The Power of Stillness

b-edit_MG_6892-1There was once an Indian sage who performed amazing miracles. One day a woman who was deeply distressed approached him. Her daughter was getting married and the family, who had no money, needed 15 grams of gold for her dowry. The sage reminded the woman that he was not a goldsmith, and advised her to sit in stillness, focus on her breath, meditate and wait patiently for a solution to her dilemma. In the meantime, a wealthy merchant and long-time disciple of the sage approached. He had just been given the news that he was in declining health, due to a pre-diabetic condition. He asked for the sage’s prayers and blessing. The sage told him to stop eating sugar and assured him that if he followed this advice all would be well. In gratitude, the wealthy merchant gave the sage a leather pouch as a gift. Without hesitation, the sage found the woman whose daughter was to be married and gave her the pouch. When she opened it she fell to her knees in gratitude, for inside the leather pouch she found 15 grams of gold.

b_MG_7446Sometimes being still is the most powerful thing we can do. Rather than acting on the advice, “Don’t just sit there, do something!,” we are better off taking the advice, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” That’s when we discover just because we aren’t doing something, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening.

We live in a culture that places more value on doing than on being. We attach our worth to our accomplishments. We value how much we do, and how busy we are, more than what we do or how we do it. We miss the point that sometimes doing nothing is more powerful and productive than anything you can do in a situation. But being still is an art that requires practice. It’s easier said than done.

Many of us have learned to associate being still with being lazy. We consider it a waste of time. Or we may worry that taking time to relax is selfish and end up feeling guilty. Sometimes we’re afraid to be still because when we stop filling every moment with activities, we encounter feelings and thoughts we’d rather avoid. Sometimes we are afraid to do nothing because our mind tells us we’ll never be able to realize our dreams if we take time out to be still.

Actually when you are still you are better able to quiet your mind and listen more deeply to your heart and soul. It’s in these moments that you can hear the still, small voice within that speaks quietly and with confidence from a deeper place of intelligence than your thinking mind. When you act from the depth of your soul, and deeper guidance, your actions carry a force and energy that bring you into harmony with life. You will likely find yourself to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

b_MG_7448Sometimes you have to slow down so that the world around you can catch up to your vision. There are certain moments in life and situations where there is nothing for you to do but be still. Acting out of impatience won’t necessarily make things manifest more quickly, but will instead cause you more stress and suffering. Rather than forcing things into existence, slow down, practice being still, silent, and waiting patiently. Connect with the flow of life that already is.

Silence has a sound of its own; listen for it. Stillness is just another form of action. Revel in it. The real power of living isn’t just in the actions you take, but also in your stillness. This is not an “either or” proposition. There is a time for doing something and a time for doing nothing.

Use the time you are doing nothing to reflect, restore, rejuvenate and to prepare yourself for action. If you don’t, when the time comes to do something, you may be depleted from all of your busyness and unable to be at your best when it counts the most.

Learn to trust life.

Slow down.

Listen to the silence.

Enjoy a meditation practice.

Try Restorative yoga.

Don’t just do something.

Sit there.

Be a human being, not just a human doing.

Namaste

 

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Behind Closed Doors

It has not been my habit to talk about myself in my blog posts, but because of the ongoing conversation about domestic violence in our culture I am inspired to share my story of how I survived domestic abuse even before it was considered a crime. This is a story about why I stayed and how I left.

It is only recently that domestic violence has been considered a violation of the law. Although men have battered, abused and mistreated their wives or intimate partners for a long time, historically, wife or partner abuse has been viewed as a “normal” part of marriage or intimate relationships. Only toward the end of the twentieth century, in the 1970s, has domestic violence been defined as a crime, justifying intervention by the criminal justice system.

I married for the first time in 1967. My first husband turned out to be a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive man, and I was the object of his abuse. His violent rages seemed to come out of nowhere. I had grown to fear him and was as careful as I knew how to be not to trigger him – walking on eggshells all of the time. In 1967 no-fault divorce was not an option and blame the victim was the name of the game, so I stayed and tried to make the best of a bad situation. To set the stage, we were a young inter-racial couple, married the same year the Supreme Court ruled miscegenation laws illegal. I was 21 he was 26.

