By Kali Om
“Be kind to everyone; forgive everyone everything.” —Sri Dharma Mittra
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” —Mahatma Gandhi
On the season opener of Yogi Cameron: A Model Guru, ayurvedic therapist YC treats a 25-year-old with autism named Zach. Zach is angry, and YC wants to know why. Zach says other children at the synagogue he attended harassed him. “How old were you when that happened?” YC asked. “Seven or eight,” Zach replied. “That was a long time ago,” says YC. “When are you going to let it go?”
In modern American culture, we tend to hold on to ancient grievances and use them as an excuse to avoid dealing with the things we don’t like about our life: I’m not living up to my potential because my parents beat me / spoiled me / weren’t there for me / were too strict with me / gave me too much freedom or attention / ignored me / favored my siblings over me / [your excuse here]. In America, we like to play the blame game and say that our problems are someone else’s fault.
But in yoga we understand that the soul is eternal, and that our soul, or Atman, chooses the parents we will have, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. In yoga, we know that these birth families or circumstances give us the best possible opportunity to burn off our old karma and learn the lessons we need to know in this lifetime—that each unpleasant thing is happening for a reason, according to our deeds from the past.
I first heard about the laws of karma and reincarnation in the 1970s, when the film The Reincarnation of Peter Proud aired on TV. But I didn’t really believe in it until 30 years later, when I heard about it from the lips of my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, and realized that everything we are going through now is a result of our past deeds. He shared his own experiences and backed them up with passages from the great yoga scripture the Bhagavad-Gita. When I thought about what he said, I realized that everything “bad” that happened to me in my life—and believe me, there was a lot of unpleasantness—led to something good. Every single time. I realized that these “bad” or unpleasant experiences taught me a lesson, fostered personal growth, or set my life in a new direction (such as when my mother died, and I started practicing yoga) and stopped taking them personally.
As Bhagavad-Gita says, “That which is like poison at first but like nectar in the end—that happiness, born of the clear knowledge of the Self, is said to be of the nature of sattva [peace and harmony].” Sri Dharma often says he is thankful when something unpleasant happens to him, because it means he has burned off one more karma.
This is easy to understand on an intellectual level. Yet many of us still have doubts and see ourselves flogging the same old dead horse, over and over, stuck in our old ways of being, thinking, and acting. If we do this long enough, we could end up with a terrible illness. Because in yoga, it is believed that all disease begins in the mind (and then migrates straight to the colon).
So give it some thought: Is there something you haven’t let go of that is holding you back? Is there someone you need to forgive, or someone of whom you should ask forgiveness? Is there someone you need to thank?
Is there someone you need to confront, or to cut loose from because the relationship is no longer serving you?
Do you need to forgive yourself for something?
What is holding you back from doing what you want with your life?
It is never too late to ask these questions, and spring is a wonderful time of year to let go, an opportunity to begin anew. The most direct way is to do this internally, by practicing svadhyaya, or self-study. This can be done in meditation and through journaling, by asking and answering the questions posed above.
Svadhyaya can be helped by the physical act of letting things go and clearing out the clutter in your living space. Because if there’s clutter at home, there is clutter in the mind. Perhaps it is your stuff—mental, physical, spiritual—that is holding you back.
Often, when we make an external effort, what we need to do internally becomes abundantly clear. After all, cleaning and organizing is a type of meditation (and spring is the best time to do it). Still not convinced? Read my comprehensive March 2010 Yoga Chicago article, “Paring Down Can Improve Your Yoga Practice and Help the Planet.” Another wonderful resource for getting started is Karen Kingston’s book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui: Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter Forever.
Once the physical debris is out of the way, it is much easier to work on internal letting go.
There are many ways to express forgiveness. It can be done in person, or on the phone, or in a letter (I do not recommend doing it via e-mail, voicemail, Facebook, or texting, which would smack of insincerity). It can also be done mentally, if the person is no longer around or still poses a threat to you. (There is no need to stir up trouble or reopen old wounds; in some cases it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, and offer forgiveness mentally. Sri Dharma always says, “Love the bad man, but keep the distance.”)
Sometimes, we come to realize that we have caused harm and need to ask forgiveness, which can be done in much the same way. Just keep it simple and straightforward, name exactly what you are sorry for, express your regret at causing harm, and do not make excuses for your behavior.
There are many types of forgiveness meditations. One of the most simple and direct is from former Buddhist monk and author Jack Kornfield. As with any meditation, begin sitting comfortably in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed (if the floor is not comfortable, sit in a chair with the head, neck, and spine in a straight line). Breathe deeply and comfortably, and contemplate how forgiveness can help you soften your heart.
Begin by asking forgiveness of others you have harmed. Visualize each situation where you have caused pain, and experience the emotions it elicits. Realize that you only caused them harm because of your own pain, fear, anger, or confusion. Then, say to each person, “I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.”
Next, focus on forgiving yourself for all of the times you have wittingly or unwittingly been the cause of your own pain. Visualize each instance and feel the emotions. Then, say to yourself, “For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.”
Finally, focus on forgiving those who have harmed you. Imagine each episode, and allow the emotions to come up. Then, repeat the following: “I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.”
Don’t be surprised if this practice is difficult at first. It can take a lot of time to master it. You may find it helpful to start with small things, and work towards bigger ones.
As Kornfield said, “Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving kindness.”
You may find you prefer a different forgiveness meditation, such as this simple yet very specific one from the Buddha Dharma Education Association. Or you may create your own; it is important that the practice feel authentic to you. That way you’re more likely to actually do it, and your efforts will be unforced.
Just remember that any sincere effort to let go of physical and emotional clutter, no matter how small, will yield rewards. As if by its own accord, you may find your practice starts to deepen, roadblocks fall away, old injuries disappear, and wonderful new things start to appear in your life.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself and see.
(All pictures by Cindy Lawler)
Kali Om (Cara Jepsen) , E-RYT 500, is a disciple of Sri Dharma Mittra and has been teaching yoga since 1998; she is the senior teacher of Dharma yoga in Chicago and has completed Sri Dharma Mittra’s LOAY 200-, 500-, and 800-hour trainings. She also studied five times in India with Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She will lead yoga and meditation retreats November 1-2, 2014 at the beautiful Port for Prayer in Frankfort, IL and in Belize February 7-14, 2015. For more information, visit yogikaliom.com.