The Theosophical Society in America

Why Forgive?

By Richard Smoley

Originally printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "Why Forgive?." Quest  97. 3 (Summer 2009): 102-106.

Richard SmoleyFor all the praise lavished on it, forgiveness is not easy. We often feel it as an obligation . . . a requirement that is not easy to fulfill and which we often attempt only half-heartedly. How can you even be sure whether you have forgiven someone? The mind has an infinite number of nooks in which grievances can hide. You can think you've forgiven when some little grievance comes up to remind you that you've done nothing of the sort.

Then, too, much of what passes for forgiveness is little more than a sanctimonious form of egotism. You "forgive" out of a sense of noblesse oblige—it is an act of condescension, a favor bestowed upon an inferior. From this position of lordliness a man bestows forgiveness as he might toss a coin at a beggar.

There is another type of hypocrisy as well. It's the sort that seeks to drag everyone else into its mire, moaning, "We are all to blame." This false self-abasement likes to quote the verse from Paul, "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). So we may have—but whose agenda is it to constantly remind us of this? If it were a genuine call to humility, the one who uttered it might first apply it to himself and might then be silent. But as often expressed today—particularly in religious discourse—such declamations seek not to pardon sin but to reinforce it. Everyone is spattered indiscriminately with the spots of blame.

In one sense these difficulties are merely one more form of human frailty. But they point up the extraordinary difficulty that people often have with forgiveness. I would like to suggest that this stems from a deeper cause: we really don't know why we should forgive. We've been told that for some reason it's the right thing to do, but why it might be the right thing to do is rarely addressed. Thus our efforts at forgiving are often perfunctory and insincere.

Why, then, should we forgive? The law of karma suggests one answer. A given cause has a like effect; good begets good, and evil, evil. This is self-evident. We see it every day. If a man does evil to another, he is likely to get evil in return. If a woman does a kind deed, she will probably find that kindness paid back to her.

Taken in full, this idea is extremely sobering. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" asks Hamlet. We know we are not innocent. If the law of karma holds, then sooner or later retribution will find us. The philosophies of India have intricate explanations for why this recompense is not instantaneous: they speak of samskaras, which are in effect "seeds of karma" that will sooner or later blossom in the right circumstances, in this lifetime or another. Even apart from these theories, when we are aware of our guilt, we often feel the hangman is waiting.

Where, then, is the way out? Perhaps it's in forgiveness. If karma creates exact repercussions for our actions, then by necessity it would have to wipe out our offenses to the exact degree that we wipe out those of others. As the Lord's Prayer says, "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12).

This verse is recited in two different ways. Sometimes it is "Forgive us our debts," sometimes "Forgive us our trespasses." Which is right? The Greek makes it extremely clear. The word is opheil?mata, from the verb opheilein, "to owe." Christ uses the word "debts" rather than "sins." In fact he speaks quite often about money and debts. In one parable, a servant (literally, "slave") owes his master 10,000 talents—a staggering, almost inconceivable amount of money, equivalent to, say, a trillion dollars today. The servant says he cannot pay, and the master forgives him. But the servant then turns around and has a "fellowservant" who owes him "an hundred pence" (or a hundred denarii, in any event a much smaller sum), cast into debtors' prison. The master then turns around and has the first servant cast into debtors' prison as well. "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother" (Matt. 18:23–35). To put it another way, the law of karma is inexorable. You will receive exactly what you mete out to others.

But does it really make any difference whether we speak of debts or trespasses? Actually it does. We live in a world of reciprocity, of transactions. We incur any number of "debts" that are not really offenses or trespasses. We may owe someone a phone call or a letter, or for that matter a greeting or a kind word. We don't always meet these obligations. The network of social exchange is so vast and intricate that it's impossible to fulfill them all. But they sit at the backs of our minds, oppressing us often without our knowledge. Christ seems to be suggesting that we need not preoccupy ourselves with these obligations in a calculating or actuarial way—so long as we're able to grant the same favor to others.

