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Excerpt from "The Tao of Forgiveness"

by William Martin


We don’t have to take it personally.

A man once took his canoe and set out at night to cross a large lake. It was a some­what dangerous crossing to undertake in the dark, but he wanted to get to the other side by morning.

He paddled cautiously out into the calm waters. There was no moon. The sky was
clouded over and a slight mist rose from the surface of the lake. He could hear noth-

ing but the ripples lapping against the side of his canoe and the splash of his paddle as
it entered and left the water. He could see no more than a few feet in either direction.
He had been paddling for about an hour and was beginning to feel tired. He sat
back and rested his paddle across his knees for a moment. Suddenly he was thrown
to the deck by a sharp impact against the side of the canoe. He nearly capsized and


his heart beat rapidly as he regained his balance and looked up to see a motorboat resting against the side of his canoe where it had left a large dent.

He jumped to his feet and began waving his paddle about in the air and curs­ing at the top of his voice. How dare this idiot motorboat operator slam into him like this? How dare he be so careless? “You could have killed me, you moron!” he shouted. He received no reply and his anger increased. He was just about to climb into the motorboat and let the operator have a heavy swat from his paddle when his eyes focused through the mist and he realized that there was no one in the motor­boat. It had drifted into him. No one was to blame.

Gradually his heartbeat began to slow and his anger to abate. The motorboat drifted away into the darkness and he was once again alone on the lake. He sat there for a while and finally began to chuckle. “There was no one in the boat,” he thought. “I got so mad and there was no one to be mad at. There was no one in the boat!”

He began to paddle once more, when a sudden thought occurred to him. “There’s no one in this boat either!” He began to laugh out loud as he continued his journey to the far side of the lake.


off and not to engage in conversation. About fifteen feet from where I am sit­ting a young woman is carrying on a cell phone conversation in that typical just­below-a-shout tone that people use on cell phones. All of my attention is diverted toward her.

This is wrong.

She is wrong.

This should not be happening.

Someone should tell her to hang up.

Who does she think she is?

There is a sub-personality in me who is feeling all of the above as a whirling stir of energy. He is anxious and disturbed far beyond the actual content of the situation. He is taking this experience very personally. He is looking for a way to communicate to this person his annoyance because otherwise how will she know she is “wrong”? She finally finishes her conversation and walks away with­out looking in my direction and getting the glare she so richly deserves.

Isn’t that interesting? This angry, stirred-up part of me is someone who has always been told to “be good, be nice, be unobtrusive, obey all the rules or you will not be acceptable.” When he senses “rule-breaking” occurring, he in­ternalizes it as a personal threat. But “there is no one in the boat.” The young woman is now sitting at a table quietly studying. I can now see that she tried


to go to an area of the library that was as unobtrusive as possible to answer her phone.

“But,” my rule-keeping self insists, “she should not have had her phone on in the first place. That’s against the rules!” Poor little fellow, this part of me will always be threatened by any behavior that he perceives as outside the bounds of how-we’re-supposed-to-be. I am now viewing him with a sense of compas­sion and sympathy. Of course he gets upset. He was thoroughly trained in “good” behavior and truly feels his safety depends on such behavior.

Much of the suffering that we work with in the practice of forgiveness arises from the conditioned mind’s habit of taking everything personally. In one sense, of course, my life is very “personal.” Each of my sub-personalities has the per­spective that what happens to them is happening to “me.” “This is my life,” they say. Things don’t get much more personal than that. Therefore, when something or someone from outside my skin acts in such a way as to threaten my safety, thwart my desires, hurt my feelings, ignore my wants, or in any of a thousand ways seems to impinge on “my” life, I take it very personally—at least the “I” of whatever sub-personality is present at the time takes it very personally.

Notice that the same conditioning that sorts external events and people into “right” and “wrong” is also ever-vigilant in its scrutiny of our own actions, moods, and thoughts. The myth it promotes is that, without such scrutiny, we


would disintegrate into a chaotic, irresponsible, and destructive mess (just like the world it sees outside). This is not the way of the Tao Mind. The Tao Mind is open and accepting, deeply personal, yet not taking things personally. In the presence of such spaciousness, a natural and flexible effectiveness is enabled. Effective and correct action occurs because it arises naturally from a place of clar­ity and openness, not because strict scrutiny has been applied.

Questions for Your Tao Mind

? Are you holding on to a sense that something that has happened is, indeed, very personal?

? What benefit do you gain from seeing this as personal?

? Is there some benefit in feeling “wronged”?

? Is there some benefit in feeling “guilty”?


A Tao Mind Exercise

· Allow yourself to sit in a relaxed yet alert posture.

· Take five relaxed, full breaths.

· Allow your mind to drift to a recent occasion of irritation, of taking the words and actions of another person personally. It could be something as simple as having to wait in line at the market, or being cut off in traffic.

· Notice the voices in your mind that insist that this was personal. They will present compelling reasons for their opinion.

· Once you have a sense of the “personal” feelings of this part of you, stand and stretch, reaching your hands toward the sky as far as you can. Hold this stretch as you count slowly to ten.

· Lower your arms and shake your hands at the wrists—with vigor—for a few seconds.

· Sit back down and relax. Can you sense a place in your mind where this occasion is not seen in a personal manner? If you can’t glimpse this place, don’t worry. We’re just practicing opening up the possibility. That is enough.

· Take five more relaxed breaths and go about your day.

A Tao Mind Meditation

There is no one in the boat.

It seems so personal and hurts so much, someone must be wrong.

But, there is no one in the boat. I am not here to be right

and make other people wrong. I am here to pay attention

and let my Tao Mind show the way.

There is no one in the boat.

William Martin is a best-selling Zen and Taoist author of four books. He and his spouse, Nancy, are the founders of The Still Point, a Taoist/Zen Center in Chico, California, where he conducts classes and workshops on Taoist and Zen thought and its application to parenting, aging, relationships and forgiveness.

PERMISSION LINE: Reprinted from The Tao of Forgiveness by William Martin by arrangement with Tarcher, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2010


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