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We shared a car. Both of us worked. It was my habit to pick him up from work in the evening. One afternoon I made a decision to remain at work to complete an interview I was conducting. I had no way to reach him to let him know that I would be about fifteen minutes late (there were no cell phones then). When I arrived to pick him up, he was not there. My heart sank. Instead of waiting for me, he had taken the bus home in a driving rainstorm.

I knew he would be furious by the time I arrived home, and sure enough, there he was waiting for me inside the foyer of our apartment with a leather belt in his hand. When I walked through the door, he began screaming obscenities at me and beating me with the belt. As usual, I was totally unprepared for the assault. Afraid to defend myself, I felt victimized and helpless as usual.

Aside from the extremity of the attack, there was something different this time. I am not really certain how long the attack continued, but at some point during it, something inside of me literally clicked. Time slowed down, almost coming to a standstill, and I remember hearing a voice inside me say as clearly as if there had been someone in the room talking to me, “You know he’s crazy, but you must be crazy too for putting up with this.” In that moment of realizing my own insanity, I was transformed from the victim of an abusive husband to a woman who had choices, and I knew, even though I was not yet ready emotionally or financially, that I would leave the relationship.

I never said a word to him or lifted a finger to defend myself, but the most amazing thing happened. Immediately following, or maybe simultaneous to my thought and decision to leave, he stopped hitting me and screaming at me, dropped the belt, and walked away. We never spoke of the incident, and he never raised his voice to me or lifted a finger to harm me in any way after that. It was as if he somehow sensed that he would never be able to treat me that way again.

In a moment of profound awareness, I had taken personal responsibility for my own sense of well-being. In that instant I had changed on a deep, fundamental level. The shift in me completely changed the way I regarded myself and profoundly changed the way he interacted with me forever. I was no longer a victim. I had choices. Within months I had enrolled in graduate school, moved out of our apartment, and filed for divorce.

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This incident happened over forty years ago. Until I shared the story sixteen years ago with my students at the University of Michigan in a course I was co-teaching with professor Robert Quinn called “Change the World”, I had never told anyone – not my parents, my brother, my current husband, or any of my closest friends. I had buried the memory of that chapter of my life, and along with it the feelings of humiliation and shame I felt.

The premise of the course we were teaching was that through individual personal transformation you can effect positive change. The question that prompted me to tell the story came from a student who asked, “Can you change an abusive relationship organizationally or personally through individual personal transformation?” I told my story.

Before I could feel regret or embarrassment about what I had shared in a very public forum, Professor Quinn said the most amazing thing: “That is an incredibly powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.”

Shazaam! An incredibly powerful story? Not the story of a pathetic victim of abuse who had put up with it for years? Not a shameful story that should have remained a lifelong secret? I had made myself vulnerable by sharing a story that I had always regarded as a sign of my own weakness. In the telling, I watched the story transform into a story of courage and strength. In telling the story, which was in itself an act of courage, my perspective shifted.

The fundamental change in me, by telling that story, was my willingness to lovingly and wholeheartedly embrace those parts of me that I had for years regarded as flawed. This shift in perspective forever changed how I see and relate to the world. Clearly my clients have benefited from this shift, as I am much better able to help them embrace their weaknesses and flaws, which paradoxically transforms them into strengths. My family and friends also benefit, as I am much less guarded and defensive, more willing to be open and vulnerable, and have a greater sense of self-esteem, all of which allows for greater intimacy and closeness.

