We have a love-hate relationship with our own thoughts and emotions. We either chase them or try to get rid of them. When we are meditating and we realize our minds have wandered, we often feel we’ve somehow failed, and we start to mentally beat ourselves up over it.
We could even begin to hate our thoughts—we feel we need to shoot them down with some kind of gun, which makes us sit there in a state of tension. Through this attitude, the more we meditate, the more stressed we end up.
True forgiveness is developed through learning to accept whatever is happening in the mind. This is a deep form of unconditional love, and it is the key to forgiving ourselves and others.
In meditation, all we need to do is notice that our minds have wandered and then return our attention to the object of meditation—such as the breath. Training in this way makes us stronger. To learn that, we need to have somewhere to return from, and so the wandering mind has, in fact, helped us—the thoughts are aids to the meditation, not enemies.
This attitude—a nonjudgmental acceptance toward our thoughts and emotions, resolving our internal mental conflict—becomes the foundation for the development of forgiveness. If we can forgive our thoughts, we can forgive ourselves and forgive our enemies.
Why we struggle to forgive ourselves.
Many people struggle with habits of self-loathing. We can find it hard to forgive ourselves, perhaps for specific things we have done, or we may feel a general sense of disgust at our own shortcomings.
I think there are elements within modern culture that encourage this problem. We are constantly fed messages through advertising which tell us that we cannot possibly be OK with the way we are—we must strive to look, be, and feel better, and to have more. Advertising plays on our insecurities as well as our desires. As I described earlier, in a world of grasping, we constantly create feelings of lack and dissatisfaction. We also live in times where the old habit of “curtain twitching” has become digitalized, and it is now global and highly addictive. It is no surprise that we inhabit a culture of insecurity; everybody is judging everyone else.
Our striving to be perfect, and the constant exposure to imagery of so-called perfection, can cause us to feel quite bad about ourselves. It is no wonder, then, that when we make a mistake or we perceive our own shortcomings, we fall into habits of self-loathing. We have internalized those judgments, which are all around us.
Overcoming the self-condemning internal monologue.
Some people are tormented by guilt and self-hatred. I used to have a persistent, self-condemning internal monologue, as well as patterns of highly self-destructive behavior. I would find my own company very difficult, even distasteful. If people appeared to like me, I would assume there must be something wrong with them, as I felt so unlikable.
This led me into numerous destructive relationships and situations. When I became a monk and went into my first nine-month retreat, the harsh internal voice telling me that I was rubbish, bad, even evil, intensified, and I would often hold my head in my hands begging it to stop.
I now realize that this came from a huge amount of tension; when we are stressed, our main negative habit tends to be accentuated. I was meditating in quite a harsh manner, sometimes doing seven-hour sessions and not stopping until I felt I had done it “well enough”; it was a tense and miserable time.
Things shifted during a longer retreat of four years, when I learned how to give some compassion to that part of myself. I would feel as if a knife was twisting in my heart, an agonizing feeling. When I started to give love and kindness to the sensation itself, everything changed. The benefit for me has been that I now find it much easier to forgive myself. I am no longer hard on myself—in fact, I’m very gentle. Sometimes this can veer into being a bit lazy, but on the whole, it has helped me to be a much happier person.
A 3-step exercise for practicing self-forgiveness:
Recognition means to calmly acknowledge our mistakes or our negativity; we can do this without falling into guilt. It is good to tap into the knowledge that deep down we are ultimately happy, good, and pure. Our negativity is simply like dust—it can be cleaned away through meditation training.
Gratitudemeans to appreciate that we have seen something in ourselves that we can work on, and so there is an opportunity. Once we can see that our problems provide a chance for training in resilience, our attitude to them can become one of gratitude.
Understandingmeans to see our shortcomings as part of the human condition. There is nothing wrong with us, we simply have minds that haven’t yet been trained, and so of course we are liable to make mistakes. If we can see ourselves as “a work in progress,” that will help us develop self-forgiveness.
These three ways of thinking need to be combined with regular meditation practice, which will enable us to be less controlled by our habits of mentally beating ourselves up.
It is also helpful to remember that everything changes; nothing is fixed, solid, or unchanging. These problems that we might be currently fixating upon will one day be a memory.