Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rabbi Rami Shapiro. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, Rabbi Rami currently co-directs One River Wisdom School and the Holy Rascals Foundation. Rabbi Rami blogs at rabbirami.blogspot.com. He writes a regular column for Spirituality and Health magazine called "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler" and he hosts the weekly Internet radio show How to Be a Holy Rascal on Unity Online Radio.
With Sounds True, Rabbi Rami will be hosting The Forgiveness Challenge, a live online course on radical acceptance. The Forgiveness Challenge: 21 Days of Radical Acceptance is an intensive, online, three-week engagement, and you also receive the ebook of Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Forgiveness, when you take part in The Forgiveness Challenge.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge,Rabbi Rami and I spoke about how we can free ourselves from the painful drama in our lives by shifting to what he calls "spacious mind." We also talked about three helpful questions you can ask yourself in any situation in which we feel challenged to forgive. We talked about the difficult question of choice versus responsibility, and we also talked about the all-important process of asking others to forgive us. Finally, we talked about meaning-making and how looking deeply into areas of our [lives] that require forgiveness can be an important part of the process of making meaning in our lives. Here’s my very provocative conversation with a rabbi who often turns things upside down—a holy rascal himself—Rabbi Rami Shapiro:
Rabbi Rami, you talk about forgiveness as an attitude, not a singular act or necessarily even a skill. "I’m very good at forgiving." So I’d love to know more what you mean about this attitude of forgiveness. What is it? What kind of attitude?
Rami Shapiro: Well, I think the idea behind my understanding of forgiveness is that it’s rooted in a philosophy that what happens happens because the conditions are right to make it happen. When I’m feeling hurt by someone else, it’s sort of collateral damage that I experience from the universe, in a sense. No one’s really out to get me. Or, if there are people who are out to get me, that’s a very minor part of my experience and I don’t know if I could forgive them. If there’s really a sociopath or a psychopath out there—could I really forgive that person? And yet, even then you’d say, "Well, they really don’t have a choice, because they’re a sociopath or psychopath."
So I look at forgiveness in the context that reality happens because it has to happen that way in that moment. The attitude I need to take toward that is one of what I call "radical hospitality"—where I’m simply open to whatever it is. And if it’s good, fine. If it’s not good, fine.
But forgiveness—as in an act of somehow setting things right—I don’t know how to do that. But forgiveness as an attitude that life just happens and I need to accept it and move on wisely—that I can achieve.
TS: OK. Life just happens. So, this person just happened to steal from me? This person just happened to come into my house and hurt someone I love? That might be—I think—quite hard—
RS: Well, I don’t mean—yes, yes. Because the way you’re saying it, I’m hearing "randomness." I don’t think it’s random. I think that people do whatever it is they do because the conditions for doing it are such that they can’t do anything else.
So yes, the person who breaks into your house is doing that because breaking in is something that has to happen and your house is where it has to happen given the conditions of that moment. He’s walking on your street and your lights are off and everyone else’s are on—I don’t know, I’m making that up.
It’s not that people aren’t responsible for what they do. It’s just that what happens to them and to us is part of a system that [is really] beyond our control. So, the nature of responsibility’s a little tricky, I suppose.
Knowing that means that I don’t need to make things other than they are. If I’m angry with that, I’m angry with that. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I have to get over the anger. If I’m resentful for the pain that was caused or the damage that was done, I don’t have to get over that for forgiveness to happen. Forgiveness is simply the realization that stuff happens and that I need to move on without clinging to what was or trying to control what comes next.
TS: You know, it sounds good as you’re talking—not to cling to what happened, but just to see this person acted the way they acted. That was in their nature at the time. Those were the circumstances.
But let’s say somebody’s listening and they say, "You know—I’m still quite pissed about that thing, XYZ. I’m just still mad about it. I don’t know. Do you want to call that clinging? I’m still mad. It happened 30 years ago and I’m still mad!"
RS: Yes. I mean, if "clinging" sounds kind of too judgmental, let’s call it something else. You’re still mad.
RS: OK. So, if the question is, "How do I get over being mad?" my answer would be: A.) If there’s a way to do that, I haven’t got a clue; B.) if you could have gotten over being mad, you would have gotten over being mad. For whatever reason, you’re still angry because the conditions are such that you can’t help but be angry. So, you’re going to have to forgive yourself for being angry, but not give up being angry.
It’s just that changing the reality as it manifests in the moment is not something that I think we can do. Responding to it—we may have some maneuverability there. But changing it—if I’m angry, I’m angry. But I know if you look at—I think it’s the Oxford English Dictionary has the definition of forgiveness as, "The process whereby we stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone who’s harmed us."
I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the definition, but how do you do that? I don’t know how to do it. I don’t control those feelings that way. I wouldn’t even know [that] I’ve stopped being unless I were angry, and when I’m angry then I’m not stopping. And then when I’m stopping, then I’m not angry. It’s just whatever’s manifesting at the moment, and I don’t really have any control over that.
The only input I have is behavioral. What do I with the feelings I’ve got? Can I change the feelings I have? I personally haven’t got a clue how to do that.
So if forgiveness has anything to do with—or has a prerequisite [of]—changing my feelings, then I’m stuck.
TS: So far, Rabbi Rami, I have to be honest: You’re not helping our angry person very much, in my opinion. I’m not sure. Someone’s listening and they’re like, "I wanted to hear this conversation about forgiveness because I want to stop being so angry. Because I know that this anger’s not helping me. It’s not helping the person—and the person’s not even alive anymore that I’m angry at! It’s not helping that there’s no justice to be done. I’m stewing over here and now Rabbi Rami’s saying there’s nothing I can really do about my anger. How are you going to help me?!" [This] angry person.
