Saturday, December 20, 2014

Essay on Forgiveness

[written, in 2011, for Don Stevens]

Looking for a way to begin—a chance to start without knowing how—I take a ‘fal’ or sortes from the poetry of Hafiz. My finger finds this line:

When there is no purity, one are the Ka’ba and the idol-house.[1]

Encountering these words immediately suggests two insights. First, that forgiveness is a work of purification on which rests the very possibility of authentic religion, that is, religion as the practical love of Reality as opposed to the mere veneration of self-projected idols, what Meher Baba defines as the religion of life.

The Religion of Life is not fettered by mechanically repeated formulae of the unenlightened, purblind and limited intellect. It is dynamically energized by the assimilation of Truth, grasped through lucid and unerring intuition, which never falters and never fails, because it has emerged out of the fusion of head and heart, intellect and love.[2]

Second, that the work of forgiveness, for all of its difficulty and seeming impossibility, proceeds paradoxically, not unlike the act of taking a ‘fal’ from a text, through the freedom of an essentially negative condition, in the midst of the experience of not knowing, not remembering, not worrying.[3] Real forgiveness is necessarily on the way to forgetfulness, a state of being that, rather than leading to oblivion, proceeds by the mind’s own perception that there exists an infinitely important unknown what at once beyond and essential to itself. As Meher Baba explains, such forgetful forgiveness arrives at real remembering.

[W]hen the same mind tells him that there is something which may be called God, and, further, when it prompts him to search for God that he may see Him face to face, he begins to forget himself and to forgive others for whatever he has suffered from them. And when he has forgiven everyone and has completely forgotten himself, he finds that God has forgiven him everything, and he remembers Who, in reality, he is.[4]

Here we must consider the relation between these two dimensions of forgiveness, between what it is and how it is. The necessity of the act of forgiveness defines the identity of forgiveness and its act. Over and against the narrower impulse towards forgiveness as project, towards what can be accomplished by means of it, what matters here above all is that one forgives, regardless of the result. The external power of forgiveness, its ability to open ways out of intractable individual and collective problems, rests wholly within its intrinsic value, in its being its own ‘reward’. This means that forgiveness is not simply a virtue or something good to do, but a true value in the sense elaborated by Meher Baba.

Mistakes in valuation arise owing to the influence of subjective desires or wants. True values are values which belong to things in their own right. They are intrinsic, and because they are intrinsic, they are absolute and permanent and are not liable to change from time to time or from person to person. False values are derived from desires or wants; they are dependent upon subjective factors, and being dependent upon subjective factors, they are relative and impermanent and are liable to change from time to time and from person to person.[5]

So forgiveness demonstrates the truth of its value by virtue of being itself an exercise in freedom from subjective factors. In these terms, the impulse to forgive is to be understood as something different than a desire or will for something. Instead, forgiveness is ordered toward the actualization of its own truth, the making real of its own potential to be.[6] One forgives, not so much by aiming at some concrete end, such that one could definitively arrive at the success or completion of forgiveness, but rather by staying within the truth of forgiveness, by not transgressing the imperative to forgive. Thinking of forgiveness in this way, as the activity of remaining inwardly free from (and not necessarily rid of) the forces that cannot forgive, helps to clarify the deep relationship between forgiveness, spontaneity, and forgetfulness. Meher Baba’s words on this relationship are inextricably linked with the idea of freedom from results. With regard to the practice of forgiveness as a kind of good work, we find the general principle that service or work bound to the objective good of others, though “of immense spiritual importance,” is from the perspective of the goal of life, a kind of interminable dead-end.

[A]s long as the idea of service is . . . tied to the idea of results, it is inevitably fraught with a sense of incompleteness. There can be no realisation of Infinity through the pursuit of a never-ending series of consequences. Those who aim at sure and definite results through a life of service have an eternal burden on their minds.[7]

The principle of freedom from results is defined more absolutely in Meher Baba’s description of the purposelessness of divine, infinite existence, our arrival at which is the very goal, or purpose, of everything.

