Ajahn Anando

Self-forgiveness and Compassion

"When the judgement comes from compassion, you see your life clearly, accept that you're human and allow the past to go."


NEW YEAR’S EVE. THE ENDING OF 1986. Soon it will be the beginning of another year. Today I glanced at an article in a journal I have, which sparked something off in my head. It was about the psychology of peace, and I suppose one of the things that is most desperately needed in the world these days is peace. There seems to be a growing feeling, a growing change in awareness of the need for peace. It has to come, and it has to come soon, because if it doesn’t, well, the implications are almost too horrendous to consider. ‘The brink of disaster’, ‘megadeath’: these sort of terms have come out of this very difficult, dangerous, absurd situation that we find ourselves in.

As has been pointed out (though perhaps not frequently enough, or in the right places), when we trace it all back, we have on one side the problems to do with food distribution: the mountains of beef, lakes of milk and so on in Europe, beginning to rot because they’re not wanted; and on the other side we have hunger: millions of people starving, going without. Then there are ecological problems: vast areas of priceless forest being destroyed every day, and chemicals being pumped into the soil just so the crops are a little bit taller or come up faster, without any consideration as to what effects such chemicals have in the long term. There is over-population in certain areas and a general turmoil and confusion in the world, indicated by the rising crime rate and the number of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Then there are the problems of war, of nuclear war. The statistics are so awesome that they numb us. We can’t get our minds around them. The incredible force and power of these weapons is just beyond the capability of the human mind to grasp. Billions of dollars are being spent every day – every day! – on arms throughout the world, and yet in all countries, even in the affluent countries like North America, this country or Europe, there are those who are going hungry and who are homeless.

When it’s all traced back – these problems of hunger, these ecological problems, and the threat of nuclear war – the root is found within the human mind. That’s not often talked about. Certainly, in the articles that I’ve read about what the representatives of various governments are saying, how they address the issues, they don’t seem to look at it that way. But the world is as it is because there’s greed, because within our own hearts and minds there’s such a lack of peace.

But things are beginning to happen, like this afternoon spending one hour sitting together.* For me there was a very special energy in that sitting, a feeling of being linked with other people. It’s good to think that perhaps more of such events will take place to help touch people, and encourage them to wake up.

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time of putting aside the old. When you look back over the past year, how has it been for you? Wonderful, or perhaps not so wonderful? Happy, sad, successful, or not? Now we look towards the future, the new year, and we see on the horizon: gloom and doom, massive black clouds indicating more conflict. What you hear, if you listen to the news, is all about that conflict. If we just pause momentarily and think about the sort of things we comment on, it’s not the things that are going smoothly and well – we tend to talk about the things that aren’t quite right. What sells newspapers, what draws our attention, is when things are going wrong, when something hurtful, frightening, dreadful or exciting has happened. So we are subject to a lot of information that is, by and large, negative or frightening; a basis for insecurity and growing strife. We seldom get much information about the good things. Someone asked me today: ‘How come there wasn’t any announcement on the news about sitting in meditation for one hour?’ And why has peace studies in schools become such a controversial issue? Peace has almost become a dirty word!

Well, something like this, sitting quietly, encouraging harmony, that doesn’t sell newspapers. It’s not exciting. And of course the newspapers and the news media are only responding to what people want. So the image of that which is threatening is being reinforced constantly; and although it’s threatening, it’s exciting too. To some people the idea of warfare is exciting: the number of books that have been written about Hitler, the Third Reich and World War Two; cultural heroes like Rambo, the one who goes out and conquers – those are the models, the examples that we have. We can say: ‘Well, I’m not really interested, I didn’t go to that movie. I’m not at all interested in buying one of those toys and I won’t let my children have one.’ Yet there’s still this model, this image of fear, dread, uncertainty, that through our own lack of clarity, through our own confusion, we add to.

Take it down to a personal level – the microcosmic view of things reflects the macrocosmic. The personal view: how we think about ourselves, how we relate to ourselves, how we are with ourselves. Is it peaceful? Are we at ease with ourselves? Or is there a degree of fear and uncertainty? Are there certain states of mind, certain fears, certain emotions that are seen as ‘The Enemy’? We all have our own personal monsters: the fear of going insane, the fear of lust, the fear of jealousy. We all have that fear of hatred.

And how it is within us is how it is out there. It has been pointed out that a lot of the policies that governments adopt are pursued simply because we as a people don’t have enough courage to confront our own fear; and the policies are just that – rooted in fear. If we’re frightened and we’re unwilling to look at it, how we relate and what we allow our representatives to do is simply a reflection of our own lack of clarity and our own lack of courage. It’s nice and easy, and it’s a cop-out, to blame those out there: ‘If only it would change, if only I could go somewhere else, it would be better.’

