“Larry?” said the voice.
I gaped at the phone in confusion. I knew that voice, didn’t I? But he didn’t recognize mine, thought I was my brother.
“Who is this?” I said, dreading the answer.
I wanted to end the call, to turn off the phone, to hide it behind a wall in the basement like an ugly secret from my past. Because his voice was the past, come out of the dark night of memory like a taloned predator and I was afraid.
But there was nothing for it but to buck up and deal with it.
“Henry,” I said, “it’s not Larry. It’s your other brother. Your baby brother.”
He was as stunned as I was. We had not spoken in more than ten years and I doubt that we would have done so ever again. But mother had given him my number without my knowledge and he had confused it with another and here we were, and he was asking me about my family and telling me about his daughter, both pretending for the other that this was really not so bad, that it might even be a good thing that we talked.
And he said, “You’re my brother, and I love you.” And after twenty minutes we prepared to say goodbye.
“You have my number,” he said.
“I do now,” I said.
A pause. “Well,” he said.
Ah yes. Here it was at last.
“Well, why haven’t you called me before?” he said.
“Are we really going to get into this?” I said.
We were. And we did. I had left home without telling anyone where I was going. I was young and stupid and it was a mistake. That was more than a decade ago and I am not at all the person I was then. But Henry had not a philosophical bone in his body, and I was still the baby brother who existed only to give the others a good laugh when they scared the living daylights out of him or dunked him into the pool or gave him a wedgie in the middle of the family reunion. The baby brother who was spoiled and fat and lazy and, sin of sins, fairly well-read and intelligent. It was not a dozen years ago that I broke my mother’s heart — we’re all made up and happy now, by the by — it was yesterday. And today I had to give an account of myself. Today I had to repent and be saved. Today I was in trouble with big brother.
The rest of the conversation is of little import. I did not apologize nor did I defend myself. I did not tell my brother that I left home because of the treatment I had received there, didn’t say how he had made me feel throughout the twenty-two years I had lived with and near him. What is important is that I very much wanted to say those things, and that I was restless and agitated all that night because of it.
That, I think I can confidently say, is not what forgiveness feels like.
My brother could not forgive me. He holds onto his grudges for life, can get past them for short periods of time but they always resurface. He is an angry and often violent person with little self-control and even less self-knowledge. Understanding all of this and coming to terms with my own limitations and trying to exceed them through years of spiritual practice, I thought I had transformed my anger with him into compassion. Apparently, I had not done as thorough a job as I believed.
Each religion has its list of virtues to be cultivated by the devout. Most of the faithful aspire to these qualities, such as humility and patience, and try to put at least a few of them into practice as often as possible. Life in all ages has been difficult to say the least, and modern life in particular does not lend itself well to the growing of a healthy crop of virtues. We tend to muddle through as best we can. The spiritual aspirant, however, must do more than aspire to goodness. He or she must make the practice of virtue an integral part of daily life, and must strive for perfection in goodness always.
To put it mildly to point of flippancy, this is a tall order.
Sri Ramakrishna, the great 19th century Bengali saint, while living at the Dakshineswar Kali temple, was dearly loved by the temple manager, Mathur Babu. Mathur supplied all of Ramakrishna’s wants and needs and watched over him carefully.
A certain priest working at the temple became very jealous of Ramakrishna’s popularity with the various people living and working at the temple. He could not understand that Ramakrishna’s great spirituality endeared him to everyone, and came to believe that Ramakrishna had placed them all under an evil spell.
While Ramakrishna was absorbed in meditation one day, the priest came upon him and began demanding to know the secrets of Ramakrishna’s hold upon Mathur Babu and the rest. Of course, the saint was barely conscious of the outer world, being deep in contemplation, and did not respond to the priest’s demands. In frustration, the priest attacked Ramakrishna, kicking him fiercely in the back.
Some time later, the priest was dismissed from the temple for some reason. It was not until after he had gone that Sri Ramakrishna told Mathur about the attack. Mathur was incensed. “If I had known that,” he said, “I should probably have killed him.”
That, Ramakrishna said, was why he had never mentioned the event.
“The quality of forbearance” Ramakrishna has been quoted as saying, “is of the highest importance to every man.”
The Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta teaches us that the world as we see it is only an apparent reality. The underlying reality, Brahman, or God devoid of any recognizable attributes, remains untouched by the events of this world, which pass over it like the projected images of a movie on a screen. Brahman is our true nature, ever perfect and complete, ever blissful and full of joy. Brahman is the state of no suffering, no wanting, perfect peace and equanimity. We can attain this state in this very life. We need only to wake up to our true nature.
Let’s do that. Right now. Wake up.
I know. It didn’t work. Obviously, it’s not as easy as all that.
One cannot attain the Knowledge of Brahman — (Self-realization, Nirvana, moksha, God-consciousness, etc.) — simply by being told about one’s true nature. The mind must be purified and prepared for Knowledge. The ego; the false self, concerned with one’s desires and the quest for pleasure in this world, must be obliterated. Only then can one wake up to one’s true nature. This is the purpose of spiritual practice, the purpose of the practice of virtue. In practicing forgiveness, putting aside our desire for retribution, we strike blow after blow at the ego, which is truly our only enemy.
By analyzing the process of forgiveness, we can understand its enormous potential for self-improvement and purification.
When a wrong is done to me, I feel hurt and angry. If a member of my family has wronged me, I may feel unloved and even abandoned. Even if the offense is small, like a relatively harmless lie, or something hurtful said in a moment of frustration, I will at least feel my pride has been injured — my feelings neglected. At this moment, as a spiritual aspirant, I should analyze my feelings. This is a time for quiet reflection and prayer. I should simply keep my mouth shut, exit the situation with grace, and go straight into my meditation room.
Now I search out the source of these feelings. What has made me feel this way, and how? I say I am hurt but what exactly hurts? Where is this pain? I say I am offended, but where is this offense? What part of me is affected by it? Through careful discrimination, I find that, in reality, there is no pain, there is no offense, there is nothing to forgive. There are merely thoughts which have no perceivable origin. If I observe them long enough, I can watch them enter the scene, float across it for a while, and disappear, like clouds floating round a mountain.
This kind of discrimination and observation helps me to understand the nature of the ego and its terrible hold over my happiness. This makes for an excellent opportunity to strike a blow at the ego by letting go of the anger, the desire for retribution, the feelings of hurt. If possible, I should go to the person who has hurt me and express my love for them, make it obvious to them that I am determined to let this go, even if I don’t feel at the moment like I am able to forgive. Acting the part goes a long way toward actual forgiveness, actual letting go.
© 2012 Art MacAilein, Bamboo Thoughts