Reality is Existence infinite and eternal. Existence has no purpose by virtue of its being real, infinite and eternal. Existence exists. Being Existence it has to exist. Hence Existence, the Reality, cannot have any purpose. It just is. It is self-existing. Everything—the things and the beings—in Existence has a purpose. All things and beings have a purpose and must have a purpose, or else they cannot be in existence as what they are. Their very being in existence proves their purpose; and their sole purpose in existing is to become shed of purpose, i.e., to become purposeless. Purposelessness is of Reality; to have a purpose is to be lost in falseness. Everything exists only because it has a purpose. The moment that purpose has been accomplished, everything disappears and Existence is manifested as self-existing Self. Purpose presumes a direction and since Existence, being everything and everywhere, cannot have any direction, directions must always be in nothing and lead nowhere. Hence to have a purpose is to create a false goal. Love alone is devoid of all purpose and a spark of Divine Love sets fire to all purposes. The Goal of Life in Creation is to arrive at purposelessness, which is the state of Reality.[8]

Forgiveness enters this purpose-enflaming fire. Rupturing the chain of never-ending consequences, it relieves beings from the burden of results and opens the way into actually living within the inherent purposelessness of Reality. Far from fleeing life, forgiveness gives life back to itself as the very place of freedom.

This realisation must and does take place only in the midst of life, for it is only in the midst of life that limitation can be experienced and transcended, and that subsequent freedom from limitation can be enjoyed.[9]

Felt from the perspective of this goal, forgiveness is less a duty or responsibility than the radical activation of the seemingly passive power of not-worrying, a very difficult and profoundly enjoyable exercise in the freedom of one’s inherent divinity. The exercise of forgiveness accordingly has a spontaneous character or style. Practicing it might be called a form of immediate cooperation between the impasse of experience and the ultimate independence of reality.

[B]y virtue of being absolutely independent it is but natural for God to exercise His infinite whim to experience and enjoy His own infinity. To exercise a whim is always the mark of an independent nature, because it is whimsicality that always colours the independent nature.[10]

Meher Baba thus places forgiveness within the broader category of positive forgetfulness, a happy state combining awareness of and non-reaction to both adverse and favorable circumstances that flowers in conspicuous creativity.[11]

Positive forgetfulness . . . and its steady cultivation develops in man that balance of mind which enables him to express such noble traits as charity, forgiveness, tolerance, selflessness and service to others. . . . Positive forgetfulness, although it lies at the very root of happiness, is by no means easy to acquire. Once a man attains this state of mind, however, he rises above pain and pleasure; he is master of himself. This forgetfulness, to be fully effective for the spiritual life, must become permanent, and such permanence is only acquired through constant practice during many lives. Some people, as a result of efforts towards forgetfulness in past lives, get spontaneous and temporary flashes of it in a later life, and it is such people who give to the world the best in poetry, art and philosophy, and who make the greatest discoveries in science.[12]

The practical crux of positive forgetfulness lies in this developmental relation between steady cultivation and spontaneity, in the fostering of an impulse not to react that bears abiding and unforeseeable fruit, what Meher Baba calls “manifestations of genuine spontaneity of forgetfulness.”[13] The doing of forgiveness resides in dynamic relation to the inevitable unfolding of perfect, universal individuality.     

The limited individuality, which is the creation of ignorance, is transformed into the divine individuality which is unlimited. The illimitable consciousness of the Universal Soul becomes individualised in this focus without giving rise to any form of illusion. The person is free from all self-centred desires and he becomes the medium of the spontaneous flow of the supreme and universal will which expresses divinity. Individuality becomes limitless by the disappearance of ignorance.[14]

The imperative to forgive must thus be understood in the broader phenomenal context of the paradoxical correlation between habit and freedom. Forgiveness is spontaneous, but its free exercise is a development of habitual practice, the liberating result of ongoing intentional action.            

The life of true values can be spontaneous only when the mind has developed the unbroken habit of choosing the right value.[15]

The crucial distinction to be drawn, the distinction across which the decision to forgive operates, is thus between habits that bind and habits that set free, between, on the one hand, actions whose impressions [sanskaras] limit life and intensify separateness and ignorance, and, on the other, actions whose impressions liberate life and generate knowledge and enjoyment of its inherent unity—a spontaneous state of being also known as love.