I remember when I was travelling, I used to hear that phrase repeated time and time again: ‘I’m going to Kathmandu (or Goa, or somewhere like that) to get my head together.’ And as it worked out more often than not – because we all tended to be going the same way – you met the same person two months later in Goa and they were still as confused and scattered as before. And you would hear them say the same thing: ‘Yeah, I think I’ll go somewhere else, get my head together,’ thinking that if they changed direction, went somewhere else, found a different group, it would make all the difference. But if we don’t know the source of it, if we don’t understand that it’s here within us – that the confusion, the fear, the hatred, the jealousy is always here with us – then when we get to the new place, the Utopian dream, we find that it’s much the same.

I once met someone who had spent a couple of years in Bermuda. Right after he qualified as an accountant, off he went, got a great job, a beautiful place, and after two years couldn’t stand it any more. He said it was so depressing because he kept meeting people who had become incredibly successful and who felt: ‘Right, I’ve made it, I have my fleet of cars, my fleet of yachts or whatever; I’m going to Bermuda because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Palm trees, gorgeous beaches, crystal clear water – it’s all there!’ But when they got there, they were miserable because they’d brought their chaotic, greedy minds with them. You can’t take a holiday from your mind, unfortunately. Well, you can do it temporarily, but sooner or later it comes back, and usually with a thud, because there’s a law of nature which says that which goes up sooner or later has to come down. The pull of gravity operates even in the psychological realm!

Now the view or the idea that we have of ourselves – that’s something we can work on. There’s a desperate need for us to learn to be a little bit more warm-hearted, loving and caring towards ourselves, and to have a little bit more courage to build on that way of seeing ourselves, trusting in our own goodness. Talking with people over the years, it seems extraordinary how frequently – particularly in retreat situations – they have very profound experiences. Yet they don’t believe them; they don’t accept or trust them. So we can do ourselves enormous injustice. With great consistency we underestimate our abilities and sell ourselves short. We settle for the mediocre because that’s what we’ve been fed. And we bought it! We took the bait!

Perhaps, for 1987, we could make a New Year’s resolution. We could resolve to spend some time each day, or as frequently as possible, consciously making the effort to be friends with ourselves: to be a good friend, one who accepts, one who supports and forgives.

Nineteen eighty-six is almost finished, just a few more hours to go. It’s been just the way it’s been, and now we can just let it go. We can learn from what’s happened. We can understand that all of the feelings, ideas, and memories that we’ve had, have certain similarities; and what releases us from them is when we see them as just what they are – as changeable, unsatisfactory and impersonal. Unfortunately that’s not the way most people see things. People tend to believe unquestioningly in their own thoughts. They believe what they hear and see on the television; they believe the news, the propaganda, without using their ability to discern. And so the monsters become real, and we find ourselves tense and anxious about the future because it can seem so threatening.

But what if we take a radical step? What if we just allow the past to be, and greet this moment with a transformed, a completely fresh, childlike curiosity? Because it is unique, this moment right here. Our sense of identity, of how we are – that’s the old stuff bubbling up and trying to grab our attention (even though some of it may be useful and necessary). But we can begin to see things just as they are, to have the willingness and the courage to let the past be. Let it go. It’s all right to do that. Let the fear and the delusion, all of that, let it go! When we look around, what we’re seeing is our minds, really; our perception of the world is just a reflection of our own mental state. And if we’re at peace and fearless, coming from a place of stability and security, we help to project into the world a state of peacefulness. Instead of doom and gloom and the dark, threatening clouds on our horizon, we can make it something more peaceful. Benevolent. Compassionate. This movement of the mind is very subtle. It’s just letting things be, letting things go.

You know, we’ve a craziness about us, in that we feel that somehow we shouldn’t get away with what’s happened in the past. Dr. Moody (a colleague of Elizabeth Ku{ca4}bler-Ross) who wrote the book Life After Life, tells how, in many of the experiences of people who were clinically dead and then resuscitated, one of the most common feelings was that of the presence of a ‘Radiant Being’. Those from a Christian background referred to it as an angel, and those from an atheist background didn’t want to give it a label, but just called it a radiant being. What I find quite interesting is that, either with the encouragement or just by the presence of that radiant being, the person who was very near death reviewed their life. The statement that really got me was, ‘. . . and the individual judged their own life.’ No one else. We judge.

Now think about that. There’s such a need for us to learn how to accept ourselves. Can you forgive yourselves now? Do you really need to be the heavy-handed judge? Or can you develop that compassionate heart? I think that’s very, very important, because sooner or later we all accept that we’re going to die; we’re going to come to that moment, and this judging seems to be a very common experience. It doesn’t matter whether you suddenly get hit by a bus, or have food poisoning, or whether you’re slowly starving to death, you still come to that moment: the Radiant Being and the Judgement. And we judge ourselves.

