The Strength of Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
– Mahatma Gandhi


(photo credit Sylvia Roy)


The day was hot, boiling over oppressively, keeping a stagnant, heavy sweat under our arms, as our insides burned equally with the regret, resentment, fear, and pain we had dredged up over the last two weeks of our Yoga Teacher Training course. That evening’s activity was the “Forgiveness Circle”, which had originally been scheduled for a few days earlier, but was then rescheduled as our instructor had deemed us not yet ready for the exercise.

Over the course of the first two weeks we had read “The Power of Now” and focused on experiencing the present moment as the only true reality as we discovered yoga through asana practice, meditation, breath work, and philosophical discussion. But, as we entered our third week, we picked up Pema Chodron’s “The Places That Scare You” and delved ever deeper, into the darker corners of our consciousness. Now, with the peak in atmospheric and emotional heat, we were ready for whatever it was the Forgiveness Circle would bring.

However, the pain of the previous day alone could have been enough to create a wound deep enough, radiating heat, begging for the supposed placating panacea of a Forgiveness Circle. So, it seemed that it couldn’t have been rescheduled for a more apropos time. And yet, that scarcely surprised us now. As we learned to open ourselves to the pure potential all around us, it became easier to trust and recognize that everything that happens, happens exactly as it should. If everyone and everything was an expression of the divine, as we learned, then there are essentially no accidents, no mistakes, no coincidences, just the imperfect perfection of pure potential expressing itself through the experience of life.

And yet, knowing this, we continue to suffer. Deeply. Excruciatingly. Endlessly. As the Buddha taught: “human life is suffering.”

And so it was, on the previous day, when Anna collapsed at the foot of the stairs, crying out in agony, her face screwed up in distress, her laments nearly indiscernible through the thick waterfall of tears and tremendous quaking heaves. As I stood at the sink washing dishes, she ran past me, out the door, throwing herself onto a patch of gravel where I could see her clearly through the window. Her hand pressed to her forehead as she pleaded “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy…” and then “there were so many things I wanted to tell her”.

As we packed her things for her to get on the first flight in a series of flights to get home, she looked up and said “I just hope they keep her body long enough so that I get to see her.”

In the days leading up to that, Anna had spoken of nothing but her parents – their financial troubles, their declining health, their denial of their situations, and the weight of her need to fix it all. It was if a dark, foreboding cloud had hung about her head for days, when typically she was every room’s ray of sunshine. And now, as her mother’s body lay lifeless on another continent, she suffered not only the loss, but the guilt of everything she hadn’t said, everything she hadn’t fixed, that she hadn’t been there to hear her mother’s final recap of the morning news. That she hadn’t been there at all.

After Anna was whisked swiftly, abruptly away in a red taxi, our previously peaceful yoga retreat community milled about wearily, with eyes full of burning saltwater tears, blazing as red as that taxi had been. In the face of her suffering, our own rose up anew – the pangs of regret, the vein-enflaming anger, and the metallic taste of guilt.

Now we were ready to be forgiven for all our ills.

all white

Giving and receiving forgiveness (photo credit Jessica Ruinard)

So, that sweltering night, we sat in a circle, wearing all white, admiring photos of 30 perfect, smiling, happy babies. Their eyes and noses and smiles easily betraying the fact that these babies were the former selves of the members of that circle – before all the suffering we had come to know so well. We were told to look at the pictures of our baby selves, to really look, and recognize that that small, sweet person was the very same person we had grown to hate, belittle, and destroy. If we really equated our present selves with that innocent baby, would we still do and say the terrible things that we do and say to ourselves? How could we really? We needed to forgive our sweet, little selves for our trespasses (as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil).

Blindfolded, we were arranged into two concentric circles to hear the confessions – the members of the outer circle could divulge anything and everything they needed or wanted to release, and the members of the inner circle could do but just one thing: hold the hands of the sinner and say “you are forgiven”.

