In this answer from a live question and answer session in 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh addresses how we can heal from the mistakes of the past. To dive deeper into this topic, you can join our upcoming online retreat, How to Reconcile.
The transcript below is edited for readability.
Written question: The errors of the past have caused a lot of suffering and are very difficult to liberate. These errors have created quite a heavy burden. How can I forgive myself for this pain that I have caused? And how to be sure that I have forgiven others? What can I do if I offer forgiveness and reconciliation again and again to others, but the other ones, other people, don’t respond positively and they keep the door closed?
This is a very good question. First of all, we can learn, everyone can learn, from their own mistakes – unskillfulness – and all of us are unskillful at times. Even the Buddha, as a teacher, he was unskillful at times, and he learned from his unskillfulness.
The practice of mindfulness can always transform, even transform the past. You think that the past is already gone and you can not do anything concerning the past, but that is not true. You can change the past because the past is still there in the present. The world of the past is still there in the present moment, and you can touch it. Suppose in the past you have said something unkind to your grandma. And now you regret it, and your grandma is no longer there for you to say “sorry.” And you have that complex of guilt following you all the time. According to this practice, you can do something.
You breathe in and out mindfully and you recognize that your grandma is still alive in every cell of your body. You continue your grandma. That is the truth. The genes of your grandma are in you. Your grandma has not really died. She continues in. So having seen your grandma in you, you begin to say, “Grandma, I am sorry. I was not skillful. I promise you that from now on, I will never say something like that again.” If you are sincere, mindful, determined, then you can see your grandma in you smiling, and you are healed. You can transform the past. You make an aspiration, a strong aspiration, that from now on you will not say things like that anymore. You will not do things like that anymore. And that is a powerful energy that can transform even the past and you feel lighter, lighter.
During the Vietnam War, there was an American soldier who killed five children in Vietnam. His unit was destroyed by the guerillas, so he was very angry, and he came back to that village looking for a way to retaliate. So he brought with him a bag of sandwiches. And he put explosives in the sandwiches, and he left it at the gate of the village, and he hid himself. He saw five children coming out to enjoy eating the sandwiches. After that, the children showed signs of sickness and they cried and the mothers came out and tried to help. But the soldier knew that nothing could be done because the village was so far from a city. He saw the five children dying in the arms of their mothers. The soldier survived the war and went back to America, and he could no longer sleep. Every time he found himself with a few children in the same room, he could not stand it. He had to run out of the room, and he could not share the story with anyone until one day we offered a retreat for war veterans in California, and he came.
After four days of practice he got enough trust, and during the sharing he told us the story, crying a lot. And I was in the group, and I promised to give him a consultation. And I told him, “Daniel, you have killed five children. That is the truth and you suffer. But now there are other children who are dying – in Africa, Asia, many countries. And even in America, children are dying. There are poor people. There are children who only need one tablet of medicine in order for their life to be saved. Thousands and thousands of children like that are dying all over the world. And if you make the aspiration to go to them, and then every day you can save five children. You don’t have to lie down in the corner of the past and suffer like that. If in the past you have killed five, today you can save five. If you can save five today, five tomorrow, and then you can see the five you killed beginning to smile in you, and you are healed.”
So he followed those instructions. I saw the transformation and healing taking place right during the time he listened to the advice, because during the time he listened to me, he made that vow: “I will go out and try to save children. I am young enough to do the work.” And that tremendous amount of energy given him by his aspiration began to heal him right away. And after that, he practiced helping children in the world to survive. And he was healed. He married a dentist in England and led a normal life. And this is a real story. So the fact is you can liberate yourself from the past, from the prison of the past. You can make a strong determination, a strong aspiration to go and help, help the people who are abused, help the people who are victims of sexual abuse and so on. And then you can heal yourself.
That is a power of aspiration, the fourth kind of nutriment we call volition. And if you have transformation and healing in you, you become a pleasant person. You are full of compassion, understanding, and yet your presence is very fresh, very pleasant for other people. If you propose to him or to her, the practice of reconciliation, and if the other person refuses to do it, it could be because you are not fresh enough, you have not healed yourself enough. You have to to show yourself as someone who has transformed, who has healed himself or herself. The healing in you will help start the healing in the other person. There are many ways. You can write him or her a love letter; you can ask a friend to talk to him or her on your behalf. There are many ways to do it.
If you have already reconciled with yourself, renewed yourself and become a new person then transforming him, reconciling with him becomes much easier. If you find it still difficult to invite the other person to reconcile, it is because you have not started the process of reconciliation from within. If you have and you have healed yourself, then it would be much easier to to help him to reconcile with himself and with you.