So the upshot of what occurred for me by finally telling this story was that a pathway opened to transforming what I had internalized as a shameful experience, to be kept secret, into a story of courage and strength that I can now use to instruct others and to be a more compassionate, open, and loving person. It also released me from a long-held but deeply buried belief that I am not “good enough”, which has opened many internal doors that were formerly locked away, freeing me to be more authentic, genuine, and efficacious in all that I do.

edit_MG_7184I hope telling my story helps you find the courage to tell your story, whatever it may be, and to experience the loving embrace of all those with whom you share it. Secrecy enables the continuation of abuse. Don’t get it twisted. There is no shame in being abused. The shame belongs to the abuser; to all those who blame the victims of abuse; and to those individuals and institutions who would have you cover it up, hide it behind closed doors, and keep abuse a secret. Unless you are a powerless child, being victimized by an abuser does not define you as a victim. No matter what you may think, you always have choices. There is a way out. I know. Find your strength. Find your voice. Tell your story. Stand tall. Stand proud. Change the world.

Namaste

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Don’t Demonize Difference

“Rather than demonize difference, yoga invites us to engage, embrace, and celebrate it. Yoga means union, the connection of body, heart, and mind, the connection of breath to movement, the connection of one human being to another. It is an invitation to intimacy with oneself and of connection to others.”–Gail Parker

IMG_0257In Hindu mythology, the Asuras, which simply means “Not Suras,” and the Suras were neighbors who had various shared and divergent interests. Neither group was particularly interested in interacting with or getting to know the other. Over time, for a complex set of reasons, the Asuras, who were at one time revered as gods, became known as demonic. What started out as different and unknown became confused with “other” in a negative sense. The Asuras came to be described as “darker beings,” evil spirits or demons, while the Suras were described as “beings of light,” as gods. The story of the Suras and the Asuras is ultimately the story of the demonization of “that which is not like me.”

Like the Suras and Asuras, we live in a complex world of difference that today, in a positive way, we would call diversity. We are members of a global community, different from each other but not separate. Instead of seeing our own views as the totality of the human experience, yoga offers the view of the human race as one family, each member with his or her own unique contributions, gifts and talents that need to be tapped, developed and shared.

We are not all the same. We don’t look alike, think alike, talk alike or act alike. We are not one. But unlike the Suras and Asuras who kept their distance from each other, yoga asks us to join together to get to know, honor, celebrate and share our perspectives and experiences with each other. It invites us to enter into relationship with that which is unfamiliar and “not like me” even if it makes us uncomfortable. IMG_0865Yoga doesn’t ask us to be the same because unity quickly devolves into conformity. Once that happens, difference becomes a problem. Even though there’s comfort in sameness, a desire for sameness is negative because it negates the other person’s perspective: “I wish you were like me, not like you.”

The negativity of sameness ruptures connection. There are two forms this negativity can take. First there’s devaluation of your self or someone else. Then there’s an elevation of your self over someone else. When we regard those who are different from us from a superior position, we annihilate them. When we regard our difference as a sign of inferiority, we engage in self-abuse. We feel like victims, and we annihilate ourselves.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 2.30.40 PMEach one of us is a gift like a flower that emerges. Our yoga is to engage with our gifts and our experiences and then share them. All of our experiences, gifts and talents when drawn together and shared become the opportunity for evolution and growth. In sharing our gifts and our experiences, we nourish what is greater than ourselves, the community. In this process of sharing we discover and strengthen our connection to each other.

We don’t have to deny difference to keep from demonizing it. Our differences are part of what make us unique. But while we have different interests and backgrounds, we share a common humanity. Acknowledging differences does not have to divide us; in fact, acknowledging our differences can help us develop closer bonds through mutual understanding and respect.

IMG_0839Because of differences in national, cultural, gender, racial, ethnic and religious identity, and due to differences in sexual orientation, ability, disability, age, body size and learning styles, a person’s frame of reference and perspectives may be different from but no less valid than your own. Let us learn and then teach each other to embrace the totality of the human race as one’s own people, as members of the human family, no matter who they are or where they come from.

The pre-conditions of a functional community require that each of us value one another. We do this by:

Getting to know those who are different from us

Acknowledging each other’s differences

Affirming each other’s differences

Advocating for each other’s reality and potential

Sharing our gifts and talents

Respect for difference asks that we recognize that different does not mean better than or less than. It is not something to be hated, feared or eradicated. Different just means different. Engaging, embracing, and celebrating difference is our yoga.

Namaste

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What’s Color Got To Do With It?

