Compassion for the Other
When we work through the previous steps and are able to sit in a place where we can say “When I saw ________, I chose to feel ___________, and I forgive,” with our whole hearts, then we have begun to reclaim the power that we at one point handed over to the other person.
In this state, we are less likely to crave self-expression to the other, because we are more balanced within ourselves. We may wish to self-express in service to synthesis with the other (which will be explored below) and we have little/no emotional charge around that expression. Our desire is not ‘to make the other person understand’ or ‘to hear what they have to say to defend or justify their actions’. We may have a strong preference here, which is different to an overpowering attachment to a singular way of that outcome looking.
We no longer crave or are attached to knowledge, justifications or explanations around what happened. We may be curious about the event; we may wish to know more about what was occurring in that moment (in service to synthesis), and we receive these pieces of information as data points rather than as explanations, justifications or defenses. We’re searching as a curious observer, rather than an investigative district attorney putting together a court case. Data may bring up emotions (chosen), and that isn’t necessarily bad.
In this state, we no longer desire retribution, retaliation or punishment; we may desire restitution, as in our opening up the opportunity for another to demonstrate a change in their behavior, a moment for them to truly explore what choices are available to them, and a chance for them to re-enter a space of integrity with us. And, we have little/no emotional investment or reaction to the choice of the other person to take-up or leave this opportunity for restitution. We likely will make different behavioral choices. Again, emotions are not ‘bad.’ We may choose joy in restitution, and sadness if it does not occur, and that can be ‘okay.’
In this state, we have let go of (and forgiven) our blame and shame of the other. We have taken back our projections, our stories, our emotions. We have fully owned them as ours, and forgiven ourselves. Read Appendix B: Stories of Compassion
If this state of being seems utopic, and the acts of those in the stories of compassion seem far-fetched and impossible, then we haven’t quite arrived at a state of balance yet. We may need more time, more practice, more inspiration, more self-empathy. We may still be processing other complex states that can cloud our ability to reclaim our power: states like trauma and mourning (see Appendix C).
An effective metric here is a simple question:
Am I craving anything from the other person?
If the answer is yes, then we are still off-balance. We are looking outside ourselves for balance, still attempting to ‘make sense of’ what happened. We crave explanations, information, reasoning, fault, blame. And yes, individual pieces of information may aid us in balancing out for a while. Learning that the murderer of my son is going to jail may enable me to find a temporary state of peace here. And at the same time, a lasting peace can only come from within myself, because that peace remains evergreen, while the confession, punishment, blame and hatred of others likely leads to further desires for more information, more punishment, more hatred.
If the answer is no, then paradoxically you may be ready to speak to the other person. In answering ‘no’ to craving something from the other, and yet still wanting to speak to the other, we are saying ‘yes’ to clarity, synthesis and mutual understanding. We’re saying yes to our need for connection. We’re saying yes to our desire to open up a new space in which both parties can grow from this interaction. There is a fine line here between demanding growth in the way we’d like to see the other grow (which is punishment/retribution based and unbalanced) and offering observations in service to both party’s mutual growth in whichever way they choose, or do not choose (which is balanced, gift-oriented and steeped in compassion). One can have intense mourning/sadness and not be attached. The other person may literally/figuratively spit in your face.
So where does compassion for the other person start?
An age old question, sometimes more simply written: Why should I care about his/her feelings when I am the one in pain? The answers are as old as the questions: some have formed into dense and complex religious practices, other answers are found in the pages of philosophers, some people maintain a personal ethics derived from multiple different sources. Appendix E, for example, outlines some resources for the practice of ‘Tonglen’ a meditation practice that (in its most basic form) focuses on breathing-in the suffering of the world and breathing-out happiness for all.
We most likely find it easier to commit ourselves to these paths of support for others when the powerful negative actions and emotions are not directed at ourselves. When we can approach a child who is hitting another child and stop the situation, and then meet the bully with love and compassion… extending arms of friendship and understanding. What allows us to do this? We are balanced and centered. Our emotions are not quite present, unless we think of compassion as an emotion. Yet, attaining this state when we are the one being beaten, when the blows are landing on our body and our heart: this is a strong storm to weather.