RS: [Laughs] First of all, you’re going to get more angry as we talk—
TS: I am getting a little more angry as this conversation’s going on, as a matter of fact!
RS: Right. So, why don’t you control that? Why don’t you just not do that? The point being that you can’t. You’re just getting angry because the conditions are right for getting more angry.
My approach to forgiveness is that it’s not about changing the feeling of anger or resentment or any of these things—but a shifting to a different state of mind. But not worrying about feelings here. For me, forgiveness is shifting from what I call "narrow mind"—I mean, I didn’t make these terms up—but narrow mind to "spacious mind." From the egoic self to the larger, capital-S Self that I think each of us really is. So the anger is maybe still there—I’m not going to pre-judge that. But my sense of self is so much larger that it is a small tickle somewhere in the fringes of my being as opposed to a defining aspect of myself.
Rather than try to change the way I feel, let me change my realization of who I really am. Let me give you a concrete example of what I have in mind:
This is sort of a basic one. When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. I had this "friend"—and we’d have to put the word friend in quotes—who would beat me up periodically. I don’t know why I’m calling him a friend—there were times when we were friendly and times when he just lost it and he would just start pounding on me.
Even then—we’re talking seventh grade, I guess—even then I realized he wasn’t in control of any of that. Something was happening to him. He was nice one moment and the next moment he would just start to wail at me with his fists. At one point—because he was very small and I was much larger—he’s got me against the wall and he’s just pounding into my stomach with his fists. But I was so much larger than him that I really wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t in any pain. It was just an absurdity. I looked down at him and I just got this attention. He looked up at me and I said, "What are you doing?"
I think that at that moment he realized how absurd the situation was—that he was pounding away at this very large, overweight kid and not causing any damage. He just stopped and walked away. He had no idea why he was doing what he was doing. If I were smaller—I mean physically, because I’m using this as a metaphor, though it’s a factual thing. If I were a smaller person, those punches really would have hurt. But I was so much bigger, they didn’t.
So now I’m talking spiritually, psycho-spiritually. If we identify with this small-S self, all kinds of things cause us harm or cause us hurt—that if I identify with the big-S Self, don’t. The small-S self tends to see itself as the central character in its own private drama. Everything that happens is, "Why is this happening to me?"
The big-S Self has a much larger drama, of which I am a part but I am not the central character. So I might ask, "Why is this happening?" But it’s no longer, "Why is it happening to me?" It’s just, "This is happening!" And I can look at it without owning it or without identifying with it to such an extent that it begins to define me.
Yes, I’m angry. I can think of hurts that I’ve experienced that I still remember. And I bet there’s some negative energy around them, if I looked deep enough. But they’re so tangential to who I am at the moment that they no longer define me—though I’m sure [that] they once did.
Where I think we can be of help to people in the area of forgiveness most profoundly is not to help them get over anger, but to help them get over themselves—to help them shift from the small-S self to the large-S Self through meditation, through chanting, through a lot of different spiritual, contemplative practices. And that is where forgiveness happens. We simply outgrow the notion that, "I’m the target."
TS: Well, let’s talk more about this "spacious self," as you call it. When might somebody potentially shift to the spacious self? They go, "Oh, OK. Great. Now I know what I can do. I don’t have to feel so angry. I can make this shift—go into the spacious self." But they’re actually "bypassing" their actual experience because they’re listening to something like this and they’re going, "OK, here we go! Let’s make the shift! Oh, no one has any control over anything and everything’s OK. We’re in this big, vast ocean of space."
RS: Sounds good, man. [Laughs]
TS: You don’t think it has its own potential problems? Making that move?
RS: It depends. If we’re bypassing—if I’m in a danger situation where I am being abused, and I simply say, "Oh, this is part of some divine plan," or, "This is simply nature working itself out, I’m not the target, and I’m just going to take it and stand here and be abused." Yes. Then, I think, we’re making a mistake.
What I think happens when I’m talking about shifting from narrow mind to spacious mind—the example of saying, "Oh, I’m just going to take it," [is] still [narrow] mind. That’s still focused on me as somehow the heart of this drama. What I’m talking about is getting a larger picture and saying, "You know what? I don’t have to understand why the person is doing what I’m doing. I do understand," (and I think this is true), "that whatever they’re doing [is] probably the only thing they can do at the moment."
So I’m not going to try to change them. I’m not going to try to fix them. I’m not going to try to change myself or fix myself. I’m simply going to get the hell out of there, and leave the situation without having to fix my feelings to allow me to leave. Without having to come to some kind of emotional realization that I’m worthy of not being someone else’s victim.
When you shift into the spacious mind, you’re not inactive. You’re free to act without having to wait for your feelings to give you permission to act. I don’t know if that is as clear—if that’s coming across as clear as I’m intending it.
But that’s what happens, I think. There’s a freedom in spacious mind that says, "Hey! No one deserves to be beaten up. I’m leaving." And then later, if I need to fix the feelings, I can work with a therapist on that. It’s a way of freeing ourselves from the drama that the small-S self is so fixated on. By doing that, I think we avoid the problem that you’re raising.
TS: I’m wondering if you can give another example, perhaps from someone you’ve worked with. How [did] this shift in attitude might have occurred in their life around something that was hard for them to forgive?
RS: OK. So, I had somebody in mind when I was just talking about that. But I’ve got several that I could draw from.
(I just want to make sure I don’t say this in a way that leads anyone to know who I’m talking about. We’ll say it’s fiction, but it’s not.)