“It is not differences that immobilize us, but silence…And there are so many silences to be broken.” ~ Audre Lorde

Recently a friend, who is a committed advocate for diversity and inclusion in the yoga community, confided in me that a white yoga teacher made a remark that wounded her deeply. The comment, “I teach students who are blacker than you.” brought up painful memories of racial wounding from my friend’s past. She is a brown-skinned woman of Afri-Caribbean ancestry. She comes with her own history of her own identity and her unique set of experiences that inform her point of view. She is a proud woman of color whose parents taught her the knowledge of her own cultural identity based on so much more than the color of her skin.

images-1“Colorism” is a term coined by the acclaimed author Alice Walker. It signifies discrimination based on skin color in which people are treated differently or assigned status based on the social meanings attached to the color of their skin. Colorism has a long and storied history. In India, discrimination based on skin color was most visible during British colonization. Individuals with a lighter skin tone had more privileges. They were considered to have a more affluent status, and were treated preferentially in education and employment. Individuals who were darker skinned were socially and economically disadvantaged. The irony is that in India one of the most revered goddesses in the Hindu pantheon of deities is Kali: The Dark Mother – The Primordial Mother. Her black complexion symbolizes her all embracing and transcendent nature. All colors are absorbed in her blackness.

In the United States, European colonialism created a system that led to a structure of domination that privileged whiteness over blackness. Differences in skin color were used as a tool of enslavement and oppression of Africans, developing a social hierarchy that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Colorism continues to be a very painful reality for people of color.

What does this have to do with yoga and taking it off your mat? Everything!!! Yoga stresses that we live in a world of reciprocity in our relationships. In order to do so we must be able to interact with others who approach life from a value and belief system different than our own. As yogins and yoginis, our work is to stress the universal connection between each and every one of us, while acknowledging, celebrating, and honoring our cultural realities, and by engaging in dialogue that fosters mutual understanding and encourages compassion.

Have you noticed there is a culture of silence regarding issues of race and difference among many members of the dominant culture in the United States? This silence includes the issue of colorism. This makes it difficult to engage in conversations that could enhance our connection with one another. Without such conversations we are left with a huge void in knowledge and information about cultures different from our own, leaving us vulnerable to making cultural missteps that might offend and that keep us separate.

Studies have found that 84 percent of the people practicing yoga in the United States are white, and more than 44 percent earn more than $75,000 annually. Most U.S. yoga teachers come from this demographic. It is easy to see how their values, beliefs and historical perspectives, whether consciously or unconsciously, can be culturally imposed on people who have different values, beliefs, and experiences based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, body size, sexual preference and socio-economic status. If we in the Western hemisphere care to be more inclusive, it is incumbent upon each yoga teacher to develop the ability to recognize that your culture is not the only one. It is the willingness to be curious, empathic and open to someone’s culture other than your own that enhances connection.

The most serious barrier to culturally appropriate behavior is not a lack of knowledge of the details of any given cultural orientation, but the failure to develop self-awareness and respectful attitudes towards other points of view and diverse ways of living.

Let’s become culturally humble, admitting what we don’t know about another’s culture, especially when we make a mistake, by entering into a serious practice of self-study, life-long learning, and critical self-reflection. Then let’s talk to each other about each other and strengthen our connections with each other. Without developing cultural humility, we risk humiliating others and ultimately humiliating ourselves, and that is not yoga.

Namaste

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Gratitude: A Habit of the Heart

The most powerful agent of growth and transformation is something much more basic than any technique: a change of heart. ~ John Welwood

b2_MG_3119Gratitude is more than a feeling. It is a practice. In the Native American tradition elders begin each ceremony with a prayer of gratitude to father sky, and mother earth, to the four directions, and to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. A Buddhist monk begins each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings in his life. Tibetan monks even offer prayers of thanksgiving for their suffering: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”

As we mature, one of our tasks is to move beyond a purely emotional response to life and to cultivate positive emotions as habits of the heart. What this means is that we practice being grateful when we don’t feel thankful, loving when we don’t feel loving, and kind when we’d rather be mean and surly. This is how we turn feelings, which come and go, into conscious, intentional attitudes that guide our actions even when we don’t “feel” like it. Our attitudes then become habits of the heart.

