Forgiveness and Self-Examination

By Gregg Krech

“Spiritual life begins from introspection;
without it there can be no spiritual life.”

D. T. Suzuki

One cannot walk two paths at the same time, particularly when they go in different directions. If we reflect on our past, most of us will find instances in which others have hurt or wronged us. We may become absorbed by these memories and thoughts. Indeed, we may be guided by others towards absorption with these events based on the assumption that this process is therapeutic.

Our ultimate goal, we are told, is to forgive those who have caused us suffering and difficulty, whether they be parents, former business partners, ex-wives, old friends or criminals. Once we are able to forgive, perhaps we will find release from our anger and resentment. Perhaps we will find inner peace and spiritual rest. Perhaps the demons of the past will finally be banished.

Taking this path can require a great deal of time and energy. Sometimes it takes years of counseling, which costs a great deal of money. But is this path really “therapeutic” and is it a path with a Heart?

When Freud developed the foundation of contemporary Western psychology 100 years ago he departed from another path - religion and spirituality. This departure was not necessarily all bad, but he left behind several elements that were essential to the well being of the human mind and spirit. One of those elements was self-examination. By self-examination I mean the willingness of a human being to honestly and relentlessly examine his conduct according to some set of moral guidelines.

In rare instances the framework for such self-examination existed outside of a religious framework, such as the elaborate method developed by Ben Franklin in which he performed a daily examination of his behavior measured against personal values such as frugality, justice, sincerity and cleanliness. Nowhere in Franklin’s system did he attempt to judge others against these standards. Only himself. And nowhere in his system was there a place for forgiving others for their infractions, for his was a system of “self-improvement.” What does the evaluation of others’ mistakes or weaknesses have to do with improving one’s self?

Historically, the value of self-examination and the methods for doing it exist within a religious or spiritual framework. Traditions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism each have moral precepts which serve as a basis for self-examination. But rarely have such practices been promoted or integrated into the therapeutic process of psychology. The 12-step program of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is one place where we find such a method. The 4th step of this program asks the recovering alcoholic to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of his conduct towards others. In the description of this process, AA warns us to beware of the most common excuse for avoiding such self-examination – “that our present anxieties and troubles are caused by the behavior of other people – people who really need a moral inventory.” In this passage, AA has revealed the two opposing paths – one in which we examine and judge the conduct of others, and the other in which we sincerely examine our own conduct.

A rarely known method of self-examination and self-reflection comes from Japan. It originated in the self-reflective method practiced by a small sub-sect of Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Buddhism. It was later developed into a method of psychology that is now used in Japan in the fields of marriage and family counseling, education, alcohol and drug rehabilitation and criminal rehabilitation. The name of this method is Naikan, which means something like “inside observation” or introspection. The method was introduced into the U.S. about 25 years ago by David Reynolds, Ph.D. who later combined it with another Japanese therapy (Morita Therapy) and uses the umbrella term, Constructive Living to describe the marriage of both approaches.

Naikan, as a method, is relatively simple. It asks people to examine their relationship with another person using the following three questions: 1. What have I received from this person? 2. What have I given to this person? and 3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused this person? It is the third question which grounds us in the principle of self-reflection. In fact, the roots of this type of self-examination can be found in several ancient Buddhist texts, such as the following passage:

Look not at the faults of others,
at what they have done or left undone;
Rather, look at what you yourself
have done or left undone.
     (Dhammapada, verse 50)

In the traditional practice of Naikan in Japan, one attends a week-long retreat and reflects on most of the key people from one’s life - such as parents, siblings, teachers, friends, children, etc. During the week the participant spends about 100 hours in quiet self-reflection. This is a clear contrast to the type of Western psychotherapy where, over the course of several years, the client may rarely engage in any kind of self-examination of his behavior towards others.

What does this have to do with forgiveness? I would like to argue that the energy we devote to trying to forgive others is misdirected. The more we focus on the “sins” of others, the more we nourish resentment and anger in ourselves. But the true path of self-examination can be a meaningful journey for many reasons.

First, evaluation of our own conduct is more useful if our purpose is learning and self-improvement. Second, awareness of our own mistakes, errors and selfishness brings us a dose of humility - a valuable asset both spiritually and in human relations. Third, examination of our conduct towards others, in light of the support we have received from others, opens the door to spiritual/religious experience including laying the foundation for gratitude and faith in a power beyond oneself. Finally, I believe in the profound therapeutic power of honesty in acknowledging who we are and what we’ve done. Our healing comes much more from accepting the reality of the harmful things we’ve done to others—lying to our parents, cheating our former business partners, deceiving our former lovers—than from condemning others for what they did to us. In the end we may find that we are in no position to grant forgiveness, and that we, ourselves, have received forgiveness without asking for it.

Gregg Krech is the Director of the ToDo Institute near Middlebury, Vermont and one of the leading experts in the U.S. on Japanese methods of psychology. He is the author of several books including A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness and his newest book, Staring at Truth: The Art and Practice of Self-reflection, will be published next year by Stonebridge Press. More information about Japanese psychology can be found on the web site and further information can be requested by calling (800) 950-6034.

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