(This article is cross-posted at the Huffington Post)
Every human being who ever walked the earth has a collection of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, behaviors and stories that speak to his or her struggle for self-realization and to their disbelief in themselves. We all harbor beliefs that affirm our smallness and deny our greatness and thus come up short in recognizing and living from our highest and greatest selves.
But if I were required to name a person who, for all his human foibles, approaches a state of self-actualization, which Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs defines as “what a man can be he must be,” I would nominate Nelson Mandela. This is not to say that Mandela has lived a spotless life. Far from it. But in spite of all, or perhaps because of all that makes up his own story and the story of his people, Nelson Mandela stands out as one who has achieved a high state of consciousness on the planet today.
Looking at the context from which Mandela was shaped, it’s hard to imagine that he could have turned out any other way, for he comes out of the African tradition of ubuntu – “I am what I am because of who we all are.” If we want to get a clue and catch a glimpse of what’s possible for humanity, Nelson Mandela would be a good person to study.
For him to forgive those who imprisoned him for 27 years, he had to know and believe something that most of the world has failed to grasp. For him to emerge from prison and to state: “As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger,
hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison.” He had to be connected to a belief about the true nature of humanity and thus his own. He had to be committed to living that belief, undeterred by the events that resulted in his imprisonment.
What was that belief? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it had something to do with the philosophy of ubuntu. Last week’s post: “Embracing the Spirit of Ubuntu,” included the following story told by Mandela:
A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?
In the consciousness of ubuntu, when met with conflict or harm, forgiveness is the very path one must travel to know freedom. Therefore, for Mandela, forgiveness was not optional. It was the only way forward. It was the only way for him to reclaim his own life and by so doing show the way for others to reclaim theirs. There was nothing to do but forgive those who imprisoned him and perpetuated the system of apartheid against his people.
This idea remains a difficult one for many, even the most enlightened, to embrace. To forgive the one who hurt or betrayed you seems like just another betrayal, a selling out, a giving up. And yet, just the opposite is true.
Forgiving an action is not the same thing as condoning it. In forgiveness you are not saying that what happened was OK. But instead of seeking revenge or retribution or needing to be right, through forgiveness you are choosing from a higher consciousness than the one who betrayed you.
For example: In a state of non-forgiveness, we close our hearts in order to protect ourselves from any more hurt or pain. In this state we’re cut off from feeling love, not only for the person who hurt us, but for ourselves as well. Our belief in separation hardens us and builds the walls even higher.
To forgive requires a higher consciousness. It requires knowing a greater truth about the nature of reality. Forgiveness opens the door to the heart and allows love to return. To forgive means “To give as before.” When you forgive the very one you think betrayed your innocence, something greater is unleashed and abundance flows into the opening. Forgiveness is a recognition of our ubuntu nature, which is the truth of who we are.
Ubuntu tells a story about humanity that allows us to see the bigger picture. And here, Mandela makes an important distinction that is worthy of taking notice. “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves.” But he also cautions, “Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
This is a key distinction, for it requires a consciousness of abundance and generosity from which comes the knowledge there is more than enough to go around. In the consciousness of ubuntu, one’s self-interest is not separate from that of the greater whole. Neither is one’s self-delusion. Enrichment is inclusive. All are beneficiaries. But so, then, does victim consciousness and withheld love impact the whole in equally powerful ways.
When we empower others in the spirit of ubuntu, we expand our definition of who we are. The sense of “I-ness” doesn’t stop at our skin. We are more than our biology. In the act of going beyond our old boundaries we are free to become the person we came to the planet to be, and thus realize more of our own potential.
The very willingness to take this kind of stand in the world, the world right where you already are, requires that you see yourself as abundant, and from this abundance naturally flows a generosity. This generosity cannot be stopped. It cannot be impeded. Generosity flows from abundance like a river, with all the force of nature behind it. And thus, your ubuntu nature is unleashed.
The work begins with you. Living in an abundant universe characterized by infinite possibility, doesn’t it stand to reason that what is required of us is get out of our own way so that we can be available for the abundance that is already there? Abundance already is and is freely available for all who are willing to receive it. You don’t need to grasp, strive or fight for it. You only need to receive it.
Maybe the only forgiveness necessary is self-forgiveness. Forgive yourself for forgetting the truth of who you are and for believing in the illusion of separation.