Was I more nervous about what I would say or what I would hear? I wasn’t sure. But I didn’t have too long to ponder it – the power of it rushed like water breaking a dam. The room was a sea of whispers that sometimes came accompanied with laughter, or more often tears, but always, it was followed with that most simplest of phrases:

“You are forgiven.”

And so the sinners whispered on…

As she gripped my hands firmly, I recognized Leslie’s husky voice – she was the second person in the group that I had met. She was many years younger than I, and I had instantly recognized so much of myself at that age in her youthful naivety and perfectionism. And now here she was, admitting that she hates herself profoundly. She described an endless cycle of starving, gorging, and cutting herself. And my first reaction? “Me too…!” But, all I could say was:

“You are forgiven.”

Still blindfolded, we moved on to hear the next confession. I recognized Max from the way his big, strong hands confidently wrapped around mine. I had grown quite fond of him as I had gotten to know his sweet, and quirky, and gentle nature – much like my own, maybe. He steadily admitted his inability to let anybody in. He spoke woefully about shutting out his mother and romantic partners by withholding love. He regretted his tendency to lash out at his beloveds every chance he got. Oh, Max, you are preaching to the choir, I thought. But I didn’t agree or offer suggestions, I simply replied:

“You are forgiven.”

Reaching for the hands of the next soul to be saved, I knew Maggy instantly – as her presence had become so familiar to me over our time together – she had helped care for me when I had fallen victim to Montezuma’s revenge the first week and she had read the interpretation of the Oracle Cards we chose daily. And now, as she stroked the tops of my hands with her thumbs, Maggy confided about her pattern of deceit. She kidded herself and her ex-boyfriend for years that she was devoted to him heart and soul – that she wanted to give him her life and bear his children. I too am guilty of this crime. As my ex-beloved, who deserved much better, would tell you. But I had to save my stories for my turn. So, instead, I pressed my hands harder into hers and whispered:

“You are forgiven.”

Celeste was easily recognizable by her voice and the fact that she rarely stopped to breathe between sentences. Having listened to her talk through the entirety of many meals, I knew her life had generally been good, but yet she was full of anxieties and doubts. This time she told me about how she wished she had listened to the words of wisdom that came from all directions. On her wedding day, her cousin had held her hands, telling her she didn’t have to go through with it and that she could run away from it all. If only she had said “yes” to her cousin’s pleas instead of “yes” to her ex-husbands vows… I thought of all the times I had said “yes” when everything inside and out clearly said “no.” But this time, all I said was:

“You are forgiven.”

As I continued around the circle, the pain continued to seep out. It emerged as both general and specific. We have been bad parents, bad children, bad lovers and bad friends. We have been lazy, glutinous, selfish, ungrateful, and even cruel. We did terrible things to people and even more terrible things to ourselves. We didn’t answer that phone call and we didn’t make that other one. We lied once, we lied twice, and we lied for years. We didn’t do that thing we said we would and we didn’t make it in time.

When my turn came, I started softly, making general statements, easing into my own dark places. I thought of that baby and framed everything as an apology to her. “I’m sorry for hating myself and saying self-deprecating things all the time. I am sorry that I am ungrateful for my body and that I abuse it. I am sorry that I have been beyond unkind to those who love me. I’m sorry for pretty much everything I did between the ages of 14 and 19…” I offered. As I spoke, the invocation of that baby began to fade, but in its place arose all of the ugly truths I had been fighting to forget. I revisited the ugly things I had done to my body and the ugly things that had been done to it. I confessed all the times I hadn’t loved enough, the wounds I had maliciously inflicted, the hearts I had selfishly broken.

When I got back to the soothing hands of Maggy, something inside me began to crack. I was no longer consciously searching for the ugly, shameful truths to expose, they just arose, swelling up in my belly and spewing out of my mouth. I offered the regret that I hadn’t loved or known my grandparents enough before they died – that I had been too self-absorbed to recognize their significance. Had I stopped to think before I spoke I probably wouldn’t have bothered to tell the story that grew from that statement, but I was no longer in control, the dam had burst and the shame just flowed on through.

