Letting go of resentment: a how-to guide
This week we're going to continue our recent explorations of heart-opening practices by looking at another heart practice which is perhaps less stressed than the four main Brahmaviharas, but which in my view is equally important - forgiveness. Along the way, we'll also dip a toe into the complex, murky waters of karma. So without further ado, let's get into it!
Karma and the cosmic scales of justice
Karma (that's the Sanskrit spelling; the Pali, which you'll encounter more in early Buddhist circles, is kamma) is a tricky beast. It's a word that means different things to different people - sometimes multiple different things to the same person, depending on the context.
For most people today, the word 'karma' conjures up a sense of a kind of 'divine retribution'. If you do something bad, it'll come back to bite you! A casual YouTube search will reveal many 'instant karma' videos, in which someone does something unkind or unpleasant and then promptly has some kind of accident, injury or humiliation. On a certain level, these can be quite satisfying to watch - one of the great questions that's troubled people throughout the ages is why good things happen to bad people, like being able to do crummy things and get away with it, so it can produce a slightly unsavoury kind of thrill to see someone get their comeuppance.
This 'what you do comes back to haunt you' idea of karma is sometimes associated with the idea of rebirth - the view that, rather than living only a single life, we die and are reborn as another person, with another family, another name, another social situation and so on. Most people don't remember their past lives, but some people do claim to, and some meditation teachers offer practices which promise to reveal our past lives to us. In this context, karma is something that can extend across multiple lifetimes - so if something awful happens to you, seemingly for no reason, you're encouraged to see it as negative karma from a previous life coming back to haunt you. This is actually quite a helpful way of looking at things if you're able to do so, because it provides us with a means of understanding why an otherwise seemingly inexplicable disaster has singled us out for torment.
Like everything, however, this view of karma also has a dark side. Born disabled? Must be your negative past life karma. Having a difficult time? Well, that's just your karma to work through, I'm not going to help you with it. These sorts of attitudes unfortunately do crop up from time to time. Personally, I tend to regard anything which obstructs the heart's natural compassion in the face of suffering to be a kind of mistake, so any view of karma which says that you should turn your back on someone else's suffering - whatever the reason for it - is not what I would consider very useful.
In the time of the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago, the concept of karma had been effectively weaponised by the priestly (Brahmin) class, who generously offered to intervene in your karma by performing various rituals - for a modest donation, of course. Combined with a world view that suggested that time was basically cyclical rather than linear, and the material world was a prison of suffering into which we were inescapably reborn over and over, you can see why it would be of great benefit to pay the priests to try to ensure a slightly more comfortable experience this time around, to make the best of a bad situation.
As he often did, however, the Buddha chose to redefine the term karma within the context of his teachings. In (e.g.) Anguttara Nikaya 6.63, the Buddha says 'Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma [literally, 'actions' or 'deeds'] by way of body, speech and intellect.'
The point that the Buddha is making here is that our intentional actions have significant consequences. We get good at what we practise - and so, if we regularly practise reacting to difficult situations with anger, we'll find ourselves slipping into anger more easily each time. Conversely, if we practise the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy or equanimity, those qualities are more likely to be our default responses to situations as they arise. Over time, our intentions have the power to change our character - and so it's important that we're mindful of those intentions, and that they're pointing us in a direction we want to be going, rather than pushing us toward a slippery slope of negativity.
The Buddha's view of karma wasn't solely limited to one's personal intentions - elsewhere he does talk about the external consequences of our intentional actions as well. It can be interesting to consider the knock-on effects of our actions - but I already wrote about that quite recently, in the last part of my recent article on equanimity, so check that out if you're interested. For our purposes today, the crucial point is the shift from a focus on karma as an external force of 'cosmic justice' to a focus on one's own subjective experience, and how to work with the contents of one's mind to lead us in a more helpful, constructive direction.
Forgiveness, debt and resentment
When I run meditation courses for beginners, I'll always include a segment on the importance of forgiveness. Scientific studies suggest that people who practise forgiveness on a regular basis live longer, happier, healthier lives than people who don't - so it ought to be easy to persuade people to give it a go, right? Actually, though, many people find forgiveness very difficult.
The major objection I encounter is 'Why should I?' If you've been hurt by someone else, you may well ask why on earth you should forgive them? What have they done to deserve your magnanimity? Maybe nothing!
This kind of reaction to forgiveness is quite natural. Going back to the karma discussion, it feels like the cosmic scales of justice are currently slanted away from you. That person did something crappy - they deserve to suffer for what they did, not to be offered your kindness, further imbalancing the scales! We often relate to misdeeds as a kind of 'debt' that has been incurred by the offender - indeed, we talk about prison sentences as 'paying off their debt to society'. From this perspective, giving someone 'free' forgiveness could even seem irrational, like writing off a financial debt rather than trying to recover the money you're owed. From this view, surely forgiveness is tantamount to letting them get away with it!
But let's make the same shift of perspective that the Buddha did when talking about karma. Leaving aside the cosmic scales of justice, what is the situation here from your point of view? Something bad happened, and you got hurt, and now - after the event, perhaps even long after - you're continuing to feel some sense of resentment (or anger, or hostility, or...) in relation to what happened.
Here's the thing. That resentment is causing pain to you, not to the person who hurt you. The other person might not have any idea that you're still holding on to the pain of what happened - and if they really had it in for you, they might even be pleased to know that their actions continue to cause you pain. It's often said that 'Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.' In the words of Tony Stark, not a great plan.
