Stories of Compassion
In the Temple of Forgiveness
“One 14-year-old boy in the [juvenile offenders] program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and said, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left, she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. Near the end of his three year sentence she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and uncertain, so she offered to set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home.
For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do, ma’am,” he replied. “Well I did,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.”
And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had.
–from Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield
An aging master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. One morning, he sent him to get some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Bitter,” said the apprentice.
The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”
As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”
“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.
“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.
“No,” said the young man. At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly,
“The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”
The Death of the Ego
A man wants to forgive someone who had done him some wrong. But he is having a difficulty doing so—at least he is aware of this—so before he goes to bed, he says a sincere prayer and asks for assistance with forgiveness. As the man falls asleep, he is visited by a spirit. While he’s in the lucid dream state, the spirit teaches him that all forgiveness is really self-forgiveness. He learns that forgiveness releases toxins; it releases the resentment within you. When you forgive someone else, he learns, you are really doing yourself a service. When the man wakes up the next day, he’s more prone to forgive the man who had done him wrong. But that night when he’s about to go to sleep, he realizes there is still rancor in his heart. He hasn’t quite gotten there. So he prays again to know how to forgive.
As he falls asleep he’s visited again by the spirit. This time the spirit takes him out of his body and brings him to the very moment of conception of the man who had done him wrong. The spirit takes him through the timeline of the man’s life and shows him the condition the man was raised under, the teachers he had, the things that happened to him, all the way up to the moment when the infraction occurred. Then the angel shows him that what this man did was the highest and best thing he could have done. Moreover, that if the man could have known better, he would have done better. With the knowledge and skills he had, this was the best he could do it that moment. Forgive him.
When the man wakes up, he realizes, “Wow—that was the best he could do. Even though he hurt people. Even though he caused me suffering. Based on his limited perception, it was the best he had to offer”.
But the next night the man still has an inkling of unforgiveness lurking in him. So he gets down on his knees and prays “I really want to be released from this unforgiveness. Help me.” Praying he falls asleep. The spirit comes for the third time and again takes him out of his body. This time the spirit parts the veil of eternity, separates the veil of time and space so that man sees the moment when a soul is actually created. Then he gasps, because he sees that the man who is being created, the man who wronged him, is himself.
Behind the veil, the man can finally see that we’re all one. And so he is able to come back to the waking world with the awareness that the man who wronged him is him. All forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Finally he is able to release the rancor, the animosity, and the resentment that were in his heart.
From Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement. Ed. Phil Cosineau.
-by Clark Eberly, The Washington Times
In the film, “Invictus,” which my wife and I watched just recently, Mandela is depicted in the days and months shortly after he had been elected the first black president of South Africa. The situation of the country at that time was extremely tense. Many blacks, having been humiliated and mistreated by years of the white supremacy system of apartheid, could have easily trended towards revenge against the whites.
White citizens were very fearful about what kind of policies Mandela would introduce. Would he seek revenge against the former rulers of South Africa who held him in prison for twenty-seven years, and revenge against whites in general?
Mandela chose to try to unify South Africans, by encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation. One of his first efforts in this direction was to ask the national rugby team, the Springboks, to accomplish the impossible. Mandela asked the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, to inspire and lead this seemingly outclassed, underdog team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup! He felt that such a victory could encourage South Africans of all races to think of themselves as fellow countrymen, not enemies.
One of the most memorable scenes is one that shows Mandela urging the national sports federation, most of whose members were black, to unite with him in supporting the Springboks team. In the film he tells them, “Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner…We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint, and generosity. I know. All of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge.”
Another moving scene is one that shows Pienaar reflecting on what he learned when he took his team to visit the former prison at Robin Island, where Mandela had spent nearly a third of his life as prisoner of the apartheid regime. He tells his wife, regarding Mandela, “I was thinking of how you spend thirty years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”
With the leadership of Pienaar and the encouragement of the country’s new president, the Springboks actually did go on to astonish the sports world by winning the Rugby World Cup. The film shows how this accomplishment did indeed give South Africans a shared victory, one that demonstrated to citizens of all races the spirit of moving forward as a united people. Of course, Mandela worked in many ways to encourage reconciliation in his nation, but the astonishing rugby victory became a very important symbol.
This is best expressed in the actual words of Pienaar, which you can easily find in a YouTube video entitled, “Francois Pienaar on Nelson Mandela.” In the video Pienaar explains, “Here we had a leader that showed humility, with great intellect, that helped us in a smooth transition from apartheid to a democracy. If we look back, things could have gone totally wrong in South Africa. It didn’t. And why did it not go wrong? Why did we have such a smooth transition? … We had the most amazing leader at the right time.”
The value of Nelson Mandela’s efforts for reconciliation in South Africa can also be understood by considering the nearby country of Zimbabwe, which used to be known for its thriving agricultural economy. In Zimbabwe, head of state Robert Mugabe chose to hold on to power at any cost, loving himself instead of loving others. Instead of generosity, restraint and forgiveness, he chose to hate, mistrust and mistreat not only his country’s whites, but also a huge segment of his black countrymen. Zimbabwe became a land with a broken economy, terrible human rights abuses and citizens living wretched and fearful lives.
South Africa could have gone a similar way, had it not been for Nelson Mandela and others like him. Mandela is one of those rare men who had many reasons to hate, but chose instead to pursue greatness by encouraging his countrymen to forgive, and to move forward in the effort to build a country of mutual prosperity. His efforts are well worth our admiration.