What you discover through focusing on and practicing gratitude is this: The more grateful you are, the more joyful you become. You become more joyful for yourself, and for the good fortune of others. You find that you can be happy for the people you love, for bright blue skies, warm sunshine, the scent of flowers in bloom, the soft caress of cool breezes blowing–even for your own breath. Instead of feeling guilty about your own good fortune, you become able to embrace pleasure even when you are aware of the suffering of others. The more grateful you become, the happier you feel for no apparent reason. You simply love life and enjoy being alive.

There is much to be grateful for even if we can’t always see it. Author Dawna Markova says it best when she reminds us, “Gratitude is like a flashlight. If you go out into your yard at night and turn on your flashlight, you can suddenly see what’s there. It has always been there, but you couldn’t see it in the dark.”

When you shine the flashlight of gratitude on your life you can see all of the blessings both great and small that have always been there. Like the Native American elders, gratitude helps us acknowledge and appreciate everything that sustains our lives each day.

Gratitude is an expression of our confidence that life itself is on our side, that good things will come our way, and that even when unwanted experiences visit us, we regard them as merely bumps in the road that can help us learn to become wiser, more complete, and more loving. Gratitude helps us acknowledge that the life force that the poet Tupac Shakur identified as enlivening “the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete” is the same life force that enlivens each and every one of us.

An attitude of gratitude is not judgmental, envious or jealous. It does not compare itself to anyone or anything. It does not compete or disparage; rather, it is an attitude that openly receives what the Universe is offering, the sun, the rain, the air, and the earth as that which supports all of life. Gratitude invites us to become engaged in the excitement and wonder of life.

One caution: Telling yourself or others that you or they should feel grateful is not helpful. Guilt doesn’t work. Gratitude springs from either a conscious decision to notice what’s right with your life instead of what’s wrong or what’s missing, or from a spontaneous opening of the heart to life’s wonders. If you’re like most people there will be days when it’s impossible to feel grateful for anything no matter how hard you try. When that happens, be kind to yourself. The less guilt tripping you do to yourself and others, the more space you create for gratitude to sweetly and softly envelope your heart.

As you intentionally cultivate an attitude of gratitude, it changes the way you view the world. When you practice being grateful you feel connected to the abundant flow of life. The more you say “Thank You” the more you experience the feeling and the richness of spirit that gratefulness produces. At such times you don’t need to work at being grateful; you just are.

Dhanyavad Ananda

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Love Is Patient

“That could take some time.” –Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy

In Chinese folklore there once was a wise and humble man who had the most extraordinary gift. He could relate to anyone and got along with everyone. He never argued with friends, family, co-workers, or even strangers. His marriage was happy and his children were well behaved, respectful, kind and polite. He enjoyed remarkable harmony inside his home and out.

News of this amazing man traveled to the Emperor, who was so intrigued by the man’s reputation that he ordered him to come to the palace in order to meet him in person. After their meeting, the Emperor ordered the man, by royal proclamation, to write a 10,000-word document describing how everyone in the Empire could create peaceful relationships as he had done. The man was then sent off to write.

Five days later he returned to the palace with a heavy scroll that was immediately taken to the great hall and rolled out across a huge table. The Emperor’s court stood silently by as the Emperor began to read the scroll. Much to everyone’s delight,  in just a few minutes he nodded his approval . The man had written 10,000 words as the Emperor requested – but it was the same word written over and over and over again: Patience, Patience, Patience.

Patience is the ability to experience difficulty or inconvenience without complaining. Love is its foundation. Every loving heart overflows with patience. It is the way a mother shows her love to a toddler having a melt down, or the love a husband shows his wife when she’s running late, or the love a son shows his mother learning to use the latest technological gadget. Love and patience go together, hand in glove.