So when we talk about 'forgiveness', what we really mean is 'letting go of resentment', as opposed to 'giving someone a free pass and allowing the cosmic scales of justice to remain imbalanced'. When we let go of resentment, we're not saying that what happened was actually OK, or that the other person should be free to do it again - we're not erasing the negative action or its consequences. We're simply letting go of the hot coal that's burning our hand.
A second objection that can surface at this point is a feeling that it's somehow useful to continue holding on to the resentment - particularly if we've been feeling that way for a long time. (A kind of emotional sunk cost fallacy, if you will.) We may feel that the resentment helps us to remember not to let something like that happen again. Or it may simply be that it's a little bit embarrassing to admit to ourselves that we've been holding on to something as unhelpful as resentment for a long time. (I've certainly had a great many rather embarrassing insights like that along the way - and no, I'm not going to give you any examples!)
What we can do here is to disentangle the two points. On one hand, we have what we might call 'the lesson' - what did we take away from this experience? Perhaps I now know that I never again want to work for a micromanaging bully of a boss, and I'll take active steps to avoid it in the future. Perhaps I know that when someone is very tired, they'll sometimes say extremely hurtful things, and I'm better off just keeping my distance when they're in that kind of mood rather than trying to engage with them. Perhaps it takes a little longer to figure out if there's anything to learn from what happened - in which case this can be an interesting inquiry in its own right, digging into exactly what it is within yourself that reacted so strongly to what happened. (It's worth reflecting on the point that whatever we experience is, in a certain sense, only a reflection of ourselves - our values, beliefs and feelings, being played back at us through the medium of other people. This too can be a profound investigation in its own right!) And on the other hand, we have 'the resentment' - that hot coal of burning pain that we continue to carry. As it turns out, the lesson can be separated from the resentment, and we can (and should!) consciously recognise and absorb the lesson, whilst letting go of the resentment.
A practice of forgiveness
Supposing you're on board with the 'why' of forgiveness, the next question is 'How do I do it?' Maybe you already have an intuitive sense of this - if so, that's great - but that isn't the case for everyone. The first time one of my students asked me 'How do you forgive someone, then?', I blue-screened. At the time, the question felt a bit like 'How do you know you're in love?' - I don't know, you just do! But since then I've spent some time thinking about the practical mechanisms of forgiveness, and have cobbled together a formal practice with a few discrete steps intended to lead us to a place where we can let go of our resentments. Here's how it goes.
Step 1: Bring a situation to mind which triggers some kind of resentment (anger, hostility, ...), and sit with it for a while.
I strongly suggest that you start with something easy, and work your way up, rather than jumping straight in to a profoundly tortured relationship with a lifelong nemesis. Like the other heart-opening practices, we want to start where it's easy and then gradually build up - otherwise we risk shutting the heart down completely, like forcibly over-stretching a muscle that then tenses up to protect itself. In particular, please don't try this with something deeply traumatic - if you find yourself experiencing flashbacks, sweating, palpitations etc. then come out of the practice immediately, and I strongly recommend talking to a professional about the situation. Please be kind to yourself.
Once you've chosen something, bring it to mind. If you're a visual person, you might like to replay the situation in your mind's eye. Recall as clearly as you can what happened, and notice the reactions that it triggers within you. Spend a few minutes just feeling what's going on within you. (A major barrier to letting go is the instinct to suppress unpleasant feelings. Often, simply allowing ourselves to feel fully is enough to start the process of letting go. It's worth the short-term discomfort of feeling the pain fully in order to get to the long-term benefit of letting it go entirely. Or, as my Zen teacher likes to say, 'Better out than in...')
It can also help to try to understand the other person's point of view. Again, it isn't about agreeing with them or approving of what they did, but if you can find a way to understand where they were coming from, it can help. Most people don't set out to do something with the intention of causing evil in the world - generally speaking, everything we do is in the service of making things better somehow, it's just that our ideas of what 'makes things better' can become extremely screwed up, for a whole host of reasons. So if what happened still seems totally inexplicable and cruel to you, it may be worth trying to understand things from another perspective - if you can. If you can't, don't worry about it, just move on to the next step.
It's also worth saying that sometimes the person you need to forgive is yourself. In many cases this can be the most important kind of forgiveness - and also the most difficult.
Step 2: What is the lesson here?
Now take a few minutes to identify what you can learn from the experience. Make sure that you understand what happened - why it had the impact on you that it did. Was one of your personal values or principles violated in some way? Are there other situations that produce the same kind of reaction? What could you do to approach similar situations differently in the future, if they can't be avoided?
Don't skimp on this step, particularly if part of your reason for holding onto the pain is because of the lesson wrapped up in it. In this step we're consciously identifying that lesson and taking it on board. Once that's done, the pain has served its purpose, and we can let it go.
Step 3: Resolve to let go of the pain.
Form the conscious intention to let go of the resentment, and then simply sit with it for a few minutes and see what happens. You may find it helpful to use some phrases to connect with the intention of forgiveness, like the phrases we use in the other Brahmaviharas (e.g. 'may you be happy'). Here are some suggestions:
Sometimes, the pain releases almost immediately, while other times it's a much slower process. In all likelihood, some things won't drop away the first time you practise with them - but that's OK, you can come back to it again. If it's very painful, leave it a few weeks or even months before coming back to it. Don't try to force anything - the heart has its own timetable, so just let the process unfold. There's no rush.
May your burden be a little lighter each day.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!