Forgiving the Monsters
I was looking through all the emails I’ve received from meditators over the last few months, and it occurred to me that a lot of the problems we have in meditation, as varied as they can be, are sourced from the same place.
People judge meditation and themselves continuously, and in that judgement, they are very unforgiving. And this causes a physical and mental kind of contraction in an exercise that has to be expansive.
By that I mean we must meditate in a spirit of continuous acceptance of whatever is happening now … and now – never comparing it with what we think or feel about it, or what we want to happen, or what we desire or fear – but accepting the essential ‘is-ness’ of what is happening in each moment of the meditation. In this continuous acceptance, we expand into things as they are, as it unfolds, with a constantly new and innocent mind.
‘What is’ rules in meditation.
This is how it’s supposed to be.
But in the emails I have re-read, there I sense a sub-text of contraction – of shrinking away from some things in meditation, and clinging to other things – of judgement instead of acceptance – which will inevitably cause tension and anxiety as we meditate, causing us to struggle even harder because we think what we’re doing is ‘wrong’ – and that only makes it worse.
And eventually, we give up. We tell ourselves, ‘meditation isn’t working for us’.
So I got to thinking about this notion of judgment and forgiveness, and as my thinking expanded, it occurred to me that meditation inevitably reflects back to us the very habits that cause us suffering in our lives.
And if we do not also change these habits in our life, we will not be able to change them in meditation.
So I thought I’d write a general exploration of this idea of judgement and forgiveness in this post, because I think it is an important issue to explore. It’s a little bit longer than usual, but I hope very much that you read it.
Last time I was in Australia a friend and I were talking about our parents, and all the mistakes they made that have haunted us throughout our lives and made the most indelible marks on our souls.
Inevitably the conversation turned to the notion of forgiveness. Not whether to forgive our parents … but how to forgive them – because to forgive is often difficult – particularly with parents.
I think this is because their transgressions and failings have created a subtle kind of childish rage within most of us, which is so deep, and which we’ve lived with so long, that no matter how we want we cannot let it go. It’s almost as if the rage has become a part of our self-definition, and to let go of it would seem almost like a betrayal of everything we are.
This rage often comes out as the childhood war stories that we entertain each other with – those stories of family lunacy which either make us squirm or scream with laughter – those moments that only children experience where they are profoundly at loss to explain why one or both parents are doing what they are doing. At its most extreme, a violent argument between mother and father, while relatively insignificant to adults, can seem to a child as if the entire universe is collapsing. Death, divorce, violence, or simply the lunatic idiosyncrasies of an average adult – before them a child feels small and utterly out of their depth, and they all leave a mark of some kind.
No childhood is ever free of the effects created by the madness of adults. I’m not saying this is bad – but simply a fact of life. I think even the parents who try to be perfect will inevitably stuff it up as far as a child is concerned, because I’ve never met anyone who was free from this kind of residual rage, however hidden beneath filial regard it might be. And those who think they are free of it are often simply unaware of it – having lived with it for so long it has become a characteristic of their perception of mundane ‘normality’.
Ironically, and on a positive side, one could say the stressors we experience in childhood create an emotional resilience we all need to cope with adult life. After all, adult life can seem like we’re a kid stuck in the middle of a bad marriage sometimes – when we feel so very small in the middle of universal forces in collision, and it’s all we can do to hang on until we understand.
I remember when I was a counselor, I had a client once, who while at the same time extolling what a wonderful parent their father had been, declared an utter hatred for him. Somewhat perplexed, I asked, “So … if your father was so loving, generous and easy going, why do you feel so bitter?”
The answer came back: “No boundaries!! He let me do whatever I liked!! He never criticized me … so how the hell was I supposed to grow! And what makes it worse is I have no excuse to complain because he was such a perfect father. All my friends loved him!!!”
Many children might have flourished with the unconditional love and trust of a father like that, but this guy was utterly fixated on his own unique spin, about how his father had disempowered him with love … and chose to hate him for it.