I know a woman whose son is an addict—a drug addict. He is violent when he’s on drugs; when he’s not, he’s fine. When he’s on drugs, he’s violent, he commits—not just breaking and entering, theft to get money to buy drugs—but he commits assault on her. His anger is uncontrollable, so she is clearly victimized by him. Her way of dealing with it is to try to figure out why he is the way he is—what she did raising him led him to be the way he is—[and] how she can fix the way he is. She pours a lot of time, energy, love, and money into what ends up enabling him to be the person that he is—this violent, dangerous person.
TS: Hold on. Hold on a second. How is she enabling him if she’s trying to help him? I didn’t get that jump there.
RS: Ah! What she’s doing is she’s funding his habit—she’s allowing him to live in the house. She’s providing him with room and board without having him change any—just hoping that he’s going to change somehow.
RS: She bails him out when he’s in jail. She pays for rehab, even though he’s not actually doing anything to rehab himself. That’s what I have in mind. Does that make sense?
TS: OK. That’s clear. Yes.
RS: She’s doing all of that and she’s seeing it as this drama where she should be in control—or she and he should be in control, and she should be able to influence him in such a way that he can control his behavior, get off drugs, and stop being this violent person that he becomes on drugs.
When she came to me, she was at her wit’s end. I mean, she did all these things that she thought that she should do. But my approach was: you can’t change him. He can’t change himself—not in the state that he’s in. If you focus on why this is happening—"What did I do?"—it just keeps you trapped in the drama.
Through meditation practice, mindfulness practice—different kinds of things that you can do—you begin to observe what’s going on from a place of what I’m not calling "spaciousness," but there’s a quality to it of compassion. I think when you look at the reality that’s unfolding within and around you from this place of spaciousness—the observing mind of witness consciousness—it’s not simply a cold-hearted [act, like] I’m watching a show on TV, on a screen. There’s a real sense of compassion. You may not understand the ins and outs of everything that’s happening, but you realize that everybody is trapped. And that only leads to a sense of compassion. For me, that ultimately leads to forgiveness.
You realize, "He’s stuck. She’s stuck." But you also realize that the person who’s realizing the stuckness—that big-S Self—isn’t stuck. If you can act from that place of liberation, then you can continue to watch the story unfold. But you don’t have to step into it. You don’t have to enable things. You don’t have to pay for this and that. She can allow her son to experience whatever it is he’s going to experience and not drag her into it.
This, I think, is to her benefit. But I also think it’s to his. Now, he doesn’t have his mother to rely on; he doesn’t have his mother to blame. He’ll [probably] find—unless he can do some other kind of thing—chances are he’ll find other people to blame. But at least my concern wasn’t with him—my concern was with her so she can be free from that.
Doesn’t mean she’s free from suffering. Doesn’t mean she’s free from pain. Doesn’t mean she’s not going to cry. It just means that she isn’t going to try to fix the things that she cannot fix. She’s just going to take behavioral steps—actions that she can take to free herself from the situation.
So where does forgiveness come into that? Again, this is my understanding. Once she makes that shift to spacious mind, forgiveness is axiomatic. She realizes that nobody set out to be a drug addict. Whatever she may have done—maybe nothing, but whatever; just even if she could think of something. Whatever she may have done to help facilitate this horrible outcome, she didn’t do it intentionally with that in mind. Whatever this boy set out to be, it wasn’t this.
Compassion arises. With that compassion comes a sense of forgiveness. My experience is: once I get that inevitability of all these different things happening, forgiveness is all I have left. It’s like, "OK. The anger passes. I’m not making it pass—I don’t know how to do that." But the anger passes. The resentment passes. There’s a sadness there from compassion of shared suffering. There’s a sadness that you have, but that just opens your heart even wider—but in that liberating way, not in a way that’s going to drag you back into the drama.
TS: Now, Rabbi Rami, you’ve written a small book that’s called Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Forgiveness. It’s quite a provocative book, in opinion—in which you talk about this attitude of forgiveness. At the end of the book, you summarize the book in a sense by saying that there are three questions that you can ask yourself to help develop this attitude—this perspective of forgiveness. I thought it might be helpful to go over these three questions. I thought they really shed a lot of light on your view.
So here’s the first one: The first question that you direct people to ask themselves is, "Who is aware of this situation?" Can you talk a little bit about that? How [does] asking that question [help] us?
RS: We’re really talking about the advaita vedanta teachings of Ramana Maharshi. The question is—and this is one of the ways, for me anyway, where I can slip from narrow mind to spacious mind.
When I ask that question of myself—"Who is thinking this? Who is feeling this? Who’s experiencing anger or resentment or whatever it is?"—I realize that the awareness of my anger, resentment, lack of forgiveness—that level of knowing isn’t experiencing the resentment or the anger. That level of knowing is free from the whole drama. I can watch it. I’m aware of it. That’s the big-S Self that I’m calling spacious mind.
I ask this question of myself all the time. Who is it that’s experiencing these things? And it brings me to that sense of spaciousness from which the passion just arises.
TS: And then the second question: "How am I complicit in this situation?"
And I just want to ask that question and ask you to clarify something. So let’s say that somebody just did something terrible, like lied to me. How am I complicit in this situation? What did I do? They lied to me! I didn’t do anything. I asked a question; they lied to me. So in this question, how am I complicit in this situation? There’s an implication that I am complicit. But I’m not sure I get that.
RS: Maybe the word “complicit” is too strong. What I have in mind is that—how am I using the situation to create a drama for myself that is somehow self-serving? That probably doesn’t explain it too well either.
If you’ve done something to me that is causing me terrible pain—you’ve lied to me, you’ve betrayed me in some way—what I tend to do is [to] try not to make this a whole drama. "It’s all about me. I am the target; I am the victim. How could you do this to me?" I no longer care about the spacious mind kind of inquiry—what conditions are right that you really, at that moment, had no choice but to lie to me? I don’t care. I’m the protagonist and I’ve been wronged. I have every right to redress and you owe me and all that.
