How to practice Loving Kindness and Forgiveness for myself

The following exchange came from a question to ‘Ask a Buddhist’ Program at the Metta Centre – to which Ayya Jitindriya responded.

Q: I struggle to give loving kindness and forgiveness to myself. I find it hard to forgive myself for mistakes I have made. How can I do this?

A: I can really relate to your question and concerns… in fact, it is a very common and human thing to struggle with giving loving kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves. Learning how to do so is a great task on the spiritual path actually. It doesn’t come easily, yet it is imperative that we learn this ability, as not being able to accept ourselves and our experience in the moment is really at the root of much of the dukkha (suffering/stress) we encounter and struggle with in our lives.

For myself, it was a process of many years in learning this lesson, and now I know the importance of it. Yet, I still have to be very mindful every day of the conditioned tendencies to hang on to pain and to unconsciously resist the ‘unpleasant’ emotions and perceptions when they arise — if I’m not mindful of this I can get caught in the trap of self-inflicting pain. But once you know and see these patterns and learn the knack of letting-go, particularly through kindness and acceptance, it comes more easily, and insight into the process deepens along the way.

We will often get challenged to go deeper with this work, with different stuff arising for us, right up until we’ve really ‘cleared the decks’, so to speak, (i.e. fully awakened!)

Kindness, compassion, gentleness, and making peace with ‘the way things are’ (which includes ourselves and whatever is manifesting in the heart/mind in any given moment), is what the 2nd factor of the eightfold path is all about: right intention/thought/attitude.

So, in the face of feelings and perceptions arising of anger, hatred (including self-hatred), unkindness (towards self or other), vengefulness, sadness, disappointment, etc. (which can all be summed up as ‘resistance’), we learn to first recognise it arising in the heart, (this is apprehending the first noble truth of dukkha), and then enquire how to soften around these feelings/perceptions in the moment. We develop approaches, ‘custom-made techniques’ to do this. We have to do this (enquire, experiment) in our own experience, so as we can see the results arising there (i.e. other aspects of the four noble truths manifesting for us to see and understand). This is the process of awakening – awakening to suffering and its causes, and also the cessation of suffering and the path thereto.

So, the ‘thorns in our side’ become the goad to awakening in our path, and the source of insight. We bring them onto path, and as we work with them, we understand and fulfill the path.

Learning to forgive ourselves for our mistakes… this is a hard one for all of us. Why is it that we keep remembering and repeatedly go over the really painful, embarrassing, and ego-humiliating stuff? Why do we so easily forget the good stuff? This is a kind of self-inflicting mental torture, that we really have to snap out of. Ironically, (especially for spiritual practitioners) because of our desire to be good and true, we can often get really ‘down’ on ourselves when we perceive ourselves to have failed there! But this is all in the past. And what we must drum in to our mind is the fact that the past is past, and there is no changing that! Why we keep going over it in our mind seems to be some kind of confused attempt to get rid of the painful memory by somehow ‘rewriting history’, or if we are in a down mood, sometimes it seems more about underlining to ourselves how ‘bad’ we are! But all of this is untrue. It is a confused attempt of the ego patterning to try to get free of suffering (the thorn in the side) but without knowing how. So we keep going over it, and if there is no awareness, we end up just reinforcing painful mental and emotional patterns, and a sense of ‘me/self’ as ‘that’… (like picking at a wound so it never gets to heal).

By taking refuge in awareness (buddha-mind/wakefulness), we will see these patterns that are productive of suffering more and more clearly as just conditioned patterns of mind. We have to recognise memory as memory, a perception arising in the moment, triggered by a passing thought or feeling – it is not a solid ‘self’ per se, just a memory arising in the moment. If we don’t see this in the moment we tend to latch onto the perception as real, believe it to be ‘me’ and continue rolling with the endless story-making process of the mind (ruminating). And depending on the overall mood in the mind at the time, our perception will pick-up and reinforce either the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ memories and reinforce a sense of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ self.

“The past is a memory, the future is the unknown, now is the knowing”. Ajahn Sumedho

We have to learn to stay with awareness, and with a kindness and acceptance in the heart when we confront painful feelings, whether mental, emotional or physical. We can never do this perfectly but we can do it to the best of our ability. And the truth of the situation and the mind’s processes will show themselves more clearly. This will gradually clear up the confusion in the mind as to what’s real and what’s worth pursuing, giving energy to, and what’s not.