Compassion isn’t Easy
Ghandi met the British Colonial forces in India with forgiveness and love, even as they continued their occupation and oppression of his country and his fellow humans through violent and terroristic means. He famously counseled non-violence and began a revolution that restored control of India to its native inhabitants, all while refusing to demonize or attack those who had for so long ruled his country with malice and force.
After the Civil War, many northerners counseled hard penalties on the secessionist states. Lincoln earned a great deal of scorn from other politicians through his commitment to restore the American Union by forgiving the southern states. Instead of imposing harsh taxes on the states, he provided them with the resources to rebuild their infrastructures. He recognized the universal humanity in his one-time enemies, and through this act, reunified a divided nation.
Aung Dan Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi is a successful exemplar of a leader that demonstrates love and forgiveness in governance. After spending 15 years in solitary confinement at Yangon, Burma (Myanmar), she was granted freedom in November 2010. The long years of her arrest and subsequent confinement did not change her love for Burma and the people that kept her in confinement. She noted that, “in some ways I don’t think they did anything to me. They placed me under house arrest, but that gave me time to read.” According to Rachel Shafran, “her father taught her a sense of duty for her country and her mother taught her forgiveness.” She is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and a woman that represents freedom and democracy for Burma. Addressing the military dictatorship, according to Alan Clements, Suu Kyi said “I am going to confront you with the power of kindness over cruelty, dialogue over destruction, and decency over death.” Her strong convictions, perseverance and relentless efforts for social justice inspired and garnered the respect of many around the world.
Forgiveness is a process and it doesn’t mean necessarily skipping grief. ¹ As humans we often cling to comfortable feelings and push away the ones that are discomforting. Rather than fending off or pushing away discomfort, try opening your heart and allow yourself to feel that hurt and tension. When we surrender to our pain we let go of our recurrent attachment for something to be different. We release the idea that we will work through this in a specific manner on our terms. We let go of wanting things to happen differently. We trust in our heart’s ability to feel pain in its fullness and still heal.
If you are struggling to forgive, consider doing something with a healthy thrill/risk. Before you jump, feel your body tense, your knuckles white, your stomach in knots, your eyes darting between the ground and your feet. Once you jump and begin to fall, there is a release within your body. A relief as you have let go of control. You stop fighting, surrender to the process, and trust that it will catch you. In connecting with our pain, this is what we do. When we stop fighting, we can dissolve the tightness of our heart, and open ourselves once more to compassion.
In the Buddhist meditation process of Tonglen, as elaborated by Pema Chöndrön, we connect with the suffering of another person(s) we know to be hurting. In seeking forgiveness this may be the person that has hurt us or someone impacted by their actions. As we breathe in we imagine taking in (embracing) the fear, pain, anger, or despair of another into ourselves. On the exhale, we send out our loving-kindness, happiness, peace of mind, well-being, healing, and fulfillment. This is the core of the practice: breathing in pain so that another can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.
Wait, how will taking on the pain of another help me? Isn’t forgiveness a gift I give myself? In this process we allow two things to occur. First, we connect with a larger view of reality. We take the spotlight off ourselves for a moment, which can help us relax and humble/broaden our perspective. Second, we awaken compassion, an enormous ally.
When we’re triggered, we may struggle to do this. To have compassion and to care for those who are angry, jealous, arrogant, proud, guilty, craving, or scared means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. We may come face to face with our own fear, resistance, or pain. At that point we can change the focus and begin to do Tonglen for what we are feeling and for millions of others like us who are feeling that as well. Maybe we are able to name our pain. We recognize it clearly as terror, revulsion, anger, and/or wanting to get revenge. So we breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion, and we send out relief for ourselves and countless others. Maybe we can’t put a name on exactly what we’re feeling. And, in this case, we can feel into it — perhaps it’s a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness, a shady funk, a lingering bleh-ness. Reach in to whatever you are feeling and breathe in, take it in —for all of us, and send out relief to all of us. Connect your pain with pain that others feel around the world. ²
If you’d like to practice Tonglen, try the exercise in Appendix E. The goal is not to one-up your own pain, but rather accept pain as a natural part of living—to move past the despair and weakness of depression, the longing of melancholia. In this, we move to a connection with the world as it is. We awaken to our oneness and remind ourselves that we are neither unique, nor alone in this feeling. In this, our attitude towards pain can change. Rather than fending it off or hiding from it, we allow pain to soften and purify us—to make us more loving and kind. ³
How Long Does Grief Last?
A Harvard researcher was looking for a blood chemical of any kind that was present in people deeply grieving. He worked with people that lost their only child, their husband of 40 years, etc. etc. And, he didn’t find a chemical or anything like it. What he tangentially found was that people vastly overestimated the time it would take for them to recover. An estimate might be never, or years, and in about 6 months to a year, folks were doing alright again. He also found that grief, for example, does not quantitatively change over time, but rather qualitatively. The grief is still there, and, reportedly, remains. Yes, there is immense grief at the suicide, and, there is also joy again later – they exist together. Having people trying to make grief and frustration disappear was counterproductive. Allowing time was the key. Allowing the grief. And, allowing the joy too. ¨ As with the story in the previous section, we choose to give our slow tree time to grow and blossom.
- for more on ‘grief’, you may wish to explore Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Koss’s now famous five-step process of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. As with most of these concepts, this is a non-linear process. This can be found in her landmark text On Death and Dying (1969).
- Pema Chondron The Practice of Tonglen
- If this technique helps, and you’d like more, try this for a couple of weeks and see how it changes your reality: Whatever you think people are withholding from you praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on – give it to them. See what relationship you find between outflow and inflow.
- Gilbert, Daniel and Timothy Wilson. “Affective Forecasting.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 14.3. (2005). Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Random House, 2005