Most apologies mean very little.
Much of the time, even when they come as a response to genuine wrongdoing, you can see this; that most apologies mean very little. They are based, not in real remorse, but on the impulse to defend ourselves from other people’s anger.
If you’re the kind of person who tends towards reactions of insecurity, the moment you are worried you might have done something wrong, you quickly say sorry before the other person has a chance to get annoyed. Or else you react automatically with “I’m sorry” when somebody is angry with us, as a way of deflecting their anger.
This constant apology is not only insincere; it is a useless, shitty form of defence, because it doesn’t actually make us feel any better – instead of having someone angry with us, now we beat ourselves with anger towards ourselves, and get eaten from inside by shame, anger at ourselves, and hatred.
An apology should have nothing to do with somebody being angry with you – it is you taking responsibility for your wrongdoing, and it should not come either as a reaction to anger or a defence from anger outside.
Among the members of this community, and as part of this practice, we do not say, “I am sorry.” Instead, if ever we have truly done something harmful to somebody else, we ask them for forgiveness.
There is a subtle beauty in this act of asking forgiveness, very different from the words ‘I’m sorry’ which can be just a kind of self-defence.
While saying “I’m sorry” includes a kind of assumed, obligatory forgiveness from the one who is wronged; asking them for forgiveness allows them the option of not granting it, if ever they should not wish to.
It is a way of apologising that is at once more genuine, more respectful and more generous than simply saying, “I am sorry.” Asking for forgiveness, “Can you forgive me?” puts you first, as opposed to saying “I’m sorry,” which puts I first.
If you ask for forgiveness in a formal way, you should go on your knees. And the very act of asking forgiveness brings you metaphorically “to your knees.” You don’t try to defend, guard or explain the wrongdoing in any way. You have to own that you have been at fault.
Even more than that, you put yourself in a position of asking, a position of supplication. You have behaved badly towards somebody and now you are asking them for something, pleading for forgiveness with the acceptance that you may be forgiven, or you may not.
The act of asking for forgiveness is an absolute, thorough putting-down of yourself and your ego. That is why it is difficult to do it; while it is relatively easy to say “sorry” regardless of whether you really mean it or not.
Sometimes it’s even more difficult than others. If it’s very close to the time of the wrongdoing, it’s usually (but not always) harder than if it happened a long time ago. If you have to ask forgiveness from someone you respect and admire a lot, it is harder than asking it from someone you consider equal or below you. If you have to ask forgiveness from somebody to whom you are attached, and by whom you want to be loved, it’s much harder than asking forgiveness from a stranger.
The hardest of all is when you have acted in a hypocritical way towards somebody, such that they do not know they are wronged until you admit it to them. When you ask for forgiveness for some wrong of which the other was not aware, you are forced to break the image of goodness they have of you. (Although, in fact, it’s not their image you break, but your own; the Self you have made with how you imagine yourself seen by others.)
This is such a hard thing to do that almost nobody does it. It is so easy to keep silent. You’re hurting nobody by keeping silent, or so it seems. No one will ever know. So why do it, why break the silence, why bother to break the image?
So easy not to do it, so difficult to do, and yet to ask for forgiveness in this case is a great testimony of love and respect, both for the other person and for yourself. By doing so you are putting honesty and compassion in a position of higher power than your own pitiful little ego, your own self-image of glass, which is already broken anyway. Why don’t you care that you know what you have done, as long as it is hidden from everyone else?
Of course, I say all this in the assumption that when you ask for forgiveness, you are not at that point being a hypocrite – you should feel remorseful for what you have done and intend to correct yourself.
If you don’t have any intention to correct yourself, then you don’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness, and your demand is worth absolutely nothing.
But if you really do understand the nature of your misdeed, and you have a true and strong determination to change your ways from now on, then going on your knees and asking for forgiveness is a beautiful, freeing and powerful act.
By the way, all this does not mean that just feeling remorse and asking for forgiveness somehow erases the wrong action you did. You can’t say ten Hail Marys and make it as if it never happened. You still did something wrong, and you will have to pay for it despite your apology, and regardless of whether you are granted forgiveness or not. All that you can do is to correct your actions from this point on.
Asking forgiveness is an act of renunciation, and it is this renunciation, and your resolve to change and correct yourself, that will give you the strength to do so and will help you move forwards.