A major impediment to awakening, that I have observed in myself and others, is guilt and shame. As an opening caveat, it is necessary to point out that both are egoic devices used to maintain a feeling of separate “me-ness.” Both enable one to feel that one is solely “responsible” for actions, that actions belong not to the collective–but to the individual. This is a false understanding of human behavior, for another human’s actions “belong” to all of humanity–whether those actions are good or bad. We are must more willing to claim “good” actions as part of the collective. We say, for example, “We landed on the moon.” We don’t say, “Armstrong landed on the moon, that is HIS achievement.” But just as one man landing on the moon is the product of humanity, so too are egregious acts the product of humanity. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will directly address the ideas of forgiveness and lack thereof as it relates to the idea of the “individual.” Many narratives of awakened and enlightened ones suggest that they were perfect from birth, so many people in the West often feel too “taunted” to live up to the image they have of an awakened one. According to legend, Jesus preached in the temple as a child; the Buddha entered samadhi at the age of 3, when he just happened to begin meditating. In both instances, we understand these figures to be without sin from the time of their birth. Instead of understanding those histories metaphorically–as a way to understand that within each human being lies the potential for insight and awakening, we particularize it. In this particularizing, we stall forgiveness of ourselves (meaning, all of us–both “you” and “me”) and continue to create the conditions for harm.
Most of us do not understand ourselves to be “without” sin and furthermore, we live in a culture that does not cherish true forgiveness. We perceive people’s mistakes to be tragic, indelible flaws. We equate people’s behaviors with their “identity,” and we don’t believe identity to be mutable. Mutable identity is an aberration in our society; fixed identity is the stable norm from which our sense of sanity and rightness arise. Just consider, if you will, the difficulty we have understanding what it means to be multi or biracial or to be poly-or bi-sexual. These categories exist for us intellectually, but we don’t truly understand the person who doesn’t “fit” into any identity comfortably. This inability to see identity as mutable, as changeable–and, in fact, as not actually existing–connects to our inability to forgive ourselves and others for transgression against the norm, unskillful acts, or “sin.”
When a person is a murderer in our society, we lock them away and throw away the key. Even progressives, who may be against the death penalty, think that a lifetime of imprisonment is a fitting response to one who has killed others. We have given up, it seems, on the possibility of forgiveness and rehabilitation; we have, even if we don’t kill the person, exiled them to the ghost land of human existence. This is the case with any action or crime we consider to be heinous. Many of us are strongly invested in a discourse of “unforgiveness,” meaning that there are just some people we cannot imagine forgiving.
But the inability to forgive others not only means suffering for them, but suffering for ourselves. For if we invest in a logic of unforgiveness, then that means we will internally damn ourselves for “things we have done wrong,” allowing those mistakes to perpetuate our perception of ourselves, and worse to maintain a perception of ourselves over an awareness of who we really are. In other words, lack of forgiveness reinforces the ego. Abnegation does not undermine the ego; it strengthens it. We often understand the “egotistical” person to be one who thinks too highly of himself; but the ego need not feed only on honeyed fantasies; it can also live on self-hatred. Self-hatred, guilt, and shame all reinforce a sense of “me-ness,” strengthening one’s symbolic relationship to one’s self. How is this so? This is so because instead of experiencing being alive, in the moment, now, as simply a flesh and blood body, one understands one’s self, one has thoughts about one’s self–one relates to one’s self as if one is bifurcated, as if there is a “one” to relate to “one’s self.” There is only one you, the real you is the experience of being alive as a human being. That is all you are. You are not a race, you are not a gender, you are not the sum of your previous acts. Overcoming one’s “karma,” or the accumulation of memory within one’s self, occurs when one realizes this fully. This is what the Buddhist story of Angulimala is all about. This is why the ancient Tibetan Buddha Milarepa said (more or less), “I have overcome my dark acts and my light acts, and am awakened.”
So why do we do unskillful things? Why do we harm others? Why does “sin” arise?
It arises out of deep unconsciousness. The word “Sin” has been widely misunderstood in the West. The original translation of the word “Sin” means, literally, to “miss the mark.” Sin, then, = unskillfulness. And when and how is one unskilled? Because one does not know; one has not developed the skill to “hit the mark.” Ignorance is the root of all harmful acts and ignorance is not an identity; it is a state that can be alleviated. When we look back upon our own actions and judge them, we must understand the causes and conditions which produced the action. And when we do so, we will see that intense psychological myopia–which can be caused by trauma of known and unknown origin–is the root cause of all harmful acts. Can we hold people responsible at the discursive level of “essence” for crimes they commit when they are fully unconscious of what it truly means to commit such crimes? Can we hold ourselves responsible for our lesser, unactionable violations when they arose out of our psychological myopia? A child who, for example, plays with fire because he perceives it to be interesting and burns down a hospital, killing everyone inside–is not at all responsible for that act. And though we assume that adults are more conscious than children, they have only internalized a set of rules but are rarely operating from a place of pure consciousness enough to understand the intimate and far-reaching effects of their harmful behaviors, big or small.