That’s what I mean by "complicit"—that I’m now allowing this to feed my sense of self and self-righteousness. That’s what I have in mind.
When I look at the dramas of my life, I get a sense that I’m trapping myself in them. You may have lied to me. OK. I have to deal with that. But do I have to make it the center of my existence? Do I have to keep running it over in my mind over and over and over again?
Now, on the one hand, I would say that the answer is, "Yes!" If I could stop running it over and over in my mind, I would—but I can’t. Again, I’m powerless over that. But I’m not powerless over asking the first question: Who’s running it over and over in his mind? And the answer is that it’s that small-S self. It’s the small Rami. It’s the egoic self. I’m complicit in the drama—not in your act of betrayal. I’m complicit in the drama that follows by taking it on as my drama.
There’s going to be all kinds of psycho-social reasons why I do that. Again, far too many. It could take me years in therapy to try and get over that, if then. But if I simply shift back to, "Who’s aware of this?" the me that’s aware isn’t doing it and it allows me to step out of it.
That’s what I have in mind by "complicit."
TS: Then the third question that you have people ask themselves: "Who is in control of this situation?"
RS: That’s back to where we started. I just tend to think that we claim a lot more control than we have. We claim a lot more volition than we actually have the right to claim.
There’s this interesting experiment—there’s a show on TV, a comedy show, [and] now I can’t remember who the host was. But it was called Whose Line Is It Anyway? One of the routines they did there is also something I’ve seen done in psychology experiments—where you’d have the two improv people. One stands in front of the other. The person in front puts her arms behind her back and the person behind her puts his arms through her arm-hole so that his arms are now her arms. Then he’s asked to do all kinds of things—and it’s just very funny. Lifts cups, tries to help her drink, but because it’s not her arms it spills all over and everyone laughs.
In the psychology experiment, everyone is wearing the same white lab coat. There are these objects on a table in front of Person A, whose hands are behind her back. Person B is instructed to do a number of things with these objects. And then Person A is queried as to why she’s doing those things.
Watching it, you’d say, "The answer is: I’m not doing them. It’s the guy behind me—who you’re telling to do them—[who] is doing them." But that’s not what happens in the experiment. In the experiment, people quickly fall into the drama of what’s happening and they begin to lay claim for behaviors that they have no control over. They’re simply owning them and then trying to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing—when in fact they’re not doing anything.
So I’m taking that as my starting point here and saying that we’re really not in control of what’s going on. To try to control the arms of the other person—to use my metaphor here—to try to control that is just a waste of energy. Nobody is in control, or the universe is in control if you want. Or I don’t know. But you’re not in control.
That, to me, is amazingly liberating. If I’m not in control, then I don’t have to fix it. When I then go back—and again, you have to circle back to the first question. Who notices? Who’s aware that there’s no control? That me—that big-S me, the spacious mind—that level of consciousness can see that the little me is not in control—and then can break the whole game, the whole cycle. [You can] simply walk away from the experiment—simply realize, "Wait a minute. Those aren’t my arms in the first place."
So the answer to, "Who’s in control?" is nobody. Things are just happening.
TS: OK, Rabbi Rami, but—and I want to make sure I’m understanding you here. Let’s just take the example of someone who’s partner had an affair and they felt deeply betrayed. This is a big forgiveness challenge for people when it happens in their life. Then I’m sitting around asking this question, "Who’s in control of the situation?" And I think, "Well, my partner had a lot of choices that he or she could have made. There were a lot of choice points. They could have gone left, they could have gone right—"
RS: But that is not true. Let’s start with that.
TS: Well—yes. They could have. They could have said, "No," instead of, "Yes." And they said—
RS: No. You say that! But if they could have said no, maybe they would have said no. My question is: could they have said no? They’re in a situation—whatever it is—with whatever’s going on with you, whatever’s going on with the other person. Could they, at that moment—not theoretically—and certainly not from the outsider perspective of you saying they could have made a different choice. Could they have made a different choice?
I just doubt that. I think the choices we make arise from the situation in which—I don’t even know if the word "choice" is right. The things we do arise from the situations in which we find ourselves. And in the small-S mind—the narrow mind—I’m not sure there’s a lot of choice. If there’s a choice, the choice is to continually ask the first question. Who is it that is feeling this attraction? Who is it that’s feeling the sexual desire, if that’s the kind of betrayal we’re talking about? Then that question might shift you back to spacious mind, and then you realize, "Oh, OK. That’s what’s going to happen. But I’m not in that situation now." In spacious mind, I can walk away. I can do something different.
Maybe the only choice is the choice to shift consciousness. But in the narrow consciousness that the person is in, could they really do other than they did? I’m just asking.
TS: It sounds like—in your approach to forgiveness—what you’re doing—and correct me if I’m wrong here. Normally, the way people teach about forgiveness—at least the way it’s often taught—is you’re a person, there are these other people, and you (oh separate person) are going to grant the letting go of this event that happened. You’re going to say, "OK. I can see it from your perspective for a moment, I think and I let it go."
But you’re actually sort of jumping the system, if you will, and taking us out of even that viewpoint to begin with. Is that correct?
RS: Yes, but let’s go back one step because you said [that] you can—I shouldn’t have interrupted you earlier. You said that I can see—we’re talking about Person A is trying to forgive Person B. Person A can say, "I see things from Person B’s perspective. I know why you did what you did, and I can forgive you."
That’s very different than what we were talking about just a moment ago, where we said that Person B had all these choices. Now you’re saying, "No, I get it. This is why you did what you did." And you’ve taken the whole choice thing out, it sounds like to me.
