Forgiveness Practice & Day of Atonement

We are meeting a few days before the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the highest holy day of the Jewish calendar. In the Old Testament, a priest offered a blood sacrifice of a livestock animal to atone for peoples’ sins and to reconcile and restore their relationship with God. Then a goat was released into the wilderness. The scapegoat symbolically carried away the community’s sins. This week observant Jews around the world will fast and pray, repenting for sinful thoughts, words, and deeds and renewing vows to act more consciously in the future.

One rabbi explains the difference between atonement and forgiveness with a story. A neighbor throws a stone that breaks your window. You ask him to atone by fixing the window. After his sacrifice, you forgive him to restore the relationship.

In many Buddhist sanghas, a verse of atonement is recited three times at the start of each day: “All evil karma ever committed by me since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and thought, now I atone for it all.” According to Buddhist philosophy, we are not essentially sinful; our original Buddha nature can be clouded by desire, aversion, and delusion. The atonement verse is not intended to induce guilt or shame, but to encourage us to face and take responsibility for the fallibilities that we share with all human beings throughout history. The goal is to be compassionate with oneself and others. Instead of advocating repentance and sacrifice to a personal God, the Buddha emphasized waking up to be increasingly conscious of our interconnection with sentient beings everywhere. Once we feel reconciled within ourselves, we can move forward with a clear intention to cause as little harm as possible.

In this cleansing process, forgiveness practice helps the heart soften and open towards ourselves and others. Recognizing how hard it can be to forgive ourselves, meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein reminds us: “Whatever we’ve thought, spoken or done in the past could not have been otherwise due to the causes and conditions of the moment.” We did the best we could with the level of consciousness that we had at that time. Reacting from greed, hatred, or delusion are part of being human. With self-forgiveness, we have an opportunity to learn from unskillful actions, so that we don’t repeat them.

Jack Kornfield suggests using a formal meditation practice that helps develop our capacity to forgive by extending forgiveness in three directions. He himself undertook this practice hundreds of times before he could accompany his father through the process of dying:

Breathe gently into the area of your heart, sensing the barriers you’ve erected and the emotions you’ve carried because you haven’t forgiven yourself or others.

Feel the pain of keeping your heart closed.

The first direction is to forgive ourselves for hurting others.

Breathing softly, listen to the following words, noticing any images and feelings that emerge:

There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, that I have betrayed or abandoned them, and caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.

Let yourself remember and visualize ways you have hurt others.

See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion.

Feel your own sorrow and regret.

Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness.

Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say:

I ask for your forgiveness.  I ask for your forgiveness….

Doubts and resistances are a normal part of the forgiveness process. Note them with as much compassion as possible and gently return to the phrases…

Now let’s turn towards the second direction of self-forgiveness:

Just as I have caused suffering for others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. 

I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Feel connected with your own precious body and life.

Picture the ways you’ve hurt or harmed yourself. Remember these moments.

Feel the sorrow you have carried, and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one….

Repeat these phrases 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. 

Now let’s extend the practice in the third direction, forgiving those who have hurt or harmed us:

There are many ways I have been harmed or abandoned by others, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed. 

All of us have been betrayed at one time or another. Picture the moments of betrayal in your life. Feel the sorrow you’ve carried from the past.

Now sense that you can release this burden of pain by gradually extending forgiveness when your heart is ready. Listen to these words and repeat what feels right to you, at this time:

I remember the ways others have hurt, wounded, or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. 

I have carried this pain in my heart long enough.

To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness.

To those who caused me harm,

I offer my forgiveness.

I forgive you.

Sometimes when you’ve had a conflict with a person who causes you difficulty, this practice may involve a combination of asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself for your part in the interaction. Observe how it feels to recite the following phrases silently to yourself:

For your thoughts, words, or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed me, I forgive you. 

For my thoughts, words, or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed you, I ask for your forgiveness.

For my thoughts, words, or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed you, I forgive myself. 

It may feel comforting to place a hand over your heart. Remember that forgiveness is a complex and ongoing process and let go of the practice for now. Breathe into the area of your heart, sensing its reservoir of lovingkindness for yourself and others.

At your own rhythm, slowly open your eyes. Notice how your heart feels after practicing forgiveness.