I recounted how my grandfather had called to wish me happy 24th birthday. He had left a voicemail. Because I didn’t answer the call. Because I knew it was him. I didn’t ignore the call because he was cruel or because I didn’t love him. It was just that his voice was so frail and shaky, it was such a struggle to talk to him, and I was busy and I didn’t want to be bothered. Calling him back sat at the top of my to-do list for a few weeks or so. And then, while riding the metro with my father on our way to a business-related cocktail party, he put his hand onto my hand that was holding onto the railing and he casually, but gently informed me that my grandfather had passed.

I could have stopped there. In fact, I thought that’s where the story ended. But, the river of guilt flowed on, ferrying along all of its demons. I continued to explain that my father and I were to make the seven hour drive the following afternoon to join my mother and her sisters as they prepared for the funeral. I had made plans to leave work before lunch so we could depart before rush hour. But I didn’t make it out until 3:00 because I was busy and I had gotten slowed down by taking so many breaks to throw up in the trash can under my desk (never taking that as I a sign in itself that I should leave…). So, by the time I arrived at my parents’ home, my father told me it was too late to start the long drive and that I clearly needed to rest instead. We would leave the next morning.

Early the next morning, as I gathered our things to leave, hair wrapped in a towel, still wet from the shower, I watched my father answer the phone and then sit down at his desk as he listened intently. It was strange, the way he sat, the way he listened. He was always in a hurry to finish conversations, never taking the time to sit, keeping the phone on speaker, cutting people off and hanging up abruptly. This time he had listened intently, until the end, and then casually, but gently informed me that my mother had been in an accident.

I should have left work on time. I should have insisted that we drive up anyway. I should have at least called her to assure her we would be there soon. Then she wouldn’t have sought solace in the fire of a bottle, the speed and solitude of her car, and the cathartic impact of that tree.

But now…I was forgiven.

I thought of Anna. Before she left that day, she had talked about how she could have been a more grateful daughter. She should have replied to her mother’s last email. She should have been there. As my own grievances were being fluidly forgiven, I held Anna’s in my heart and tried to redirect some of the forgiveness there. I knew that the following day Anna would be alone with her mother, honoring her life by washing and dressing her body one final time. I hoped that she could just live in that moment. Free of regret. Free of guilt. Just free. And forgiven.

Through the hushed whispers of the circle that night, I recognized the gravity of the fact that we are all equals, cut from the same raggedy cloth, writhing beneath the skin with the same pain. As Pema Chodron would say: “through our hopes and fears, our pleasures and pains, we are deeply interconnected.”

Meditation on the Anamaya yoga deck

Sunrise meditation on the Anamaya yoga porch (photo credit Nicole Boyer)

The following morning opened with a sunrise as gleaming and brilliant as ever. But, the day was different than the previous one had been. The oppressive heat had lifted, giving rise to a breeze that bent trees, loosened leaves and left ripples across the ocean as far as the eye could see. It blew through every window, drapes rippling in its wake. It swirled across the length of the porch, wringing out the hammocks, carrying away every last grain of sand that they expelled. It flooded into the expanse of the great room, sweeping the floors clean of every fleck of lint, every lone thread, every forgotten fingernail.

It washed over our bodies, freeing strands of hair from ponytails, drying the sweat behind our knees and under our arms.

The oneness that we had experienced with each other in fact ran much deeper than our shared experiences and physical forms. The oneness radiated from nature’s very core, rising to meet us in the gusts of wind, swells of oceans, calls of birds, and bolts of lightning. And that morning, if we listened to it, the pure potential all around us, was cleaning us off, drying us out, sloughing us off, and loosening us up. To be forgiven. To be free.

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