Well, I had hated my father all the way through the early decades of my life – until at the age of thirty, sitting on a huge pile of my own mistakes, I realized I was just like him – a foolish and very flawed man trying to do the best with what I had. Added to which, I realized how my hatred for my father come from a very typical childish ignorance – that in seeing him as ‘father’, I had ignored his essential humanity. He had not fitted the template in my head of how a father should be – that is, he lacked the perfection I expected of a father figure.
So I judged him harshly.
Decades later, as the light of my own follies shone on him, I finally began to process of understanding and accepting him as who he is … a man. A wonderful, though flawed, foolish and unique human being … just like me.
In this acceptance, my primal bond with him flowered into love.
But here’s the rub …
… no matter how much I came to understand the man, and no matter how intensely I came to love him, I still couldn’t expunge the primal rage that burnt in my heart – the residue of things my father had done to me when I was a boy.
This is not to say he did bad things – not at all. He was not bad man. But as I said before, I think to any child, because the parents are the heaven and earth of their life, the mistakes and peccadilloes of those parents, which seem relatively insignificant to them, are immense to a child. And though I rationalized what he did as simply the mistakes and peccadilloes of a passionate man with his own flaws and damage, nevertheless, the more visceral part of me remained illogically, but profoundly inconsolable.
A strange dichotomy.
It’s very strange to have a mind that accepts, understands and loves, in a body that still feels this irrational burning rage..
Which is where the conversation with my friend turned to forgiveness, and what it actually means as a workable life skill.
Because he felt similar to me – a weird dichotomy of adult love and appreciation, and childish resentment and hate.
His own story was much more extreme than mine. His parents had been a nightmare – narcissistic, violent and judgmental. His childhood was littered with bizarre public spectacles that all children abhor, in which his parents often had screaming arguments, even coming to blows in restaurants, cinemas – anywhere. Not only that, but as a child my friend had been beaten in anger, emotionally abandoned and told he was no good, and so on.
If anyone had cause to hate his parents, it was him.
So there we were, the two of us swapping war stories of our childhood and laughing at how horrifying it had all been, when suddenly he stopped and said, “But seriously Roger, how the hell do you free yourself of this darkness?”
I thought about this for a second or two.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be free.” I said. “You just learn to live with it I suppose. You have to forgive them.”
“Forgive them?” He guffawed. “Not a chance!”
But still, this notion of forgiveness took our attention.
And in further discussion we decided the only way you could forgive was to look further on down the line than our relationship with our parents – to try taste a little of what they had experienced in their own lives – to try to feel the events that had shaped them. Only then would our exclusive claim to victim-hood disappear, simply because we would see that the perpetrators of our own suffering had also been victims – that the thousand year battlefield of ‘children-becoming -parents-of-children-becoming-parents’, though littered with the best of intentions, has been a terrible battlefield of mistakes and no-one is free of those mistakes, simply because all humans are so terribly flawed.
But nevertheless, the fact remains that all down the line from the first parent to the latest, it could be said that most parents tried their hardest to do the best that they could … and really, isn’t that enough? To know that?
But here we came into difficulty – because we realized that if we forgave our parents on that basis, then we must by logical extension, forgive everybody!
Because regardless of the results of their efforts, almost everybody meant well – didn’t they?
Forgive everybody? All the monsters of history who we love to hate? The mad, sadistic emperors and deluded dictators. The serial killers, rapists, pedophiles? Forgive them?
We talked on, but our conclusion was logically inescapable.
Because every effect has a cause. Every perpetrator was once a victim – someone who suffered at the hands of some other victim, playing out their perversion or rage. And all monsters were children once – innocent, with their characters being formed by their parents and their environment.
For example, take our favorite monster: Hitler.
Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and authority on child abuse, wrote in an article titled ‘The Nature of Abuse’:
“ … the monster Adolf Hitler, murderer of millions, master of destruction and organized insanity, did not come into the world as a monster. He was not sent to earth by the devil, as some people think, nor was he sent by heaven to “bring order” to Germany, to give the country the autobahn and rescue it from its economic crisis, as many others still believe.
Neither was he born with “destructive drives”, because there are no such things. Our biological mission is to preserve life, not to destroy It. Human destructiveness is never inborn, and inherited traits are neither good nor evil. How they develop depends on one’s character, which is formed In the course of one’s life, and the nature of which depends, in turn, on the experiences one has, above all, in childhood and adolescence, and on the decisions one makes as an adult.