Getting there can mean practicing compassion when the stakes are low: as in the first example where we step in to support someone else in a conflict. We can also start with less-invested moments of forgiveness, where our emotions are already largely balanced (say, when someone takes your pen without asking), and in experiencing these moments, build up to larger moments (say, when someone steals your car). For a graphical representation of what these scales look like (from small to large moments of emotion) see Appendix E.
In practicing compassion for the other, we extend forgiveness beyond ourselves. We widen the circle and let forgiveness start to inflect our engagement with the world, through allowing it to inform our interactions with others. We start to hear the anger/sadness of others as tragic expressions of unmet needs, and we cultivate the ability to meet these requests with compassion and love, even (and especially) when these violent expressions are directed at ourselves. This is a steep and noble path towards awakening compassion within our hearts, and within the hearts of those who once would have been our enemies.
So far, we’ve been looking at forgiveness as a process of gaining balance around a past event/ belief/emotion/reaction/judgment through owning that action as our choice and letting go of the desire to punish, demand, control or affect the person whom we believed harmed us. We have chosen to own our emotions, to find balance (perhaps including mourning and trauma), and to explore what we need.
There exists another way of forgiveness, where forgiveness is no longer a path to balance: it is a state of balance that exists in this and every moment.
Imagine for a second three swimmers in a river with a strong current.
One swimmer follows the current downstream. She hits a rock and becomes angry. She swims against the current, and drags herself up on the rock. She rages, yells, screams; she beats at the rock with her hand; she cries; she claws at the rock. Her hands are sore and aching and she hates the rock more for making her hands hurt. She spends out the rest of her days on that rock: it becomes her new home and she hates it, and looks enviously down river.
Another swimmer is swimming with the current and so makes it downstream at a goodly pace; yet, every time that swimmer hits a rock he stops, and with a good amount of effort, swims upstream against the current back to the rock. He takes time to look the rock over, to silently yell and rage at the rock, to curse the rock, then to realize that it’s a rock, that he was the one who ran into the rock, that he is the one with the emotions bubbling up. He then forgives the rock and resumes swimming downstream only to hit more rocks, swim back upstream, and repeat the process. By the time he gets to the river’s mouth, he is exhausted and sore.
The third swimmer lies back in the river and allows the river to carry her downstream. When rocks crop up in her path, she relaxes and gives over to the path of the river, and slips smoothly past the rocks. She spends no energy swimming back upstream, nor does she give the rocks a second thought. She relaxes, she floats, she flows around, and she gets to the mouth of the river without hitting a single rock, having hit some rocks, but never too hard, and without raging once.
The Rocks in the River
The idea of the rock in the river bears a little more explanation before we think through the three swimmers. The rocks in the stories represent the challenging events in our lives, the flow of the river represents our life as a whole. So, our life always has rocks in it; there is no river without a rock. The point is not to take all the rocks out of our river, nor is the point to stop and break-down every rock with a hammer so that that rock is gone (an action of the first and second swimmer).
One of the many points here in this story is to endeavor to no longer choose to hit the rocks. Instead, we choose to flow past the rocks: to note their color, their structure, their consistency: to wonder how that particular rock affects the path of our river: to think dispassionately and wonder/marvel that because that rock was in our river, we chose to go to the right instead of to the left, and that that particular choice has changed the course of our entire life journey.
Rocks are therefore neither good nor bad. They are as necessary for the river as the water is. And, we choose how to encounter the rocks in our river… how to spend our life. We can choose to be beaten and bruised by the rocks. We can choose to rage upon the rock. And we can choose to float past the rocks.
And, even the third swimmer may occasionally stub his/her toe on a rock, and take a moment to pause near that rock: to sit on top of the rock and meditate for a while: to feel into the rock, and learn more about how this rock came to be here, in this river, at this time. In the end, the third swimmer leaves the rock in peace and compassion, thankful for the lessons it imparted.
In the end, the third swimmer is a position we aim for: a perfect point that we orient to, yet do not believe that we will become. This isn’t an act of pessimism; it is an understanding that the third swimmer’s function is not to show us what we must become, but rather to orient us to what we strive for, and celebrate/forgive ourselves for not achieving.
And, forgiveness does not mean acing ‘against’ the rock. That can powerfully happen as well. The swimmers metaphor points only to a state of mind, and not how that state interacts with the world.