Kindness and compassion are a kind of portal in the heart to seeing more clearly the way things are. The softening of the mind state here undermines habitual resistance and judgement, and allows a natural calm and clarity to emerge.

We also have to remember that we are human, and as humans, we are all working with a mind that is not yet fully awakened. A mind that is still swayed by confusion, greed and hatred at times. This is just the way it is. In the past, we were even more so swayed by these things, so when looking back its far too easy to see where we ‘got it wrong’, in hindsight. But actually, we made whatever choices or actions at the time to the best of our ability, while not yet being awakened, no matter how it turned out. No one knows how our decisions are going to turn out – we are often acting ‘blind’ so to speak. But in the process of things running their course we learn. But we also must learn not to hold grudges against ourselves. To forgive ourselves, and others, for blind mistakes that may have caused pain, is actually progress on the path. While we still can’t forgive, we are hanging on to painful emotions that are just creating more pain for ourselves (and others), unnecessarily so.

One of the reasons why we can find ‘forgiveness’ difficult is that we are yet to fully accept with kindness the ‘hurt feelings’ when they arise in the heart. There is a conditioned resistance to pain that kicks in. Whether it is in relation to the memory of ‘someone else who hurt me’, or me feeling hurt and humiliated by memories of my own actions. For myself, I found that the feeling of ‘shame’ or ‘humiliation’ was very hard to open to and accept in my own heart, (when I really regretted doing something that made me look really ‘bad’). Forgiving myself only came gradually as I was able to look at and accept this feeling in the moment it was arising, and not hang on to it… (i.e. forgive myself – literally, give it up, surrender it!). Then, it is just a feeling that comes and goes. If we don’t grasp it and hang on to it and keep re-identifying with it, the sense of self around it doesn’t keep getting reinforced. This is what the Buddha is pointing to. None of the feelings, perceptions, thoughts etc. are who and what we are in essence… they are just perpetually changing, conditioned patterns of the mind. We have to give rise to the wise patterning which leads to freedom from patterning, and let go of the conditioned dukkha-causing patterning.

In the end, samsara is just a construction of conditioned thought patterns. It’s not that we have to get rid of and obliterate these patterns, we just have to wake up to them and not believe in them, or get caught in them. Our ‘path’ is alternating between ‘getting caught’ and ‘freeing ourselves’, over and over again, until we just don’t get caught anymore… the mind learns how not to get stuck anymore, and the old glue loses its stickiness!

Here’s one simple technique to practice:

When a painful memory or feeling arises in the heart/mind, ask yourself:

“Where do I feel this in the body?”

And let your mind look for the corresponding physical sensations related to that painful memory or emotion.

Then, when you have that physical sensation/s in your inner mind’s eye, ask yourself:

“Can I just breathe with this sensation/ feeling, just as it is, in this moment?”

Don’t make it a demand… let these questions be open questions in the mind, just as I have written them here. This way the mind will enquire of its own, from its own genuine interest. (If you make it a closed question or a command, i.e. “do this… just breathe…”, it has a very different affect). So, an open question and genuine enquiry as to what happens when you ask, “can I….?”

If you find you can breathe with the sensation just as it is, without expectation of it to go away or for anything to happen… just stay mindful and open and see if you can breathe in and out with the sensation in mind, and just keep feeling into it this way. No expectations. And see what happens.

If it feels hard to breathe with the sensations, then just know that in the moment, and stay with whatever little movements of breath there may be, even if it feels constricted and unpleasant, just let it be and be as gentle with the process as you can.

Feelings of grief or tenderness may arise or other emotions too. The idea is just to stay with it, as gently and as openly as you can in the moment, allowing the breath to gently come in and out. If it feels ‘too much’ then you can gently let your attention rest elsewhere for a while, somewhere in the body that feels more comfortable and ‘safe’. Your own inner wisdom will start to guide you on in the process.

Well, I’ve written quite a lot here, so it’s best I wrap up. I do hope that some of what I’ve said is helpful for you. As the wise Ajahn Chah used to say: Take whatever is helpful, and leave the rest behind.

Sending you all good wishes and encouragement on your path of practice.

With much metta,

Ayya Jitindriya