TS: What I’m getting at is when I hear a question like, "Who is in control of this situation?" I think what I find troublesome—or at least that’s not easy for me to understand your very challenging view here, for me at least—"Who is in control of this situation?" I think, "Well, God, [does] that takes away all of this person’s responsibility for what they did?" That no one’s in control. They’re not in control of the fact that I looked them straight in the eyes and said, "Tell me the truth," and they lied. They’re not in control. They have no responsibility for that.
So there’s this confusion of the word "control" and "responsibility" that I’m trying to get at.
RS: Yes. Now, that is an interesting distinction that we have to make. And we came up with that—we mentioned it early on. But we didn’t go into it.
So yes, what happens to responsibility? You and I are looking each other in the eye and you say, "Tell me the truth." And honestly, there are probably moments—I mean, not with the two of us because we don’t know each other that well. But there are probably moments when I can’t. I cannot tell you the truth. I’m afraid you’re going to leave me. I’m afraid that if I tell the truth, my whole world falls apart. I’ve got such [negative emotion and] fear around telling the truth that there is no way in hell I could tell you the truth. So I don’t.
Now, if you can understand what I’m going through at that moment, then yes, forgiveness would be pretty easy. You would say, "Oh, yes, I get it. It’s a kind of suicide to tell the truth and you just couldn’t do that, so I get it. I couldn’t do it either in that situation." Maybe you’d say that. And then forgiveness would happen.
But doesn’t happen because you forgave the person. It happens because you understood the larger trap that person was trapped in.
Now we’re talking about responsibility. This gets tricky for me too. If you’re trapped, where is your responsibility? You know, if I say you have no responsibility—to move it back to the criminal idea, then, "I couldn’t help it. The situation was such that I had to pull the trigger and the other person died. So I’m not responsible."
In our legal system, we do have some leeway here. There’s premeditated murder. There’s manslaughter. "I was trying to prove my archery skills and shoot the apple off your head. The fact that it went through your throat—well, you know, it’s just that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But I wasn’t trying to kill you." So that’s involuntary manslaughter, or whatever the legal system would name it.
But still, you killed somebody. Still, you lied. So are you responsible for your behavior even if you have no control over your behavior? This is something that I wrestle with all the time, because I need you to be responsible. I need to be responsible for my behavior. Otherwise, the whole legal system falls apart and maybe the whole moral system falls apart.
And yet, what are you responsible for? I can’t be responsible for all those elements that came together to create the complex system in which I find myself so that I have to lie to you to save my life. No—I don’t mean literally. But I mean the life that I’ve imagined that I want to preserve. I can’t be responsible for all those things. I can only be responsible for what I do in the moment that you ask me to tell the truth.
If we focus on the egoic self’s ability to tell the truth at that moment, I think we can probably say—well, I would say—that there’s no control over that. The fear is too great. The danger is too great. So you may say [that] you’re responsible for the choice you made, but there was really no choice. It was compulsive.
If, [however], when you say to me, "Tell me the truth," if I could close my eyes for a second and do some shifting from the egoic—from narrow mind to spacious mind. If I could see, for just a minute, who’s really trapped—and it’s not you, it’s me who you’re asking to tell the truth. Who’s really trapped? If I could step out of that trap for a moment, then I have—again, I wouldn’t say "choice," but I have the capacity to tell the truth. From that perspective, the truth becomes the obvious thing to do just like lying was the obvious thing to do from the small, egoic self.
From spaciousness—again, I wouldn’t say it’s a choice. I don’t think that I can lie from that place. Telling the truth is the only thing to do. It’s just like the situation from the egoic perspective, lying to you is the only thing I can do in that situation.
I think it always comes back—in my interactions with people and maybe other beings—if I can come to those from the spacious place, I come to them from a free place. If I come to them within the narrow mind, I come to them with all this drama and it never works out the way it could. It always works out the way it has to given the drama that I’m playing out.
Does that make any sense? I know this is upsetting.
TS: No—I mean there are moments where the light shines in and I understand what you’re talking about—I think—and really appreciate it.
RS: And I could be totally wrong! [Laughs.]
TS: Thank you for saying that. Of course, you never know here on Insights at the Edge.
OK, but I want to ask you a question. How did you come to this view on forgiveness? Was it working with people—counseling them as a rabbi? Was it because you were wrestling with forgiveness in your own life? How did you come to this viewpoint?
RS: Probably it’s a mixture of both. I think it’s more the latter. I’m looking at my own life—why it turned out the way it did. I’m big proponent of therapy. I’ve spent a lot of time with therapists. I think that—I’m obviously going to simplify things here. But one of the things I learned in therapy is to see—one of the major therapeutic things one can do is to change the story. You can go back and sort of rewrite your history in a different way, and that frees you from some of the negativity and some of the baggage that you may carry with that.
It’s in my own wrestling to understand how I ended up being who I ended up—and again, we’re talking the egoic. I think that’s where the impetus comes [from]. You could say, "Well, he’s just excusing himself."
And I’m willing to doubt everything I say. So yes, it could be that this is simply a giant scam to excuse myself for all the things that I’ve done in my life. It’s definitely possible. But in working with therapists—and then beyond that, working with [a] specific teacher that I work with in self-inquiry. The Ramana Maharshi kinds of things. When you begin to question, "Who is doing this? Who is thinking this? Who is feeling this?" and realizing the spacious mind element, finding in that not just the capacity not just to be free from the past, but to be free in the moment to not allow the character Rami—the product of all these past dramas—to determine what happens next.