As comforting as these reflections may seem, the outcome still seems rather niggling. Forgiveness may rescue us from the inexorable law of karma, but it doesn't seem to take us past the quid pro quo of human life that turns us all into spiritual bookkeepers, keeping scrupulous records in our minds and hearts of favors and slights and injustices great and petty. Even forgiveness as a means of canceling karmic debts is nothing more than an esoteric form of transactionality.

So, then, is there no way out? Not in conventional terms, whether we look at them from the perspective of biology, social obligation, family bonds, or even the comparatively esoteric considerations of karma. In order to understand forgiveness in its deepest aspect, we need to look at reality through another dimension.

If there is one cliche that has been constantly drummed into our ears, it is the claim that "we are all one." We hear this so often that we take it no more seriously than we do a soft-drink commercial. And why should we? There is nothing to even remotely indicate that it might be true. All over we see people jockeying for position, trying to outdo each other in money, status, comfort. One person's success means another's failure. At any given time two different people cannot be elected president, or win the Academy Award for best actress, or be the richest person in the world. One man gets the girl, the other does not. The verdict of appearances is obvious: we are not all one. Our name is Legion.

In what sense, then, are we all one? To answer this question, we need to look into our own experience. If you do, you'll soon see that it comes in two basic forms. There is the world of physical experience, of the outer world of the five senses. There is also the world of inner experience: thoughts, images, feelings, associations, dreams. These two worlds have been given various names in different esoteric traditions. Esoteric Christianity refers to them as the body (or the "flesh") and the "soul" or "psyche" respectively. (The word in the Greek New Testament translated as "soul" is psyche.)

Here we have the totality of experience: body and soul, inner and outer worlds. Ancient Christianity, however, said that we are composed of three entities: body, soul, and spirit. Soul and spirit are two different things: "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit" (Heb. 4:12). What's the difference between the two?

While experience can be easily divided between inner and outer, between soul and body, what is left out from this duality is that which experiences. If there is an "I" that can witness even its own most private thoughts and desires from a remove, this "I" must be distinct from them. This is a subtle but profound point. This witness is always that which sees, so of course it can never be seen. Hindu philosophy identifies this witness with the Atman, usually translated as "Self." The Gospels refer to it as the spirit, "the kingdom of heaven," the "kingdom of God," and "I am."

As many spiritual teachers have said, it is necessary to detach this consciousness, the true "I," from its own contents in order for liberation to occur. This is arguably what the text from Hebrews quoted above means when it speaks of the "cleaving asunder of soul and spirit." It does not refer to death but to liberation of the consciousness ("spirit") from enslavement to its own experience ("soul" or psyche). This is why practically all esoteric traditions put such emphasis on meditation, which is the day-to-day process that makes this liberation possible.

As the fixity of ordinary identification begins to dissolve, the "I" becomes able to watch its own experience as a film unfolding before it. But then the question arises: if all of what passes for "my" experience is a sort of other—a film that I can watch from a distance—who or what is this mind that is doing the looking? And where is the dividing line between my mind and someone else's?

That is the crux of the matter. As mind begins to dissolve its attachments to its "own" experience, it begins to regard itself not as an isolated thing but as part of a larger mind. There is no real border between this "I" and the collective "I" in which we all participate. Conversely, the mind's attachment to its "own" experience causes a symbolic death in that the "I" is, or appears to be, cut off from the whole.

Countless traditions speak of this truth. Because it runs counter to what we usually regard as self-evident reality, these traditions have had to use myth or allegory to explain it. The Kabbalists sometimes speak of the Fall of Adam Kadmon, the androgynous primordial human, as a kind of dismemberment. Similarly, the Hindu Rig Veda (dated from 1200 to 900 BC or sometimes earlier)says that the universe was generated through the sacrifice and dismemberment of purusha, the cosmic human, but which, even more profoundly, means consciousness. The Vedic hymn says:

The Man [purusha] has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers.
It is the Man who is all this, whatever has been and whatever is to be. He is the ruler of immortality....
Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet more than that. All creatures are a quarter of him; three quarters of him are what is immortal in heaven.