In love . . . there is no sense of effort because it is spontaneous. Spontaneity is of the essence of true spirituality. The highest state of consciousness, in which the mind is completely merged in the Truth, is known as Sahajawastha, the state of unlimited spontaneity in which there is uninterrupted Self-knowledge.[16]

The core of this distinction (between binding and liberating actions) lies in the inevitable deconstruction of the ego, “the false nucleus of consolidated sanskaras.”[17] The restrictive and ultimately eroding ego is the recurring obstacle on the path of experience, the imprisoning framework that each and every action works to reinforce or destroy.   

Any action which expresses the true values of life contributes towards the disintegration of the ego, which is a product of ages of ignorant action. Life cannot be permanently imprisoned within the cage of the ego. It must at some time strive towards the Truth.[18]

As a mode of relation to this inevitable disintegration or decay of the limited ego—limited because it persists only in ignorance and active denial of the inviolable unity of all life[19]—forgiveness is definable as a movement of giving experience over to the unitive gravity of spiritual reality. Taking direct action against the very constraints of action, against the psychic chains that would determine it as re-action, against the interminable self-condemnations encapsulated in the separative rallying cry of never forget!, forgiveness forcefully and non-violently asserts the absolute spontaneity of reality, the inescapable freedom of which the pseudo-whims of personal interest are a pale shadow.              

At the pre-spiritual level, man is engulfed in unrelieved ignorance concerning the goal of infinite freedom; and though he is far from being happy and contented, he identifies so deeply with sanskaric interests that he experiences gratification in their furtherance. But the pleasure of his pursuits is conditional and transitory, and the spontaneity which he experiences in them is illusory because, through all his pursuits, his mind is working under limitations. The mind is capable of genuine freedom and spontaneity of action only when it is completely free from sanskaric ties and interests.[20]

Forgiveness is an act of relinquishing interest, not for the sake of becoming disinterested, but on behalf of a deeper interest that absolutely exceeds the framework of determined interests. The one who forgives is not uninterested in the particular problem that forgiveness addresses. The one who forgives is instead hyper-interested in the problem, interested to a degree that is totally uncontainable by the relation to the problem as object of worry or negative concern. Forgiveness puts into play a profound need to relate to reality in a non-reactive way, to become more intimate with it precisely by remaining outside the confining and ultimately uninteresting patterns of self-interest. Forgiveness thus partakes of the “divinely human life” embodied in the Avatar whose appearance, like the advent of forgiveness itself, takes place in the middle of seemingly terminal conflict:

The Avatar appears in different forms, under different names, at different times, in different parts of the world. As his appearance always coincides with the spiritual birth of man, so the period immediately preceding his manifestation is always one in which humanity suffers from the pangs of the approaching birth. . . . There seems to no possibility of stemming the tide of destruction. At this moment the Avatar appears. Being the total manifestation of God in human form, he is like a gauge against which man can measure what he is and what he may become. He trues the standard of human values by interpreting them in terms of a divinely human life. He is interested in everything but not concerned about anything. The slightest mishap may command his sympathy; the greatest tragedy will not upset him. . . . He is only concerned about concern.[21]

This does not at all mean, however, that forgiveness should be conceived as a solely individual process of human spiritual self-development. Like the unseen work of the God-Man that occurs on all levels of being and is only partially perceivable to humans,[22] the mystery of forgiveness is that it is radically for the other and the world itself. One does not ring the doorbell only for oneself, for the ringing of it effects a real alteration in the objective world, in oneself and others. This fact is essential to the meaning of Meher Baba’s description of the “charity of forgiveness”:

People ask God for forgiveness. But since God is everything and everyone, who is there for Him to forgive? Forgiveness of the created was already there in His act of creation. But still people ask God's forgiveness, and He forgives them. But they, instead of forgetting that for which they asked forgiveness, forget that God has forgiven them, and, instead, remember the things they were forgiven—and so nourish the seed of wrongdoing, and it bears its fruit again. Again and again they plead for forgiveness, and again and again the Master says, I forgive.

But it is impossible for men to forget their wrongdoings and the wrongs done to them by others. And since they cannot forget, they find it hard to forgive. But forgiveness is the best charity. (It is easy to give the poor money and goods when one has plenty, but to forgive is hard; but it is the best thing if one can do it.)

Instead of men trying to forgive one another they fight. Once they fought with their hands and with clubs. Then with spears and bows and arrows. Then with guns and cannon. Then they invented bombs and carriers for them. Now they have developed missiles that can destroy millions of other men thousands of miles away, and they are prepared to use them. The weapons used change, but the aggressive pattern of man remains the same.