Just let me try to make this really concrete. So right now, you and I are on the radio. I am trying to impress you with my genius. I am trying to be coherent. I’m trying to defend a book I wrote that maybe should tossed away, rather than defended. I’m defending the work I’m doing with you on The Forgiveness Challenge. I have all this drama going on.
So if I stick with that and I just let myself get all wrapped up in that—trying to please Tami, trying to impress Tami and the listeners, and maintain some kind of credential—that, "Hey, he knows what he’s talking about!" and therefore other people will listen to him. If I work with all that drama, I feel—physically, first—very tense, very tight in my gut. My mind is racing ahead, going, "OK, OK, what did you say? What did you say 20 minutes ago? You have to be able to make that work? What did you say in the book on forgiveness? What did you say in the 21-Day Forgiveness Challenge that we’re doing together?" Trying to make all these things work.
It becomes this overwhelming drama that I’m only going to get lost in and probably messed up in. If I can make the shift to spacious mind and say, "You know: maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. Let’s just respond to the questions as you understand them at the moment and not try to remember what you wrote in a book or anywhere in the past. Just be present to what’s being asked and try to articulate it clearly."
I feel not just defense—if I say "defenseless," that’s the wrong word. There’s no need for defense. There’s nothing to defend. (There. That’s better.) There’s nothing to defend. There’s nothing I have to prove. It’s just: this is what I’m experiencing and this is what I’m seeing and this is what I’m sharing. The listener should look for themselves and see what’s true for themselves.
But my experience has been that when I can enter into that spacious place, the drama around which I spend so much energy just falls away. It’s just last season’s TV show, and I don’t have to watch it on an infinite DVR loop.
Did that help [you] to understand what’s going on here?
TS: Yes, it does. I appreciate this shift that you’re describing to spacious or big mind. I appreciate that. I see its value.
I’m still curious, though. Let’s get specific in a certain kind of way. Here it is—it’s the end of the year. One of the things that often happens at the end of the year is people look back at what happened. And let’s say that part of what we look back at here at the end of the year is something that feels really hard for us to accept. Truth be told, we still feel like, "That thing that happened—I hold a grudge against that person for that thing that happened this year. It was terrible, what that person did to me this year. I’m listening to Rabbi Rami, but I feel that way."
"What, very specifically, could I do? I want to release this before the end of the year. I really do!" (this is the person saying) "I really want to release this."
RS: OK. So, my first question is: Do you really want to release this? I know you just said that, but do you really want to release it? Because I get a sense that if you really wanted to release it, you would have released it. You really don’t want to release it, which is why you’re holding on to it. But you can’t say that, because it’s still not right.
So you have to say, "I really want to release it. I really want to release it. I really want to release it." And that just allows us to keep it. So I don’t know if that’s true—that you really want to release it.
If we’re going to play with that, though, there’s all kinds of things that we can invent—and I’m being sarcastic here. We could create rituals, we can write them on papers, we can burn them in a fire, we can do all kinds of year-end things to free us from our past. We’re creative, we’re spiritual, we can come up with all kinds of stuff.
But, if the grudge goes away, then it would have gone away anyway, I think. The magic doesn’t necessarily make that happen. And if it doesn’t go away, it’s because you really didn’t want it to go away—and again, the magic failed.
What I would say is what I’ve been saying all along. What you have to do is you have to look at the reality that we do what we do because in the moment that we do it, it’s all we really can do. Shift from the narrow mind that’s trapped in that drama to spacious mind, which is never trapped.
Then I want to add something else, because we’ve been talking this whole time about me forgiving you or you forgiving me or one of us forgiving someone else, et cetera. How about the other way around? We haven’t even mentioned it. The stuff that I’ve done to hurt you.
So I know, theoretically—this is what I’m saying—[let’s] go back to the lying thing. So I lied to you. You looked me in the eye, I looked you in the eye, and you said, "Tell me the truth." And I didn’t. I’m claiming that, given the context of the moment, there was no way that I could possibly tell you the truth—coming from that egoic mind.
I know I did that. You know I did it. You’re mad. I know I did it. I can’t help you to stop you being mad at me. I don’t know what to do about that. I can’t go back and change what I did, though I probably run it over in my mind a gazillion times—coming up with a new scenario, excusing why I did it. But that doesn’t help any.
The other aspect of forgiveness is me going to you and saying, "I’m sorry." [It’s] saying that—in Judaism, we have this entire month, the last month of the liturgical year just before the High Holidays where we’re supposed to go to everybody we know and ask them for their forgiveness. Not forgive them—that always has that sort of ego thing to me—[but] to ask them to forgive me.
I think it’s a very humbling thing to do—to go say, "You know, I know I’ve hurt you this year." I don’t have to give you the specifics because we’re just going to fall back into the drama—"How could you do that!"—and then I have my excuses. So forget that. But, "I know I’ve hurt you this year. I know I’ve hurt you on purpose sometimes. I know I’ve hurt you inadvertently, just because I wasn’t paying attention other times. But I know I’ve hurt you this year. Can you forgive me those hurts?"
Now, whether you do or don’t is out of my control. Whatis in my control is asking. Then, what happens from the asking—on the egoic level—is a deep humbling of the small-S self, where I realize that I’ve done terrible things. Painful, hurtful things. Forget about why I did them—whatever my story is. But I’ve done them.
That causes me to become smaller. The ego and the drama drops, [and] I just feel the suffering that I’ve caused. It’s a humbling. [It] brings you back to the earth. It brings me to a state of humility where I no longer try to be the master of my universe.
Again, I can then in that situation [ask] once again, "Who’s feeling that humility?" and shift once more into spacious mind. Not to avoid the humility, but just to say, "Ah! I’m trapped." I’ve got to continually shift back into spacious mind, but even my trapped self can ask for forgiveness. I may not be able to forgive because that means changing my story, but I can certainly ask for forgiveness. There’s a tremendous relief in that as well.