In short, unless a person is fully awakened, we cannot hold “them” responsible for whatever they do. This is a difficult pill to swallow in a society that is interested in retribution, punishment, and placing blame. But the law of man does not follow the law of the universe, which operates on what I’m going to call here a “physics of forgiveness.”
The universe forgets everything you, or anyone else, does one second after it is done. How can we see the Universe operating in our lives directly? It is the Universe that is responsible for how your eyes process light and hence see; it is the universe that is responsible for your involuntary breathing; it is the universe that grows your hair; it is the universe that grows you up, from a baby to an adult to an old person. All of these things happen without your effort or intention. You may kill someone and yet, life goes on. You continue to breath. You continue to see. You continue to grow your hair. The moment of your murderous impulse arose and then passed away. Nature does not answer in response to your crime. It is largely human society that is affected by your crime and it is human society that will answer, with condemnation and possibly, imprisonment. The effects of your action are felt not in nature, but in the illusory creation of human society.
Let me pause and say that I am not condoning murder or suggesting that the universe condones murder. Instead, I am attempting to point out that each moment of existence is a new moment and the incidents of the previous moment exist after the fact, only as memory. And memory is not a real thing; it is, rather, a psychological imprint produced in the brain of human beings. This situation I am attempting to describe relates to why people are so fascinated by the riddle about if a falling tree makes a sound in the woods if there is no one there to hear it. In the absence of memory of an event, how does the event exist after the fact? It quite simply doesn’t.
We have responded to the occurrence of harmful actions not in the way the universe responds, which is to understand the act as occurring in the past and the current moment (and hence, the person involved) as something else entirely. The current moment is full of potential for the murderer–to either turn away from past actions or decide, in the now, to repeat them. In fact, the failure to release the actions which occurred before is the method by which repeating the thing is accomplished. For the murderer, who suffers from the same inability to be “in the now” as everyone else, the murder is always happening, is always being relived–so he repeats the same murder, again and again, in the now. The murderer never releases the initial murder to the past, seeing it as a thing gone and irretrievable. Instead, the murder lives in his imagination as part of his essence now, and so, more killing occurs.
So what happens we we refuse to let something which arose pass away–or rather, when we refuse to become aware that what happened once has now passed away, we are attempting to defy impermanence, the impermanence of the universe. We create an illusion of permanence through the repetition of acts, literally attempting to recreate the original moment over and over again. All identity works this way–gender theorists have pointed out that gender identity is a performance that needs constant maintenance and must be perpetually enacted in order to create a sense of cohesive identity. If the identity one has internalized is that of “murderer,” this same impulse towards permanence of identity will assert itself through the constant maintenance of that image, through the repetition of the act which creates the identity.
But acts, and the illusory identities we build upon them, no matter how repeated and how entrenched are capable of disappearing each moment and are certainly going to disappear upon death. Imagine if Charles Manson had an accident and developed amnesia, so that he no longer remembered anything of who he was. For him, his heinous acts would no longer exist. He would only come to know about them through talking to other people, where his heinous acts live as memory or by reading texts, where his heinous acts are recorded. But when those records are gone and when all the people who remember Charles Manson’s heinous acts are dead, from the perspective of the universe, so too are the acts. This is the physics of forgiveness.
Human actions reverberate and alter human society and probably, ultimately, humanity itself. This is not an argument for ignoring or relishing unskillfulness of action. Avoiding harmful acts is beneficial for human society and for human beings (these two things not being the same, though related). But if we want to bring people out of unconsciousness, then we must employ this universal physics of forgiveness and bring people into conscious awareness of the now. This abolishes in one stroke the self and the illusion of time, which is responsible for unconsciousness, which is, in turn, responsible for harmful acts. This is why Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This lamentation to God was not only about that particular situation, but about all of humanity and referenced the state of intense unconsciousness from which arises all violation, unskillfulness, and human suffering.
Just as the ocean can wash away any sand sculpture, no matter how heinous and no matter how intricate, no matter how tall, no matter how solidified–so too can conscious awareness abolish the dangers of unconsciousness and produce human beings who are happy and harmless. But first, we must acknowledge that unconsciousness in ourselves that believes that there are differences among us based upon how we behave (we are all the same, no matter if we are saints or sinners) and that some acts cannot be forgiven. All acts are forgivable and all human beings can be brought to consciousness. Our human bodies, the memory of our acts, our societies, our histories, our data, our texts, are all impermanent. It will all pass away. This is the beauty of anicca, of impermanence–it is, to use a Christian term, the redemption of humanity. It is the ultimate forgiveness; that is what impermanence is. If we align ourselves with the universal logic of the physics of forgiveness, we can bring ourselves and others into conscious awareness and begin to see a network of human interaction not characterized by harm.