Now men are planning to go to the moon. And the first to get there will plant his nation's flag on it, and that nation will say, It is mine. But another nation will dispute the claim and they will fight here on this earth for possession of that moon. And whoever goes there, what will he find? Nothing but himself. And if people go on to Venus they will still find nothing but themselves. Whether men soar to outer space or dive to the bottom of the deepest ocean they will find themselves as they are, unchanged, because they will not have forgotten themselves nor remembered to exercise the charity of forgiveness.[23]

Forgiveness is charity, not only because it expresses divine love, but because it actually gives something to the other, something better than all other possible gifts. What does forgiveness give? The answer lies in connection to the question of sanskaras or impressions, the very of medium of conscious experience.

There are two aspects of human experience—the subjective and objective. On the one hand there are mental processes which constitute essential ingredients of human experience, and on the other hand there are things and objects to which they refer. The mental processes are partly dependent upon the immediately given objective situation, and partly dependent upon the functioning of accumulated sanskaras or impressions of previous experience. The human mind thus finds itself between a sea of past sanskaras on the one side and the whole extensive objective world on the other.[24]

Forgiveness gives a new past. This is not only a metaphor, but a literal and actual fact. Forgiveness effects a real and palpable alteration in the impressional stuff through which the limitations of past actions remain operative in the present. It accelerates the decay of dead forms and clears new pathways to “the Present, which is ever beautiful and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future.”[25] More than the violence and suffering to which it most characteristically responds, forgiveness participates in and attests to the struggle of life itself.

All life is an effort to attain freedom from self-created entanglement. It is a desperate struggle to undo what has been done under ignorance, to throw away the accumulated burden of the past, to find rescue from the debris left by a series of temporary achievements and failures. Life seeks to unwind the limiting sanskaras of the past and to obtain release from the mazes of its own making, so that its further creations may spring directly from the heart of eternity and bear the stamp of unhampered freedom and intrinsic richness of being which knows no limitation.[26]

For no less than evil, goodness must be also be forgiven.

