spiritually. Some days this is easier than others; there are days when we struggle throughout the entire practice to find balance, process emotion, or find our breath. Other days, we float, flow, and free our minds with ease. 

Yoga sutra 4.12, as translated by Bernard Bouanchaud, examines this phenomenon: “The past and future are always potentially present. Their manifestations depend on individual and universal laws as a whole.” In holding on to resentment, we maintain a connection with our past. This resentment can lead to other negative effects, such as an inability to move forward, which in turn, will inhibit potential in the future. 

Applying this to my experience of the past week where I revisited certain memories, it can be determined that there were aspects of my past that were inadvertently present because of grievances that I carried with me. Without being completely conscious of doing so, holding on to these grievances continued to affect my life; avoiding certain places, activities, or people, for example. In turn, this limited my future potential. By avoiding these things, I was setting myself up to miss out on experiences, knowledge, or friendships. Once I allowed myself to reflect on the difficult circumstances of the past and realize that the biggest grudge I had been holding was the one against my past self, I was able to let go of the animosity I felt toward those previous relationships.

I’m not saying that all instances of forgiveness can work in this way. People have a tendency to do some really awful things to each other and not every terrible thing can be moved past by one forgiving oneself. What we can do, however, is examine where our bitterness originates from within ourselves. We can lay blame on the actions of others, oftentimes with good reason, but grudges can become terribly burdensome the longer we hold onto them. By taking a closer look at why we hold onto them in the first place, we may be able to free ourselves of them. Reflecting upon whom we hold resentment toward, those for whom we could potentially find forgiveness, it is possible that we might discover that the person we were when this disagreement began, is no longer the person we are now. It is possible that our past and present selves are so different that we now have a different understanding of the original situation. Perhaps we had been too quick to judge, too quick to be disinclined, too quick to get angry. If this is the case, then the forgiveness truly needs to start with ourselves.

Well, if any of you are still reading this and haven’t given up on my crazy mind, you may be asking, “How the hell do I forgive myself?” For this, I have no definitive answer, but through self-discovery, acceptance, and continued reflection, we can begin to understand how the events of our past maintain that potential to be with us always. How successfully we can let them go depends on how truthful we are with ourselves, how able we are to step away from ego. A simple daily mantra of “I forgive you” directed at oneself is a beautiful place to start. 

For me, meditations on Śūnyatā, the Buddhist concept of “voidness” have been very eye-opening. This is a complex, esoteric topic that, like many great philosophical wonders, is multi-faceted. (Learn more about this here or here). What really resonates with me is the idea that our existence is in a constant state of flux. Each moment is a rising and falling action; occurring, dying, then being reborn. The person we were a minute ago, an hour ago, ten years ago, no longer exists. When we hold on to events of the past, we create more suffering in the present, trying to preserve this connection to what is gone. One of the foremost tenets of Buddhism, “life is suffering,” shows us how our attachments keep us within this cycle of samsara (death and rebirth). Successful practices of non-attachment are integral to finding nirvana. Forgiveness, by its very nature, is a practice of non-attachment; we release our attachment to resentment arising from events of the past.

Obtaining nirvana is an awe-some result of mindfulness, but most of us are not avidly seeking total enlightenment. For many of us, we simply seek a happy existence, filled with love and peace… oh wait… isn’t that nirvana? Lol, a state of perfect happiness may not be available to us all of the time, but finding ways to enjoy moments of it is part of the human experience. We’ve all fucked up, but it’s okay, it really is. 

In conclusion, I challenge you to begin your day with a little forgiveness; revisit a difficult memory, forgive yourself for how you may have handled things back then, or how you projected yourself unto others. You, too, may find that the burden on your soul lightens, for enlightenment, it comes in many forms.