Perhaps one of the commonest places we get stuck, and consequently one of the places that most prevents happiness, is in holding onto resentments. If there is even one person that we can’t forgive, it closes our hearts in bitterness and will prevent us from experiencing the equanimity of genuine happiness.

Forgiveness is actually an inherent quality of the awakened heart. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come to us naturally; it is hard work! Consider how tenaciously we hold on to being right when we feel that someone has done us wrong, even when that stance obviously brings us unhappiness. During my first marriage, my former wife and I got into a typical power struggle, where we both dug in and held on to our grudges. Even after our divorce I found it hard to give up my resentments, and although we maintained a friendly relationship, there was often a little edge to our conversations.

However, when it became obvious to me that in holding on to my resentments I was really hurting myself, I started doing a forgiveness meditation. What amazed me was how much resistance there was to even entertaining the idea of forgiving her. Part of the meditation was to picture her and try to breathe her image into the heart area, but each time I tried, I was met with a visceral “no”—as if pushing her away. Fortunately, the meditation was structured to allow for this resistance; the instruction was to stay present with the physical feeling of “no,” rather than trying to jump over it.

Over time, as the resistance softened, I was able to feel the layers of anger and hurt—emotions that were the direct result of the expectations that were present when I entered into the relationship. In fact, these were expectations I wasn’t even aware of at the time, and when they weren’t met, I felt betrayed, resentful, and bitter. I also believed strongly that my reactions were justified. Yet, as I became more aware of the story line of beliefs and emotions that held my resentments in place, and as I was able to stay with my own pain without blaming her for it, the dark cloud began to lift. At that point it was easier to breathe her image into the heart area and also to extend forgiveness, because it was so clear that she never intended to hurt me. When I could see clearly that the resentment and the power struggle arose from our mutual blindness and hurt, forgiveness came forth naturally.

Although it took us many years of fumbling and stumbling to get to this place, in the end we were both able give up our resentments completely. By the time she died a few years ago we had come to truly love each other as friends, something that would never have been possible if we hadn’t learned what it takes to truly forgive one another.

I heard the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tell a story about a golfer who was awarded a check for winning a tournament, and when he was walking to the parking lot a woman came up to him and told him a heart-wrenching story about her sick child. She told him that if the child didn’t get help soon, he would die. The golfer promptly signed his check over to the woman. A month later one of the golfer’s buddies told him that he heard about what happened in the parking lot and that he also heard that the woman was a con artist and didn’t even have a sick child. The golfer replied, “That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time—a child isn’t going to die.”

The golfer obviously did not get caught in the fear of betrayal that would have led him to feel mistreated, and to consequently harbor resentment toward the woman. If he had taken the path of bitterness, no doubt many people would have agreed with him. But instead, he was able to listen to the voice of the heart, the heart that is naturally concerned with the welfare of others, rather than the hard-hearted habit of holding grudges.

It may be easy for us to be kind, and also forgiving, when life is going well. But it’s only when life gets difficult that the depth of our spiritual practice is revealed. For our kindness to be real, it can’t depend on how others treat us, or on how we feel at any given moment. Truthfully, when we feel mistreated, kindness is often the farthest thing from our minds and hearts. Yet, for genuine happiness to be possible, we ultimately have to go to that deep place within us where true kindness and forgiveness can be accessed. This means we must attend to whatever blocks access to our hearts.

From Chapter 14 of our current Tricycle Retreat leader Ezra Bayda’s new book, Beyond Happiness, The Zen Way to True Contentment. Order Beyond Happiness, The Zen Way to True Contentment here.

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