OK. So, you’ve hurt me. Let’s switch the tables for a second. You’ve hurt me terribly this year and I cannot bring myself to forgive you. But if I look carefully at the year, I probably hurt you as well—even if I’m so angry about what you did to me I can’t think of anything I did to you that you didn’t absolutely deserve.
But let’s not go there. Let’s just say, "Eh. I’ve been an ass also." So let me go and ask forgiveness from you also. My experience is that when I do that with people who I really want to ask me, but they’re not—if I ask them, the self-humbling is not psychologically damaging—it’s spiritually liberating. It frees me from the whole drama that I am somehow in charge of all of this. My behavior, your behavior, what happens to me. And it allows me to slip into that spacious mind where compassion is the operating experience.
And again, I don’t know how much sense that made. But that’s the best I can do to explain what I experience on a regular basis.
TS: So this practice of taking a whole month to ask people to forgive you—you’ve done this before. I’m curious to know how many people did you ask—let’s say—in any given month-long practice like this? How did that go? What were the results for you?
RS: The numbers change. Theoretically, this stuff comes from a time in Jewish life when we lived in small villages. So you would ask the clerk at the bank and you would ask the people at the grocery store and you would ask the people in the market. All the people you’ve come in contact with every day throughout the year—they’re the same people in the small village. So you would ask one another.
In my actual life, I don’t think the postal delivery guy is the same person every time. I don’t know if I would say anything to her. She doesn’t really know me; I really don’t know her. So there’s disconnect with lots of the people that I come into contact with.
But I do see the same tellers at the bank. I do see my family. I do see some of the same people with whom I either work or have an ongoing relationship—face-to-face or over the phone. To each of those people—even at the bank. At the bank, I have to explain what I’m doing because they’re not Jewish. They don’t have this background. You can’t just walk up and [say], "I have a deposit, and by the way I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you this year." So you have to give them some background.
RS: My experience is—I don’t want to sound cold here, but—if I go to the bank and say, "If I have hurt you this year . . . " they always go, "No no no, it’s fine!" But it’s not really an intimate relationship. They’re my bankers. They’re too quick to do that.
What I have in mind—let’s just stick with the bank for a second. I know I go in there and I’m supposed to have everything ready, [but] half the time I don’t. I’ve forgotten my numbers and they have to look them up for me. So I’ve [not] caused them emotional pain, but doing busywork that they would probably rather not do. I’m reminding myself—humbling myself—even around that, and I think that makes me a little more aware of bringing the paperwork that I should bring with me when I go to the bank.
But when I deal with somebody—close friends, spouse, kids, that kind of thing—then it’s hard to do this. I can walk into the bank and just say it. Standing there with my son, daughter-in-law, wife, close friends, and saying—because you say, "If I have hurt you in any way . . ." I know I’ve hurt you. It is incredibly humbling.
Now, they may not notice, feel it, or have a clue. But for me, personally, it is a wrenching experience—and one I look forward to. I like the month of Elul (the name of the month). I like this month because it allows me to do this practice, which continually frees me from the drama—but only through the wrenching remembrance of all the things I’ve done. For me, personally—from the inside—it’s liberating through the fires of remorse.
What I get from the other side is [that] sometimes forgiveness is too quick. Even with family. I wish sometimes there was a little more—I don’t know what you’d say. The experience could be a little deeper than it sometimes is. "I forgive you." And that’s just a way of [saying], "Let’s not talk about it. Let’s just avoid the whole thing. Let’s just pretend it never happened."
I don’t want that. I don’t want to sit and dwell on it because what happened happened and it happened because I think it had to happen. But I don’t want to just forget that it happened. I want to use that it happened as a way of continually improving my way of being in the world by continually shrinking that egoic self so that it no longer sees itself as the—in my case—King of the Universe.
But it is a powerful, powerful thing to do. It’s a powerful thing to do no matter how it plays itself out. But I think it’s most powerful when people really have to—when maybe tears are involved. You know that something is happening on a deeper level than, "Eh, I forgive you. I forgive you. Let’s move on."
TS: I have two final questions for you, Rabbi Rami. Here’s the first one.
In your book, Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Forgiveness, you talk about forgiveness and "the making of meaning." We’ve been talking [about how] in this attitude of forgiveness that we’re not in control of the situation. We’re moving to this big, open view. And yet you talk about how there’s something called "meaning" and that, as humans, we are "meaning-makers." I wonder if you could talk about that in the context of this attitude of forgiveness.
RS: I almost want to quote something specific here, but—we aren’t in control of what’s happening, but we do make meaning out of it. I can make two kinds of meaning. Let me give you a concrete example.
There was a moment in my life when I had—let me be more specific. Part of becoming a rabbi in the Reform movement—at least when I was there, in the late ’70s, early ’80s—[was] you had to give this public talk. The talk was taped and then broadcast to the entire student-faculty body on the next Monday. You gave the talk on Saturday, and it was viewed on Monday. It’s a kind of thesis, in a sense—though that’s a separate thing. People are invited to just tear into whatever it is you say, and you have to defend your talk. It’s a big, big deal.
So you sweat over it for a year and you finally do it—it’s one of the last things you do at the end of five years of training. I went through this and the Monday comes and everybody’s gathered together. Some faculty like you, some faculty don’t. But that’s just the way it goes. So you have certain people that you know will be challenging you and certain that will be supportive.
The thing went really well. I couldn’t have asked for a better thing. Nobody seemed to have a problem with what I said. Now, I might look back and say, "Geez, I wasn’t radical enough if everybody was agreeing with me." But that in of itself was good—everybody agreeing with me.
