We come to terms with our painful past by extending forgiveness to ourselves
By Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman is a Northern California-based meditation teacher, author, and founder of the Mindfulness Institute. Since he began teaching nearly two decades ago, he has led meditation retreats across five continents. The following is an excerpt from his newest book, Make Peace With Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, which teaches how to use meditation practice to soothe our negative inner voices.
When I ask a room full of students, “Who hasn’t caused someone harm through their words and actions?” not a single hand is ever raised. We have all done things we regret. I similarly ask if there is anyone who has not caused harm in some way through their sexuality. Again, rarely does a hand go up. It is the same when I ask if there is anyone who doesn’t regret acting or saying something foolish in a moment of passion and reactivity.
Making mistakes, having poor judgment, and doing things we know we shouldn’t in the heat of the moment are a natural part of the human condition. Why then are we so hard on ourselves? How do we account for all the self-blame? We can trace this pathology of self-recrimination to the critic and to an idealized and impossible standard of human behavior.
One of the things I’ve most appreciated about my years of meditation practice is having made peace with my humanness. It’s not that I don’t aspire to grow and develop and work on myself. But I’m no longer holding myself to some impossible ideal. The less I expect myself to be perfect and never mess up, the more likely I am to make headway toward forgiving myself. I am more able to release the heavy guilty burden I’ve been carrying for painful things I’ve done in the past, for the things I regret.
Sometimes I look back and am embarrassed at what I used to say, the views I espoused, and the self-centered hubris of youth. But that too is part of living, of growing up, the inevitable growing pains of being human. When I first discovered meditation, I was like a “born-again meditator,” and I would enthusiastically try to convince all my friends and family that they should meditate. I was, in my youthful arrogance, eager to point out all the ways they were not enlightened and what they should do about it. Now my family teases me about that.
One particular realization I owe to my meditation training is an understanding that there is no time but now. The future is an illusion, the past is now a dream, and the only reality we have access to is the present. In that light, self-forgiveness is the willingness to stop trying to fix our past or make it better. It is giving up all hope of improving that which has already happened. What is done is done.
If this is true, then why do we try so hard to fix the past? It is because we can’t bear to live with the painful fact that we did and said all those things that we regret and wish we could take back. We do it as a way to try and stop the pain that still lingers in the present from past events. The mind has a deep-seated resistance to feeling pain, even if it happened a long time ago. That is why we spend so much time in our head, thinking, replaying, rehashing, arguing, rather than acknowledging the tender, vulnerable part of ourselves and letting in the sadness and loss that accompanied the pain when it occurred.
I went to school in a rough part of town. There were constant physical fights, and harsh bullying was rife. Like so much human pain, it got passed down the chain, from the older kids to the younger kids. I was on the receiving end of a lot of painful bullying and psychological taunting. However, I also learned to dole it out. I would pass on the psychological ridicule I had received to others, when there was no risk of being physically threatened while doing so.
I used to look back with horror and shame on the ways that I teased and taunted a classmate. How could I, who knew how painful it was to be ridiculed in public, serve out the same? Given the space of time and some wise reflection, I can now see I was just a cog in the wheel, just passing on what I had learned, trying to survive in my own way and to keep the bullying attention away from myself…