There are two types of forgiveness that often accompany heartbreak. The first is the desire to forgive someone who has wronged you in some way. The other is the yearning to forgive yourself, which is actually the foundation of forgiveness overall in my experience.
I am, by nature, not an angry person. I’m not quick to build a case against someone else and then write them out of my life. I am not a yeller. I feel uncomfortable bad-mouthing people. But when someone does something really cruel to a loved one, or something that I think will hurt a lot of people, I get fiercely protective, and get pretty upset at them.
When I get upset, I find that time and space soothes me. I am able to forgive, not right away, but in a matter of weeks or months. This is, incidentally, likely linked to my daily meditation practice, which includes a regular act of forgiveness.
When you’re meditating, you have a constant chance for forgiveness. You sit there with the desire to remain focused on the breath. But what happens? You drift off into thought instead. In that moment you can berate yourself, thinking you’re the worst meditator of all time, or simply forgive yourself for doing what you are habituated to doing: thinking. It’s natural for the mind to think.
Just because thinking happens during meditation doesn’t mean you are bad or wrong. It means you need to forgive yourself this totally minor transgression and come back to the breath. When we do this simple act of forgiving ourselves, we establish a stronger foundation for forgiving others.
Tibet’s greatest saint is a gentleman who was known as Milarepa, who has a very powerful story around forgiveness. Milarepa had a sordid past. His father died when he was young, and his uncle and aunt took his entire family’s fortune. He was so mad he ran off and studied black magic as a way to plot his revenge. He waited until his aunt and uncle were having a wedding party for their son and summoned a giant hailstorm, killing dozens of their guests. When the local villagers plotted to enact revenge on him he found out and sent yet another hailstorm to their land, killing their crops and scaring them off.
As time went on, Milarepa began to realize that summoning hailstorms was not the most productive way to deal with his problems. He came to his senses, saw what harm he had caused, and felt tremendous remorse. He knew he needed help in order to atone for what he had done. He had heard of a Buddhist teacher named Marpa and set out to find him. When he did though, he discovered that Marpa was not going to just give him a free pass after he killed all those people. Marpa said he had to pay for the teachings he would receive, and the form of that payment would be intense physical labor.
Under Marpa’s guidance, Milarepa built a huge tower made out of stone, all by himself. Months later, when it was done, Marpa wandered over and said, “Why did you put windows in there? I didn’t ask for windows.” Even though he did. But Milarepa wouldn’t argue. He took the tower down, brick by brick, and rebuilt it according to Marpa’s instructions for the next several months. Then Marpa would come by and tell him he did it all wrong again and down the tower would come. After all of this grueling labor Milarepa had done years of hard time, so to speak, to atone for his misdeeds.
Marpa eventually revealed that this whole affair had been a way to give Milarepa the time and space he needed in order to forgive himself. At that point Marpa was able to offer him spiritual teachings, but not before. If Milarepa had been offered teachings before, he would have been seeing them through the lens of what a wretched murdering son-of-a-bitch he was. After all the work Milarepa engaged in, working to forgive himself, he was able to cherish and follow the teachings whole-heartedly and quickly attained enlightenment and make amends with those he had previously hurt. But the first step was forgiving himself.
If Milarepa was able to eventually work through his guilt and self-loathing, we can too. We may find the same thing he did, in fact, which is our innate wisdom and tender but strong heart. Milarepa is often depicted with a small smile playing across his face. Having learned to forgive, he experienced true joy and enlightenment. We can too.
Even if you’re not interested in spiritual enlightenment, you at least want to be able to forgive your ex or that friend that wronged you. The more we lay the ground for forgiveness with ourselves, the more we are able to offer forgiveness to others.
The above is an excerpt from Lodro Rinzler’s book Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken (Shambhala Publications, 2016)
Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and his latest, Take Back Your Mind, and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for 20 years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals.