Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. It is a time to reflect on the wonderful people we have in our lives and the good things that have blessed this life. In the language of practice, we “incline our hearts” towards the practice of gratitude. This is a wonderful practice on the path of well-being. And yet, there are times gratitude is difficult in the face of the suffering we feel. We know we have hurt others and others have hurt us. Resentments, anger, and bitterness lurk in the shadows keeping us from truly appreciating the richness of our life.
A traditional practice we use to find our way to calm and ease is the metta or lovingkindness meditation. We begin with ourselves, offering a wish to shift our perceptions of who we think we are; may I (be deserving to) be free of suffering. We incline our heart in the direction of this worthiness. Then, as we widen our circle of inclusion, we “wait for others to show up” so that we can lean that heart further and further into a deep desire that all beings be free from harm, be safe, be healthy, be well. As each person appears, we savour the deliciousness of our love and care for them.
Tucked into this practice, are those who have hurt or harmed us, those whose presence makes us incline the heart away from metta. We hold assumptions about them, their motivations, their willingness to hurt us. These are the blind spots in our open-heartedness. We also hold assumptions about ourselves when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we have hurt and harmed others. These are more blind spots in the vision field of the tentatively opening heart; eventually the whole landscape can be obscured from our vision and we forget what there is to be grateful for.
Adding to our pain, we tend to see blind spots as fixed just as we see the “badness” of ourselves and others as fixed. We begin to own that negative aspect or use it to filter our perceptions of the other person. This adds a dimension of futility to our wish that the anger or resentment can change. How can something intrinsic change?
So, it’s important to begin our cultivation of gratitude with a practice of forgiveness, with an openness to the truth that we and all beings act “wittingly and unwittingly” due to a complex set of biological, cultural, and acquired causes and conditions. This possibility that we or the other person may have acted with OR without awareness shifts our perception of a fixed aspect of who we are or who the other person is. By taking a different stance to our blind spots, the unseen aspects of a relationship are revealed. Just like the little mirror on the corner of side mirrors on newer cars, we have a chance to see things that were typically blocked from our view.
It’s important to note as well that forgiveness of another does not mean we approve of their actions or that we should resume our relationship with them. It does mean we step out of needing them to play a role in our well-being. We repossess our power over our intentions and actions. We become discerning about our vulnerabilities and understand that wittingly or not, we are able to hurt others just as we are able to be hurt.
As we release from the pain of self- and other-inflicted hurts, we can begin to practice the art of savouring our life. We begin with an awareness of what is present for us in each moment. We take a stance of appreciation for these wonderful gifts. And, most important, we linger in that state of appreciation, bringing our hand to our heart, saving that sensation to the hard drive of awareness.
Does it feel manipulative to focus on the positive things? Didn’t we learn in mindfulness courses that life is about connecting with our suffering? True, however our minds have a natural inclination to and tendency for getting stuck in the negative, a negativity bias whose intention is to protect and ensure our survival. Given its tendency to incline that way, we may as well take charge and incline it in a more beneficial direction that counterbalances the negativity bias.
Note bene: This post (and terms in quotes) were inspired by the Mindful Self-Compassion training provided by Drs. Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff. You can find a forgiveness meditation here at Mindful Self-Compassion along with many others on self-compassion. More self-compassion material is available here at Self-Compassion.