No matter what you have done, you do not have to do it again. What you have done is not who you are. You are an experience not a stable, solid, essential “self.” That is an illusion. The idea that you are a particular gender, a particular race, a particular body size, a particular class–these are all filters of illusion, which only obscure the obvious fact of your existence as the universe manifesting as a human being. When you are unconscious, all of your acts are akin to that of a sleepwalker. You are literally unaware of the broad implications of your acts. You may know, intellectually, that what you are doing is “wrong.” But you do not know why on an experiential level, because you do not know who you are. You are not conscious of who you are, are not aware of where you are–are living, instead, in time–either the past, in traumas, violation, and guilt–or, in the future, in fantasy, passion, in the need to attain a state or a particular feeling or thing. These are states of intense unconsciousness, from which only more violation–to yourself and others–can occur. Let the past–whatever happened to you or whatever you have done–wash away like a sculpture on the beach. The demon sand statue above will take many high and low tides to wash away, but with patience, and if it isn’t reinforced, it will wash away. Do not feed, or build, the demon by giving it food. Starve it out and wait. Just notice where you are: you are here, now. The conditions of the past are gone, and if you allow it, it will recede from memory just like the sand sculpture. It will cease to shape you and define the way you act in the world.
This is how you experience redemption; by experiencing impermanence. By releasing the ego’s desire to hold on to the events of the past, you stop repeating your harmful acts–first, in your mind and then, in the physical world. Remove the past from your mind, and your physical body will cease to repeat the acts of the past. Be here now. Spend your time watching your breath, as if each breath has something to tell you. Each breath does have something to tell you. If you watch the breath, every single second of “down time” you have each day, the flowering of the present moment will occur within you and consciousness will bloom. You will then see your previous actions as those done in a dream, by a shadow version of yourself. You will be, the more you do this, beyond the grip of the kind of unconsciousness that makes harm possible. The ones you have harmed, who may never forgive you, are as trapped in unconsciousness as you are. Given your troubled connection with them, you may not be able to offer them comfort or help. As you become more conscious, broad awareness of their suffering will become apparent to you. You will begin to understand and see how they experienced your actions; the play of unconsciousness on your part will reveal itself to you. As the self diminishes, all need to act out will recede. You will see the futility of your previous acts, the unskilfulness of them, the harm of them, and they will have no grip or allure. So set your intention on consciousness and cultivation of mindfulness; at all times, be the watcher, the guard, who notices every thought, every feeling, every action no matter how innocuous–eating, walking, talking, using the bathroom, working–be aware, at all times of what you are doing, thinking, and feeling. Do not judge or try to control or change thoughts and feelings. Look at them as you would a character in a film; observing without judgement, without reaction. Do not get caught up in the mind’s drama. You are not your mind; you are not your thoughts; you are not your feelings. You are the universe experiencing itself as a human being, and you exist not in the past or in the future–you exist now. Observe this experience watchfully, quietly, calmly. Therefore, Resolve to 1)Observe the experience of being human (which you will do by watching yourself) and 2)to do nothing but that which is absolutely necessary for survival.Try, for just 30 days, to avoid idle chatter, idle entertainments (you can sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and watch the breath when you have nothing to do), but eat your food, wash yourself, do your work. Avoid all other things, and simply observe the impulse to do more than what is necessary. If you do these things, you will see a transformation in your life and your life experience.
For those who cannot forgive a person whose harmful actions affected you profoundly and negatively, be present with yourself. If you watch the breath, every single second of “down time” you have each day, the flowering of the present moment will occur within you and consciousness will bloom. You will then see that all humans, no matter where they are in a dichotomy of harm, are living in a dream, in a shadow world characterized by myopia, tunnel vision–and no one really understands what they are doing. You will be beyond the grip of hatred, anger, and resentment–and in conscious awareness, experience the safety of the universe which is always available to you. But set your intention on consciousness and cultivation of mindfulness; at all times, be the watcher, the guard, who notices every thought, every feeling, every action no matter how innocuous–eating, walking, talking, using the bathroom, working–be aware, at all times of what you are doing, thinking, and feeling. Do not judge or try to control or change thoughts and feelings. Resolve to 1)Observe the experience of being human (which you will do by observing yourself) and 2)to do nothing but that which is absolutely necessary for survival. Try, for just 30 days, to avoid idle chatter, idle entertainments (you can sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and watch the breath when you have nothing to do), but eat your food, wash yourself, do your work. Avoid all other things, and simply observe the impulse to do more than what is necessary. If you do these things, you will see a transformation in your life and your life experience.
And like the waves which endlessly wash the beach clean of all marks, the universal physics of forgiveness will be revealed to you and you will be free.