Like every other child, Hitler was born innocent, only to be raised, as were many children at the time, in a destructive fashion by his parents and later to make himself into a monster. He was the survivor of a machinery of annihilation that in turn-of-the-century Germany was called “child-rearing” and that I call “the concealed concentration camp of childhood,” which is never allowed to be recognized for what it is.. A terrible childhood, abusive father, violence and so on. An enraged little child beat at the walls of his heart and he did terrible things, along with all his enraged mates. And millions of people died in horrible ways …”
So then, can Hitler have been a monster and innocent all at the same time? Can such a thing exist?
My own conclusion is that it does … and I’m aware that a huge number of people would vehemently disagree with me.
Because I do not subscribe to the notion of spontaneous evil, a moral premise of our time. It’s too lazy to declare things as ‘evil’ and ‘good’. In nature there is no such thing. The beautiful forest, in whose apparent peace we revel, when seen for what it is, is a Darwinian killing field of the weak by the strong. Every tree, plant, creature and insect is instinctively dedicated to the extermination of whatever threatens it.
So does that mean they are evil?
Not at all. They are simply instruments of the universal principle of cause and effect, just like everything else.
So just as this describes the terrible phenomenon of Hitler and his insane Third Reich, so too I think it applies to us all. We are all within ourselves, villains and victims at the same time. As Jesus is reputed to have once said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone …”
And so we arrive back at this difficult notion of forgiveness? How do we do it?
So many terrible things have been done – by governments, corporations, parents, even children. Open any tabloid and the sins of us all are daily grist for the mill of public outrage – the more horrifying, the louder the headline.
So in the face of so much that is perverse, and violently wrong around us, and in the face of our own inevitable sins and mistakes, what are we to do?
My friend and I came to an inevitable conclusion.
We realized that the only way we could forgive was to suspend judgment.
We realized that forgiveness had to be an act of absolute and unconditional love, not only of those around us, but also of ourselves. Because there is a terrible burden that comes with judgment – the possibility that in different circumstances, we ourselves might well become whoever we judge.
As Nietzche once wrote: ‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’
This is not to say we are validating whatever was done. Nor are we discounting the terrible effects of whatever might have been done. We are simply acknowledging the profound fallibility of any and all beings.
And in acknowledging the fallibility of others, we must also grant it to ourselves.
In this we lose the crushing weight that judgement always brings – of guilt, regret, fear and that awful feeling of being wrongly made. Instead of contracting away from life, we expand outwards into it, enthusiastically meeting things as they are – simply because we no longer have anything to prove and nothing to lose.
And we begin to fly instead of fall.
Meditation must be practiced in this same spirit. We must continuously forgive ourself for having lived the life that’s left us with the tensions and anxieties that deny us tranquility.
We must forgive ourself for apparently failing in this seemingly simply exercise of being still, for our laziness, for our lack of resolve in meditation.
We must forgive our attention for being so impossibly skittish it cannot concentrate, and then forgive ourselves for becoming angry at our apparent inability.
We must forgive the noise that distracts us, the anxiety of time closing in, haunting us with reminders of things we haven’t done, or need to do.
We must forgive ourselves for everything – even our inability to forgive.
And in that utter and complete acceptance of things as they are, we are relieved of the load of judgement – and we begin to expand into meditation instead of contract from it.
Our breathing softens, our mind sheds all the shackles that judgement brought with it, and meditation naturally lifts off like a huge bird. And we become still, transfixed in acceptance of what is happening now … and now … and now … expanding ever outward.
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LEAVE A REPLY
My love and gratitude for this beautiful post.
Learning how to let go is a subject that I think about a lot.
It seems to be a familiar life cycle for me.. I know that love expands and fear contracts.. and I know that my life is better, regardless of the circumstances, when I am expansive. But over and over again I entertain thoughts that feed the little fearful mind and then I find my life filled with judgments that lead to separation and disappointment and all other negative things.
And then I do a very stupid thing.. I beat myself up for being judgmental!!
Which, eventually, takes me once again to the realization that forgiveness is the only response to judgment. Judgment is a prison and forgiveness is the key that unlocks and frees us.
