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We often end our meditations by wishing all sentient beings loving kindness and compassion.
That’s all well and good in the abstract, but what happens when your best friend starts yelling at you in the middle of a parking lot?
Emotionally triggered, I felt the anger rising up in my belly. How dare she yell at me? Compassion was the last thing on my mind.
This situation happened to me when my friend and I were traveling. We were driving back to her ranch after visiting a town for the day. Just as we exited the freeway, a rear tire blew out and we pulled into the nearest parking lot to assess the damage. Relieved, I muttered under my breath. “At least we weren’t on the freeway,” Apparently, I repeated this out loud one too many times for my friend.
As we got out of the car she started shouting at the top of her lungs. “You’ve said that three times. It’s no big deal; why are you so stressed? You’re making the situation worse!” I froze, startled by her sudden outburst. Her rage surprised me; she’d never acted like this before.
Furious, I left her at the car and stomped off to wander in a nearby CVS. I was tense all over, clamped jaw, shallow breath, constricted stomach, chest wound up tight like a loaded spring. We didn’t say a word as the tow truck guy came to change the tire. We headed back to her ranch in silence and didn’t talk all afternoon.
That evening we simply avoided one another as I plotted my revenge. I would fly home, leaving her stranded to make the nine-hour drive back alone. I would never talk to her again. All my Buddhist training flew out the window.
When we find ourselves stuck in anger and resentment, what can we do? That’s where the question of forgiveness comes in. Could I release the anger I felt for my friend for the hurt she caused me and forgive her? I wasn’t so sure I was ready to forgive; my anger was still palpable. I faced a dilemma.
If I responded in anger, I would have perpetuated our misery. In the Buddha’s words, hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone it is healed. As Buddhists, we are encouraged to break the vicious cycle of anger. But given my bitter sense of betrayal, could I find it in my heart to forgive my friend?
Many wise teachers talk about forgiveness. In his 12 Principles of Forgiveness, Jack Kornfield reminds us that we don’t have to condone another person’s actions, but we do have to sense the weight of what it means to hold onto our suffering. At some point, it’s important to grieve and let go.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to let go, nor was I in touch with the hurt I felt. I kept replaying the scene in the parking lot, feeling my outrage that my best friend was so angry at me. My hostility was the defensive shield that prevented me from admitting deep inside, I felt hurt. I didn’t like being yelled at; I felt attacked. Until I acknowledged my pain, I couldn’t let go of my suffering.
I thought back to the first time I heard my teacher, Venerable Dhammananda, speak. She said, “Anger doesn’t get us anywhere. It is much harder to practice loving kindness and compassion; that is the goal of Buddhism.” That sentiment has always stayed with me.
I went to bed angry and woke the next morning exhausted from lack of sleep. Perhaps that was a good thing, because I didn’t have the energy to stay angry. I began to let go of my perception that I was right and she was wrong. I realized how much I loved my friend and didn’t want to sacrifice our friendship by abandoning her. I recognized that even though I wasn’t the one who became angry first, my worrisome comments had played a part.
It takes courage to forgive someone, and once I made a conscious choice to let go, my whole body softened. I found my friend sitting outside in the garden sipping her coffee. I sat down beside her and said, “I’m sorry if my comments upset you.” She thanked me and that seemed to resolve the tension between us.
Funny enough, after I apologized, I expected her own apology, but that never happened. I was disappointed that she didn’t empathize more with me. Also, I wanted to understand why and how she was upset with me, but the conversation was over. We simply packed up, got in the car, and drove home.
Looking back on the situation, I asked myself what it meant to forgive my friend. First, I’m not always so quick to release my anger. There was something about the nature of our friendship and the fact that she was my oldest friend for 40 years that convinced me I didn’t want to lose her. In this instance, I was able to let go and forgive, but other times I’ve been unable to do so.
How do we forgive someone when we are overcome with anger?
I turned to my teacher for advice. Venerable Dhammananda laughed. “This happens to all of us; even the great masters get angry.
She suggested three helpful tips to cope with our anger.
1. Pause. Take a deep breath.
2. Anchor within yourself.
3. Try to understand the issue from her viewpoint to see where she stands. Once we realize that the other person’s anger is only human, we begin to forgive.
I understand the first two suggestions, but I struggle with number three.
How many of us pause and stop to appreciate the other person’s viewpoint? Especially when we are triggered? What about more traumatic situations where we are too hurt or angry to forgive the other person for years, or decades even?
Once again, I sought my teacher’s guidance.
“When you embrace loving kindness that means you are able to let go of the person who has harmed you and that’s not easy. We need to love and accept ourselves first for whatever trauma we have suffered. Then and only then can we begin the process of forgiveness.
Embracing the heart of forgiveness takes practice.
It’s beautiful to hear, but hard to do. In addition, it’s not always possible in every situation. One thing is true—when we set our intention to forgive, we allow ourselves to heal.
Wishing all sentient beings loving kindness and compassion is a powerful commitment, one that requires faith, trust, and forgiveness.
May we continue to dedicate our practice to the welfare and happiness of others, and to practice forgiveness whenever we choose.