What I Learned about Forgiveness from a Live Meditation with Sharon Salzberg

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I stumbled upon a series of meditation sessions hosted by the Rubin Museum in Chelsea, and decided to work on my mindfulness during my lunch break. Held in partnership with the New York Insight Meditation Center, these guided meditation sessions are led by Sharon Salzberg – the renowned Buddhist meditation teacher, New York Times bestselling author, and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. To make it brief, Salzberg does it all and knows it all when it comes to meditation and mindfulness.

Each guided meditation session is centered on a theme (i.e. forgiveness), and is inspired by a work of art from the Rubin Museum’s collection. I was humbled by what I learned about forgiveness and about myself in just 45 short minutes.

CBT Division

Forgiveness is not amnesia. When we think about forgiving someone who has wronged us, we tend to worry that the act of forgiving will sweep the transgression under the rug. There is a fear that forgiving equates to forgetting, to a complete disavowal of our own anger, sadness, and humiliation. Salzberg explained that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean that what happened doesn’t matter. However, not forgiving keeps us stuck in a rigidity that leads to a distancing between ourselves and others.

Guilt is unproductive. Salzberg describes guilt as a “useless pain,” where we stay stuck and ruminate over the guilty act to no avail. Instead of focusing on how guilty we feel for hurting our partner or for disappointing our parents, we need to question the end goal of doing so. In order to forgive ourselves and move forward, we should step away from the “obsessive offering up of our own life energy” and try to conserve and channel that energy into the positive parts of our lives.

Meditation can actually help. Of course, it is much easier said than done to forgive those who have harmed us or to release ourselves from the pain of feeling guilty. That’s where meditation comes in. By directing our attention to our breathing or on a sound, we learn that it’s actually incredibly hard (and nearly impossible) to stay focused! When we practiced together, my own attention wandered every 30 seconds, but I attempted to refocus myself each time until inevitably my mind drifted off again. In that way, meditation provides a training ground for forgiveness – where we have to learn to “forgive ourselves” each time our attention wanders, and work towards getting it back on track.

Burmese monks know what’s up. Salzberg ended our guided meditation with a short story about the Burmese monastic way of saying goodbye. Instead of the casual “See you later!” we’re used to, the Burmese monks say: “If I have hurt or harmed you knowingly or unknowingly, I ask for your forgiveness. If you have hurt or harmed me knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive you.” This simple and beautiful greeting brings forgiveness to the forefront and to nearly every personal interaction we have throughout our day. It’s inevitable that we will harm those around us and they will harm us, but it is how we handle forgiveness that truly matters.


Rachel Oliner

KIP Graduate Intern


Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum.

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