Luskin’s Four Stages
Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, breaks the path of forgiveness into 4 stages: the first stage is occupied by the first swimmer. The second and third stages are the second swimmer. The fourth stage is the fourth swimmer: perpetual forgiveness.
In the first stage, we blame the offender [which could be chance itself, or God] for how we are feeling. It is their action and not our choice of response that causes of our anger. We are convinced it would not be “right’ to forgive them. We may hold both active and repressed anger. I can’t believe he bailed on the plan. This sucks, it’s so like him too, he’s just being selfish and impractical.
The second stage begins when after feeling angry with someone (or yourself) for a while, we realize that the anger isn’t serving our life. It may be impacting our emotional balance or our physical health. Or, we wish to repair the relationship. So we take steps to forgive. Perhaps we read this manual, visit the creek, and/or turn to a spiritual practice. We may think: I’m feeling triggered, and I wish I was at peace.
The third stage of forgiveness comes after we have seen the beneficial results of forgiveness and we choose to let go of our anger fairly quickly. At this stage we become aware that the length of time we experience the situation as a grievance is primarily up to us. We may think: Life is filled with incredible beauty and I am missing some if I experience unresolved anger. I forgive myself for getting sidetracke
In the fourth stage we forgive the present. We forgive every moment and allow it to be as it is. There is no accumulation of resentment that needs to be forgiven at some later time. In allowing it to be, we move beyond evaluations and polarities of right/wrong/good/bad all together. We have met Rumi in the field. ¹ found something like what Eckhart Tolle calls consciousness, what Buddhists call enlightenment. We still may experience happiness and sadness, celebration and mourning, and beneath this a layer of peace, connection, and integrity. We move beyond thinking to simply being here now. We realize that we are not the voice in our head. We find awareness concealed within the present moment—pure presence: life.
Forgiveness in this stage is no longer an action.
I no longer consciously choose to forgive a person.
Beyond these actions of the previous stages, I exist in a state of being in which the overwhelming peace I feel towards the world enables me to no longer take offence to an action that I might have previously deemed harmful/offensive to myself. I meet others with pure understanding and love and as such, no longer need the act of forgiveness, because I no longer experience resentment, anger, and/or hatred in response to the actions of others. I still experience sadness, loss, and pain, and I recognize the opportunities these emotions bring for my growth, and the ways in which these moments enrich my experience of humanity.
The four steps also denote four separate mindsets:
1st Stage: Triggered Mind ———— Action (click) ➞Emotion Reaction (Bang!) ➞ Act
2nd Stage: Forgiving Mind ———— Action ➞ Reaction ➞ Forgive reaction (self) ➞ Forgive other ➞ Act
3rd Stage: Conscious Mind ———- Action ➞Choice ➞Emotional reaction
4th Stage: Enlightened Mind ——– Observe ➞ Hold curiosity ~ Act according to who you want to be
These four stages do not unfold sequentially for all people or relationships. There are some people for whom we feel such love that we are almost always at stage four: open-hearted perpetual forgiveness. This stage is made easier when we know with certainty that our wellbeing matters deeply to that other person and that they feel our pain. This is possible without that belief as well. It helps if we can understand the experiences that shape their perspectives, or have had similar ones ourselves. For others we can spend years moving past stage one. Much of this comes down to trust – but remember that trust is also a choice in your hands. Remember as well that over time and with different situations, we are likely to move back and forth between these various minds.
For the latter situation, practice meeting people as they are right now, as if you were meeting them for the first time. If their past actions dominate your perceptions, this will be difficult, but notice how your feelings and availability change when you start with a clean slate. ² Over time, look to build understanding by getting to know them on a level that allows you to understand the contexts in which they see the world.
In striving to lead a permanently forgiving life, we can look at a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti: “to observe without evaluating is the greatest form of human intelligence”. This simple concept is something many monks and practitioners of meditation dedicate their entire life to. Not there yet yourself? That’s cool, very few are. May we still take pleasure in the quest, and stumble onward and upward, forgiving ourselves along the way.
- Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass,the world is too full to talk about.Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.
- Think here of the difference between a human being and a human becoming. The second phrase, popularized by existential philosophy, honors that humans are always in a state of becoming otherwise than they are: of growing. Human ‘being’ signifies a static nature, which human becoming signifies a dynamic nature. This does not, however, mean to forget our pasts..