That which is most radically the Self, the "I," purusha, Atman, is nothing other than this transcendent principle known as the Christ, an idea we also find in Paul: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). For Paul, it is neither faith nor works that saves us, but union with this cosmic Christ by realizing that the "I" that lives is the Christ that "liveth in me." What it saves us from is not the banal hell of popular imagination but the true hell of isolation from the common life that pulses throughout the universe. The "love of the world," with its accounts, transactions, and agendas, is the love of Adam in his fallen state, in which each cell of his body imagines that it is isolated and supreme and finds itself fighting for position with so many other beings who deludedly believe the same thing. It is as if the cosmic Adam had been infected with an autoimmune disease.

Agape, which could be defined as conscious love, is the love of the cosmic Christ, in which the cells of this primordial human recognize that they are joined together in a larger whole. They realize, too, that what says "I" at the deepest level in ourselves is identical to that which says "I" in everything else, human and nonhuman. This, we could say in the words of Annie Besant, is the "hidden light shining in every creature." To realize this truth, experientially as well as intellectually, is to achieve gnosis, to become conscious in the fullest sense.

These ideas also take us to true forgiveness, to the forgiveness that is beyond account keeping. The twentieth-century spiritual text known as A Course in Miracles says, "All that I give is given to myself." If ultimately there is no distinction between you and me—or, perhaps better, between "you" and "I"—then forgiveness is the only appropriate response to another being. That which separates us is ultimately illusory, as are all imagined hurts and offenses, no matter what their nature or apparent severity. The Course also says, "It is sin's unreality that makes forgiveness natural and wholly sane, a deep relief to those who offer it; a quiet blessing where it is received. It does not countenance illusions, but collects them lightly, with a little laugh, and gently lays them at the feet of truth. And there they disappear entirely."

This fact points to one of the most common impediments to forgiveness: the belief that guilt is real and solid and therefore must belong to someone; if you take it away from another person, you are stuck with it yourself, as in the game of "hot potato." We're often unwilling to forgive because we believe at some level of our minds that we will then deserve the blame: if it's not his fault, it must be mine. Put this way on paper, this is clearly an absurd belief, but as with many such beliefs, if it's allowed to hide in the recesses of consciousness, unseen and unexamined, it can wreak a great deal of havoc. True forgiveness does not transfer guilt but abolishes it.

How, then, do we forgive? Forgiveness is an art. Like all arts, it requires a subtle discrimination, a precise understanding of one's material, and a light touch that strikes the balance between inadequacy and excess. There will be times when forgiveness doesn't seem possible, when the pain felt exceeds the capacity to let it go, and our visceral impulses are all striving towards fury. This does not always happen in proportion to the offense. Sometimes we find that a powerful blow glances easily off our backs, while some small and all but unnoticeable grievance nags at us without cease. The emotions have their reasons, which the conscious mind does not always see, and these reasons have to be respected—at least up to a point. Forgiveness often requires steering a narrow course between nursing a grudge and pretending we have pardoned someone when we have done nothing of the kind. The chief tool needed is a rigorous inner sincerity, since the grossest forms of hypocrisy are those we practice in front of ourselves.

A practical approach toward forgiveness may involve fostering a small willingness to forgive while anger and rage burn themselves out for weeks or months. It may require drawing a line with someone—refusing to take any more abuse while also refusing to nurture any hatred on account of it. Frequently it necessitates an inner detachment, a freedom from emotional dependence on others. Sometimes it entails looking at the situation from the other people's perspective (tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, as the French say: to understand all is to forgive all). Forgiveness takes forms as diverse and unpredictable as human beings themselves. For some, generous and high-minded, it comes naturally and spontaneously, while others may find that it has to be cultivated with effort in the hard soil of their natures. It's wise to be honest with ourselves about such things, but it's also wise to remember that forgiveness is to be bestowed inwardly as well as outwardly and that a little mercy granted to ourselves often makes it easier to extend this kindness to others.


This article is adapted from Richard Smoley's books Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity (Jossey-Bass) and Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition (Shambhala). His next book, The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe, will be published in November 2009 by New World Library.