Two monks are walking down the road. They arrive at a muddy stream crossing, and a well-dressed woman declares without introduction, “Don’t just stand there. Someone carry me across this mess.“
Without pause, the older monk lifts her across. She says nothing, not even a thank you.
The two monks walk all day. The whole time, the younger one stews in his mind—How could he pick her up? We’re not supposed to touch women, or even talk to them. And she was so rude, someone should say something to her, she didn’t deserve our help.
Finally, arriving at the inn for dinner, he can’t hold himself back. “What were you thinking?” he asks his friend. “She was nasty, and you broke the rules, and she didn’t even say thank you.”
The older monk smiles gently and replies. “Wow, I put that woman down hours ago, but you’ve been carrying her all this time!”
Why We Carry Anger and Resentment
So what does that mean in real life? We make mistakes. Other people make mistakes. We do things to others. Others do things to us. There’s an actual experience that can be trivial or even traumatic. We add to the suffering with judgment, anger, and blame. It’s sometimes referred to as adding a second arrow after being struck by a first. Something unpleasant happens, but then we add more to the experience.
With forgiveness, we make amends when needed but let go of the extra baggage. We give ourselves the same benefit of the doubt we’d offer a close friend.
Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning ourselves or anyone else for misbehavior. But we so easily hold ourselves infinitely responsible, often for experiences utterly out of our control or from decades past. With forgiveness, we make amends when needed but let go of the extra baggage. We give ourselves the same benefit of the doubt we’d offer a close friend.
On the other hand, we sometimes allow someone else to influence our lives long after they’ve gone in a similar fashion. Another driver cuts us off in traffic, putting us in danger, and then speeds off. The driver arrives at brunch and relaxes, but we make our own coffee break bitter dwelling in our own anger. It’s a concept that holds across larger situations too. Anger and resentment simmer and grow, while compassionate resolve allows us to address what needs addressing without slinging additional arrows.
Guided Meditation: How to Be Mindful With Your Mistakes
A Mindfulness Practice to Foster Forgiveness
- Find yourself a comfortable posture, or take a moment lying on the floor, or a bed.
- Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing, noting whatever is grabbing your attention, or whatever you’re feeling now, and without judgment, bringing your attention back to the rising and falling of your breath.
- Picture something that comes to mind that you judge yourself for. Maybe you feel regret, or irritation, or sadness. Notice how it feels even bringing it to mind. Then focus on these three phrases, not forcing anything but setting an intention: I forgive myself for not understanding. I forgive myself for making mistakes. I forgive myself for causing pain and suffering to myself and others.
- Bring your attention back again and repeat the phrases. For a few moments instead of the breath using these phrases as a focus for your attention. This type of practice may become too painful. At any time, without judging yourself, come back and focus on the breath. Allow yourself to settle and return when you’re ready, now or maybe some time in the future.
- Our mind naturally holds onto instances where we feel mistreated by others. There may be experiences that were entirely wrong or traumatic or that concretely require our attention or action. At the same time, we can practice avoiding the second arrow. I forgive you for not understanding. I forgive you for making mistakes. I forgive you for causing pain and suffering to me and to others. Letting go of the tendency to add resentment and judgment and everything related to challenging and unpleasant situations. Again, if it’s too much to consider, return to breathing, or if you prefer, focusing on compassion for yourself instead.
- Practices of this kind can be quite challenging, so in these last few moments, on each in-breath, noticing and accepting whatever you feel right now. On each out-breath, as you would for a close friend, offering yourself relief, or freedom, or strength, or whatever first comes to mind.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean being passive or not taking action. It doesn’t mean standing down when we need to protect ourselves or someone else from harm. Do what needs to be done—that might mean taking a pause, settling the mind, and trying to see things as clearly as possible before taking skillful action. Continue to practice forgiveness, over and over again, letting go of whatever holds you back.