Then my best friend stood up to speak, and he just ripped it to shreds. He ripped not based on the quality of the scholarship, but based the assumption—and I can’t remember if he said this explicitly, but this was the idea. I know this guy; he’s my best friend; I know him from the inside—not from the outside, the way you other people know him. And I know that he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. That, "It’s just a scam. He knows what you want to hear, so he said it and you’re all applauding him, but really he’s laughing at you. The whole thing is bogus. It’s totally without any authenticity to it."
I was crushed. A.) It wasn’t true. I’m very careful to say what I think. So he was wrong. And it wasn’t that he misread me—that I could live with. But that he did it in public and in such a way as to—it seemed to me at the time—to destroy me. Even now—and we’re talking 30-something years later—I [still] think that was the intent. I think it was an attempt to destroy me.
At the time, I was just furious. First, I was scared, because uh-oh—now are they going to believe him, or are they going to believe me? They believed me. It worked out fine. What he said had no impact whatsoever. So then I just got furious with him.
It took me a while of continually thinking [about it]—and obviously, I’m still talking about it. So I looked at it and looked at it and looked at it, and eventually I realized—as we’ve been talking—he had no choice. Whatever was going on in his mind, he had to do something to knock me down. Somehow, his survival depended on it. I don’t know the details and I’ve never talked to him about it—I don’t think he even remembers the incident, because we talk all the time.
But I realized at some point that he had no choice. He was defending himself for whatever reason he felt he had to do that, and attacking me as a way of defending himself. When I realized that, I forgave him instantaneously. There was nothing else to it. I just felt compassion for him and felt no resentment, anger, or a grudge.
Now, that could be the end of it. But then the meaning piece comes in. Whether or not what I’m saying is true, it’s what I think.
I’m looking at my understanding of what happened to him. I’m looking at how I responded to it. Out of those elements, I can make meaning in the sense that I now understand—rightly or wrongly—that we are all trapped. That’s the meaning that I’m making out of this. I can understand that even my closest friend can be so trapped as to do something that I thought at the time was so painful.
That meaning that I derived from that experience I then apply to everything else. That’s not the one bit of evidence I use to say that we’re all trapped, but the meaning that I gleaned from that experience is one that I can apply to other experiences.
We make meaning not simply by telling the story over and over and over again, but by understanding it so deeply that we discover principles in it that we can apply to other aspects of our lives—and that’s what gives our life—this little thing we’re talking about—meaning.
Does that make sense?
TS: It does. It’s helpful.
I have one final question for you, Rabbi Rami, which is [whether] you could share with our listeners a little bit about The 21-Day Forgiveness Challenge. What it is, what you’ll be offering during these 21 days.
RS: OK! I am very excited about The 21-Day Forgiveness Challenge. But I want to be very clear about what the "challenge" is first.
The challenge is not that at the end of 21 days, to have forgiven everybody that you need to forgive. That’s not the challenge. If the promise I seem to be making is that in three weeks you can be the Gandhi of forgiveness, that’s not it.
The challenge is to get through all 21 days. Even that I’m being a little lenient on, because there’s exercises for each day. If you fall behind and you’re taking two or three days for one exercise, it’s still on the website—SoundsTrue.com—and you can still pick it up. It may take you a little bit longer than 21 days. So the challenge is to finish it.
What it is is a careful, deep exploration of the notion of forgiveness on different levels. Working with the body, working with emotions, working with our thoughts about things, working with the spacious mind element that we’ve been talking about. These ideas that we’ve been knocking around for the last hour or so—all of them play out in the course of the 21 days.
What I’m hoping for is that you will create for yourself—using the elements that we’re providing—a forgiveness practice focused not on overcoming specific feelings, but on continually shifting to that spacious place. Physically, where you’re not so tight; emotionally, where you’re not spinning the same feelings over and over and over again; mentally, where you’re not trying the same drama over and over again. Shifting into that spacious mind where you can see what is, accept what is, and then move beyond what is with a deep sense of compassion. And that’s probably what we’re calling forgiveness here—recognizing that we’re all bozos on this bus, and that alone allows us some freedom for ourselves and for those we care about.
I think it’s a very demanding 21 days. You’ll get a reminder every day to go to the website, look up the material, read what needs to be read, work on the exercises—there’s all these exercises that I’m offering. Simple things that can actually be done. Doing all these things that we’re asking you to do and allowing them to work on you as you appear to be working on them. You’re really planting seeds each day of the 21 days that will begin to flower [and] blossom in a way that will shift you into spacious mind over and over and over again. [It will] allow forgiveness and compassion to just arise of their own accord.
That’s fairly general, but maybe gives people a sense of what we have in mind.
TS: I’m going to do it with you, Rabbi Rami, and with Sounds True listeners listening to this conversation. It’s clear to me that I have a couple of personal forgiveness challenges that could use this 21 days of deep engagement. So, I’m in.
RS: [Laughs,] Good. I’m going to do it right along with everybody else also, because I’m hoping that this is not a one-time thing—that once you learn how to do this, or learn the exercises, you’ll continue to do them the next 21 days and the next 21 days after that.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Rabbi Rami Shapiro. With Sounds True, he’s created a new Forgiveness Challenge: 21 Days of Radical Acceptance. It’s an online, intensive, three-week engagement in the liberating experience of compassion and forgiveness. You’re all welcome to join us. Along with The Forgiveness Challenge, you will receive an ebook of Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Forgiveness. Very provocative and challenging reading. Really turns things upside down.
Rabbi Rami, I always like talking to you. You make me think in different ways. I appreciate it.
RS: Thanks, Tami. The feeling is mutual.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.