When the judging comes from compassion, it doesn’t mean that you dismiss your life, but you see it clearly, accept that you’re human and allow the past to go. I remember being very surprised, just after I was ordained as a novice, when I read that, from a Buddhist perspective, guilt and remorse were unskilful states of mind because they took you away from the present moment. What was encouraged was simply to understand that which happened, that which you said, and to know, if it was unskilful and hurtful, that that was so; to have the intention not to do it again, and then – and this was in capital letters – DROP IT! I remember putting the book down and being a bit stunned by it because it was so simple, so clear, so merciful, and so different from what I was accustomed to doing.

You know, I had felt that to be a good monk you had to beat yourself up! Doing the absolute maximum, hating every thought of hatred, jealousy or lust that bubbled up. If I wasn’t feeling rotten about greed for food, something was wrong! It’s a real predicament, because, after all, you have a human body, and if you haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours and then you have delicious food, the natural response to that is: ‘Oh! Wow! Yeah!’ You must all be familiar with that feeling.

And so to have just that clarity was astounding; just to know that it was unskilful, to know that it was something that shouldn’t be repeated, and to at least have the intention not to do it again. And then DROP IT! My mind said: ‘Well, what about penance? And what about repentance? And the twelve ‘Our Fathers’ that you used to have to say after Confession? And what about hair shirts and flagellation and crosses to bear and all of that?’ It seemed almost not quite spiritual. ‘What do you mean – you just dropped it? That was all? I mean, shouldn’t you torment yourself just a little bit? Just to make sure that you really appreciated how wrong it was?’ But there it was in black and white and capital letters: DROP IT. And this was a very well put together book, well translated, nicely bound, and supposedly the statement of an Enlightened Master.

But over the years I began to see that actually that’s the way that brings about transformation, because when we start allowing that spaciousness to arise in our own minds and hearts, when we allow and encourage that compassionate way of experiencing ourselves and relating to ourselves, then that’s how we begin to relate to others. We reflect, or give out what we’re experiencing. If we hate ourselves, that’s how we tend to relate to others: with impatience, intolerance, lack of ease, lack of goodwill. When there’s peace and love and compassion, that’s what we can give to others.

It’s so natural, it’s so reasonable, so understandable, and yet we insist, we’re absolutely determined (some of us) to be miserable! We put a lot of energy into holding onto our woes and concerns and dreadful memories, and carrying them round like a rotting corpse wrapped around our necks. It’s as if you walk into a room and people say, ‘Would you MIND . . .! Please! It stinks!’ And you say, ‘But this is mine. It’s part of my essential nature.’ If we could only give physical expression to some of our stinking thoughts, it would probably be better for us. But when we just see that they’re not really ours, that physical expression is not essential. The reason we perceive thoughts as being frightening and stinking is only because we see them incorrectly. We can just drop them, we can let go of them; it’s all right, we’re not going to disappear!

Even the painful memories can be dropped. Now if you just drop something, you’re not going to disappear, so you don’t have to worry that you won’t be in a fit state to drive. You don’t have to be concerned about your parents or friends just because you’ve dropped the past.

And how do you do it? Well, to help develop a friendly, forgiving attitude you can use thoughts in a constructive way. You could – even – wish yourself well, occasionally, with some energy and some sincerity. That helps us to see ourselves and our mental patterns more clearly; and through that clarity of seeing, we can let things go, we can drop them. See things as they are: which means that they’re changeable, in a state of flux; imperfect, not satisfying, not bringing us any ultimate or lasting satisfaction. And also they’re not essentially ours, not essentially us – they’re impersonal. That’s seeing things as they are. And when we do, there’s a release, there’s freedom, there’s liberation in that moment. Now that’s a wonderful, joyful thing to be able to do for ourselves, and certainly a worthy New Year’s resolution. Let the past go. Learn from what took place, but be wise and compassionate enough to let what’s gone be at rest. And embrace the moment, this moment, with wonder.

This is what we have. This is the New Year. The new moment . . . the new moment . . . the new moment . . . and so it goes.

I keep coming back to simplicity because this practice is very simple, very direct. It’s a new way of seeing ourselves, of relating to ourselves; a way of forgiveness and compassion, and relating to the world from that compassionate understanding. Trust that. Incline, direct your mind towards that gift. It’s a gift to everyone that we come into contact with during the new year. And when things get difficult, it’s such a good reflection to remember; it’s just right now.

This is it.

Right now.

*On the afternoon immediately before this talk was given, there had been an hour-long meditation for peace at Chithurst Monastery.