Patience is the loving response to frustration. Have you ever watched a small child trying to pour a glass of milk with unsteady hands? Can you wait to see if he actually needs your help to avoid a spill before you grab the milk carton and pour it yourself? If your wife (husband) is driving to a destination and going a different way than you anticipated, can you wait to see if she (he) asks for your help before you offer directions? How much frustration can you tolerate before you intervene with a solution to someone else’s problem?

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Patience is measured by the ability to put up with something you’d rather not; falling in and out of a handstand before you nail it, waiting for the relationship you long for to manifest, waiting to hear the outcome of an important job interview, or for an injury to heal or an illness to abate. We wait patiently not for the sake of endurance but in the recognition that in a breath or two, “This too shall pass.”

A frustration, an unpleasant experience, or inconvenience does not last forever and it is the power of an open heart that gives us the strength to look toward a brighter future. Patience makes room for the power of love to work on a troubled relationship. It empowers love to care for a troubled child, and to take care of our selves when we are troubled.

Achieving a balanced mental outlook and inner-peace requires patience. Patience is the ability to remain open to love in every moment. It’s easy to love every moment when things are going well, but how do you do it when you are suffering?

To learn patience, practice being still. Slow down. Take a moment each day just to notice your breath. Is it fast or slow, deep or shallow? Slow it down. Deepen it. Savor it. Take the time to glimpse a rainbow, smell a rose, hear a baby laugh. Be still. Make a practice of waiting patiently. Love is patient. Just when you think you have come to the end of your rope and your patience has run out, love empowers you to endure just a little bit longer.

Namaste

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Let Bygones Be Bygones

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a woman also attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her. The junior monk, in keeping with his vows never to touch a woman, ignored her request for help and crossed to the other side of the raging river. The senior monk carried the woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing. As they continued on their journey the senior monk noticed that the junior monk was suddenly silent and enquired, “Is something the matter? You seem very upset.” “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman,” the junior monk said. “How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the river bank. However, you seem to be carrying her still.” This begs the question: What baggage are you carrying that you should have left behind a long time ago?

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The arrival of spring is a good time to do some mental and emotional housecleaning and to finish up unfinished business from the past. You can start by doing an inventory of old grudges you still carry, like the boss who kept you from getting that much needed raise and that much deserved promotion, the friend who never paid you back the money you lent, or the person you love who broke your heart. Your unwillingness, or inability to let go of past hurts stunts your spiritual and emotional growth and can cause stress that may lead to physical illness. Carrying old grudges weighs you down and keeps you stuck in the past. Dwelling on past grievances is a form of emotional and mental clutter and keeps you from getting on with your life.

Don’t let life pass you by. Forgiveness is an important step toward letting go of past offenses. It releases you and the other person. It creates opportunities for new possibilities either to form new relationships, or to transform the relationship with the person you feel has wronged you. If you have unfinished business with someone you need to release forgive him first and then let him go. If you need to reconnect with someone so you can begin again forgive her first and then push the reset button.

Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. It is a process that requires regular and consistent practice. If you are having difficulty forgiving someone who you feel has wronged you, start the process by forgiving yourself. Admit it, most of the time when someone has done us wrong, we not only blame them for the wrong doing, we blame ourselves for not being smart enough to have avoided the offense. “How could I have been so blind?” “Why didn’t I see that coming?” “What I should have done/said instead was…” Instead of blaming, shaming or criticizing yourself for something you wish you hadn’t said or done, or wish you had done differently, try forgiving yourself using this four-step process

  1. Identify what it is you feel you’ve done wrong or neglected to do right.
  2.  Allow yourself to feel the remorse that comes from having done something you regard as wrong or neglected to do differently.
  3.  Promise and mean that you will never do it again.
  4.  If you do it again, repeat the first three steps of the forgiveness process and then don’t do it again. Forgiveness is a recursive process, not something you do once and for all.

As you practice forgiving yourself, you will discover that it becomes easier to forgive others. Don’t be like the young monk whose rigid adherence to a rule blinded him to the senior monk’s kindness. Leave the past where it belongs, in the past. As Jack Kornfield reminds us, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” Practice forgiveness. Step into the present moment. Let bygones be bygones.

Namaste

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