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 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.
This is how it’s supposed to be.
But in the emails I have re-read, there is a sub-text of contraction – of shrinking away from some things as they arise in meditation, and clinging to other things – of judgement instead of acceptance – and this inevitably causes tension and anxiety, which then feeds into whatever seems ‘wrong’ and only makes it worse.
So I got to thinking about this notion of judgment and forgiveness, and as things do when thought about, it expanded into a larger idea – that in this idea of judgment especially, meditation reflects back to us the very habits that tie us up in knots of suffering in our lives.
And we cannot change our habits in meditation if we do not also change them in our life.
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 – all the mistakes they made that continue to bug us even now. And how, of all the things that happen in the life of a human being, it is our parent’s mistakes that 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 very often their transgressions and failings have created a subtle kind of childish rage within most of us, which is so close to our bones, 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.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was free from this kind of residual rage however veiled 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’.
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.
In fact, one could say it’s these stressors in childhood that create the emotional resilience we all need to cope with the life we enter as adults. 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 think even those parents who try to be perfect will inevitably stuff it up as far as a child is concerned.
I remember when I was a counselor, I had a client who, in one stunning declaration expressed utter hatred for their father while at the same time extolling what a wonderful parent he had been. 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. Most would have thrived in the glow of a fathers unconditional love, but he interpreted it as indifference … and chose to hate him for it.
Well, I had hated my father all the way through the first years 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. I realized how my hatred for my father had been sourced in a typical childish ignorance – that I had ignored his essential humanity. He had not fitted the template in my head of how I wanted him to be, of how a perfect father should be.
So I finally accepted him as who he is … the man – a wonderful, though flawed, foolish and unique human being … just like me, and the light of my own folly shone very kindly on him.
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 have come to love him, I still couldn’t expunge the rage that still burnt in my heart, left over from things my father had done 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. So it was that my father, being a particularly explosive man, had left many fires still glowing in my heart – so deep within me they seemed somehow untouchable, permanently burning, like the molten core of the earth.
And even though for sure I rationalized what he did as what I said, as simply the mistakes and peccadilloes of a passionate man, nevertheless, the more visceral part of me remained illogically, but profoundly inconsolable.
A strange dichotomy.
It’s very strange to have a head that accepts, understands and loves, and a body that still feels this irrational burning rage..
Which is where the conversation with my friend turned to forgiveness. 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, abandoned, 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, 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 hitherto exclusive claim to victim-hood disappear, simply because we see that the perpetrators of our own suffering had themselves 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 , simply because all humans are so terribly flawed.
Because all down the line from the first parent to the latest, I think what can be said is, most parents tried their hardest to do the very 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 accepted that our parents were created from the same flawed molds as ourselves, and regardless of the mess they might have made they tried their best to do the right thing – if we forgive them 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?
All the monsters of history who we love to hate? All the mad, sadistic emperors, the deluded dictators, serial killers, rapists, pedophiles. Forgive them?
We talked on, but our conclusion was inescapable.
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.
All monsters were children once – innocent, their characters formed by their parents and their environment. Just as we were who we are because we were made this way, all people are products of who and what came before.
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’, so eloquently says of this:
“ … 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, could 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 realised that the only way we could forgive was to suspend judgment – that forgiveness had to be an act of unconditional love, not only of those around us, but also of ourselves.
That in forgiving the actions of another, we had to see the capacity for those same actions in 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.’
So we are not validating what was done – nor are we discounting the terrible effects of what was done. In forgiving, we are simply acknowledging the profound fallibility of any being. And in acknowledging the fallibility of others, we are 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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