[1] The Divan-i-Hafiz, trans. Wilberforce Clarke (London: Octagon Press, 1974), 216.3.
[2] From a message sent by Meher Baba to Mildred Kyle in 1948, published in Seattle by Warren Healey, and cited in Bal Natu, Glimpses of the God-Man, Volume VI: March 1954-April 1955 (Myrtle Beach: Sheriar Foundation, 1994), 87.
[3] Such a relation between forgiveness and unknowing is suggested by Jesus’s “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), which presents forgiveness as grounded in the knowledge of ignorance, in the recognition of not knowing. Nor is it necessary to read the line as predicating forgiveness on intellectual superiority and/or better knowledge of the other. My knowledge that the other knows not what he does can very well include and in fact grow from recognition that I also know not what I do. So the words might be rescribed into a general imperative description of the act of forgiveness: do not what you know.
[4] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing (Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publications, 1963), 69-70.
[5] Meher Baba, Discourses, 6th ed., 3 vols. (San Francisco: Sufism Reoriented, 1967), 3.139, original italics elided.
[6] Insofar as forgiveness is constituted by a negative movement, a decision not to be angry, hate, seek revenge, and so forth, and more deeply, a decision in some sense not to decide, it participates in the negative essence of freedom or potentiality, which resides not in the ability to do as one wants, but in impotentiality, or the ability not to do. As Giorgio Agamben explains via Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, it is precisely impotentiality that preserves ethics from reduction to law: “Our ethical tradition has often sought to avoid the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity. Not what you can do, but what you want to do or must do is the dominant theme. This is what the man of the law repeats to Bartleby. When he asks him to go to the post office (“just step around to the Post Office, won’t you?”), and Bartleby opposes him with his usual “I would prefer not to,” the man of the law hastily translates Bartleby’s answer into “You will not?” But Bartleby , with his soft but firm voice, specifies, “I prefer not” . . . But potentiality is not will, and impotentiality is not necessity . . . To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality (which is always potentiality to do and not to do)—this is the perpetual illusion of morality” (“Bartleby, or On Contingency,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], 254). Impotentiality is proportionally essential to Meher Baba’s cosmology with respect to the infinite whim that causes the created cosmos: “Whim after all is a whim; and, by its very nature, it is such that “why—wherefore—when” can find no place in its nature. A whim may come at any moment; it may come now or after a few months or after years, and it may not come at all. Similarly, the original infinite whim, after all, is a whim, and too, it is the whim of God in the state of infinitude! This whim may not surge in God at all; and, if it surges, either at any moment or after thousands of years or after a million cycles, it need not be surprising” (Meher Baba, God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose, 2nd ed. [New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1973], 83-4).  
[7] Meher Baba, Discourses, 1.133. Cf. “Worrying about the results is no good and of no use. If a person wishes to do anything for others, he must do it sincerely. And having done it, he should not worry about the results, for results are not in human hands. It is for humans to do, for God to ordain. To remain aloof from results is not difficult, but men do not try. Because it is human nature to think of the results of one's actions, however, it does not mean one should worry! Man must think, but he must not worry” (Meher Baba, cited from Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher, 5.1866, ).
[8] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing, 62.
[9] Meher Baba, Discourses, III.12.
[10] Meher Baba, God Speaks, 83.
[11] “One who is not equipped with this positive forgetfulness becomes a barometer of his surroundings. His poise is disturbed by the slightest whisper of praise or flattery, and by the faintest suggestion of slander or criticism; his mind is like a slender reed swayed by the lightest breeze of emotion. Such a man is perpetually at war with himself and knows no peace. In the exercise of this positive forgetfulness, not only is non-reaction to adverse circumstances essential, but also non-reaction to favourable and pleasurable circumstances. Of these two the latter is the harder and is less often described, although it matters just as much” (Meher Baba, God Speaks, 213-4).
[12] Meher Baba, God Speaks, 213-214.
[13] Meher Baba, God Speaks, 214.
[14] Meher Baba, Discourses, I.41, original italics elided.
[15] Meher Baba, Discourses, II.64
[16] Meher Baba, Discourses, II.192
[17] Meher Baba, Discourses, II. 66.
[18] Meher Baba, Discourses, II.65
[19] “Only spiritual freedom is absolute and unlimited. When it is won through persistent effort, it is secured forever. Though spiritual freedom can and does express itself in and through the duality of existence, it is grounded in the realisation of the inviolable unity of all life, and is sustained by it” (Meher Baba, Discourses, III.101).
[20] Meher Baba, Discourses, II.162.
[21] Meher Baba, Discourses, III.15, my italics.
[22] “It is very difficult to grasp the entire meaning of the word ‘Avatar.’ For mankind it is easy and simple to declare that the Avatar is God and that it means that God becomes man. But this is not all that the word ‘Avatar’ means or conveys. “It would be more appropriate to say that the Avatar is God and that God becomes man for all mankind and simultaneously God also becomes a sparrow for all sparrows in Creation, an ant for all ants in Creation, a pig for all pigs in Creation, a particle of dust for all dusts in Creation, a particle of air for all airs in Creation, etc., for each and everything that is in Creation. When the five Sadgurus effect the presentation of the Divinity of God into Illusion, this Divinity pervades the Illusion in effect and presents Itself in innumerable varieties of forms—gross, subtle and mental. Consequently in Avataric periods God mingles with mankind as man and with the world of ants as an ant, etc. But the man of the world cannot perceive this and hence simply says that God has become man and remains satisfied with this understanding in his own world of mankind” (Meher Baba, God Speaks, 268-9)
[23] Meher Baba, Everything and the Nothing, 69.
[24] Meher Baba, Discourses, I.54. The situation is not, of course, exclusively human. Rather, human consciousness is itself the last stage in the evolution of individualized consciousness through the various pre-human kingdoms (stone, metal, vegetable, worm, fish, bird, animal), the form through which the soul exhausts all impressions: “It is the evolutionary struggle that enables the soul to develop full consciousness as that in the human form, and the purpose having been achieved, the side-issues or by-products of evolutionary travel (the nuqush-e-amal or sanskaras) have to be done away with, while retaining the consciousness intact. The process of reincarnation therefore is to enable the soul to eliminate the sanskaras by passing through the furnace of pain pleasure” (Meher Baba, God Speaks, 29 note).
[25] Meher Baba, cited from Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher, 5809, ).
[26] Meher Baba, Discourses, I.113, original italics elided, my emphasis.