And then I am eternally free.. for about ten seconds.. until some tiny little judgment creeps in and the whole process starts again!
And as you said, we bring those same patterns into our meditation practice. But once again… you nail the solution…
“By that I mean we must meditate in a spirit of continuous acceptance of what is happening now … and now … expanding ever outwards to what is happening now – never comparing it with what we think, or what we want to happen, or what we desire or fear – but accepting the essential ‘is-ness’ of meditation. We expand into things as they are – we meet everything as it unfolds with a constantly new and innocent mind.”
“What is’ rules in meditation.”
I guess that true forgiveness is not about making a judgment not to judge. It is about letting go .. letting go of past experiences and future expectations..and then, letting go of letting go and just riding the moment like a perfect wave.
and then letting go of that.
You would think something so simple should be easy.
My mother used to say..”God can’t fill a heart that is closed” ..dad used to say, “Just DROP it”.. .. I would be way ahead of the game today if I had listened to them both!
I am so grateful that you have chosen to share your insights.. the light you radiate is very helpful to those of us who are stumbling up the path behind you
Thanks Leeda … I think a problem with forgiveness is the overuse of the word in the Christian connotation of ‘turn the other cheek’ which to most, including me, is a rather pointless response. For that reason, when i was young, I almost defiantly refused to forgive anybody, simply because I disliked the word so much. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize it’s a key to letting go … that letting go cannot happen without forgiveness on every level – of ourself, or others and life itself.
Which is not to imply condoning of what was done – but simply recognition of fallibility and universal principles of cause and effect.
All of which goes to make it much easier than ‘turn the other cheek’ …
Thanks Roger, for this most helpful and reflective post.
There is a space in the heart / soul / self, whatever you want to call it that can only be filled by parents. It is the part that allows one to live comfortably with oneself. It is the primary self- esteem part and only parents can fill it. They rarely do. l reckon that if that space isn’t filled by the age of five, it will never be filled. You will always have that empty space. Over the years I have realised that loss and emptiness will be with me always and that empty space is the root cause of my grieving / loss / open wound.
In common with Winston Churchill, l am well acquainted with the Black Dog of depression. However, as an active member of ”the walking wounded” I just try to get on with it and hope (as Paul Eddington put it so well) to do as little harm as possible. A white South African journalist told me that he had arrived at the radical conclusion that humans should stop trying to do good and instead … try not to do harm.
Alternatively, and this is where I think ‘Zazen practice’ comes in, I can engage in meditation to help cultivate awareness and compassion. Through mindfulness, I might try having strong feelings for myself. Then, when l realise how incredibly important my happiness is to me … I could try to imagine myself as different members of that mass of humanity and maybe through forging a link with myself, find myself forging a link with that mass of humanity. Anyway, it’s worth a try.
Thanks again 🙂
I very much liked what the white South African journalist told you, that he had arrived at the radical conclusion that humans should stop trying to do good and instead … try not to do harm. I think this is about the most a human being should aspire to … because the getting of happiness creates a madness which can only create suffering.
Interesting that the black dog comes sniffing around your door occasionally … I too used to suffer from very bad depression, which was probably one of the reasons I gravitated to meditation … of which one of my teachers, I forget which, related how he had been rejected by a woman he loved, and the pain had been so bad he wanted to kill her, which shocked him so greatly he ordained and discovered his passion for meditation – the point being, as he said, great pain or adversity is always a doorway to paradise … the problem is few can see it.
A good reminder. Thanks, Roge.
Thanks Helen. Hope you’re well.
I understand completely what you say..where the mind wants to forgive but the physical rage cannot be killed.
What does one do when constantly living with negative people? No matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot help but be frustrated at the constant barrage of negativity.
Ignore them …just as you do in meditation, politely remove your attention from them and return to the main object … which in this case would be whatever you are doing. Side step the negative things they say, or make a joke. I think to react to negativity with distress or frustration is to allow it in – like a poison.
But I know what you mean … when it’s too much and all around you all the time, it feels heavy and claustrophobic … in which case, I suppose the only thing you can do is to weather the storm until it’s over.