My Top 10 Ways to Atone

The source of love is deep in us. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy. — Thich Nhat Hanh

A friend said to me “I am having a dilemma: in Buddhism, there is no confession, penance or absolution if you do something wrong. There is no external deity to help me atone for my sins…how do I atone for something that I have done wrong?”

Never mind that this conversation was taking place within the unhallowed walls of our local pub; she had my full attention because I just love any conversations that begin with “I have a dilemma…”.

“It hasn’t ever occurred to me to atone to an external source” I said, and then lapsed into silence while I considered my own approach to atonement.

“Yes, what do you do?” asked my friend, “you know, just for a five Hail Mary crime.” Pause. “Fuck! I’m not even Catholic! That’s how ingrained it is in our society!”

I love how a little conversation can launch a train of thought (and I love how a blog inspires me to share it). So what does Atone mean? At-one. At-one-with-Spirit. To atone is to become one with your higher spirit. It’s a good thing to aspire to. It means to make amends or reparation; to make a wrong thing right. Sometimes that wrong thing can be done to yourself, sometimes it can be to someone (or something) else. I have a direct, uncomplicated attitude to life – if I do wrong by somebody I try to fix it with the person. If I have done wrong to myself, I try to never do it again. Sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than that (damn you complications!), and I may seek solace or guidance from a higher source.

But I just don’t see the point of using God/dess as the atonement middle-man, of referring the wrong to the third umpire. How is that going to help the problem? And this idea of penance – don’t get me started. How is  punishing yourself going to help the problem? It’s not, that’s what.

I was noted as a child for being extraordinarily resistant to apologising. For anything. Ever. I would rather sit in my room for half the day than apologise. “I am not sorry, so why should I apologise? You told me never to lie! He deserved it.” Apologies to my brother. So, now I am in my mid-30s I have had some considerable lessons in atonement, starting as I did with an apology handicap. And a big, rude mouth. Ha! So these are some of the things I have learned:

My Top Ten ways to Atone (in no particular order):

  1. Apologise! In a sincere, timely fashion.
  2. Recognise your wrong doing and own it. Fully.
  3. Go easy. You’re not perfect, and neither is anyone else. Beating yourself up unnecessarily is considered self-harm in my book.
  4. This is the hard bit – back up your apology with consistently honourable behaviour. If you spoke out of turn, if you lied, if you lost your temper, if you cheated, if you were unreliable – correct it. There is nothing more upsetting than a serial apologiser who never changes their behaviour!
  5. Sometimes you can’t atone in person. For lots of reasons, death and time feature strongly here. What I do here is an energetic atonement where I imagine the person is in front of me, and I apologise to them in the same way that I would if they were standing in front of me. Better actually, because we all know how nerve-racking an apology can be. Or is it just me?
  6. Never say “sorry, but…if you hadn’t have done such and such I wouldn’t have been forced to do this thing that I am now pretending to apologise for”. NO! See 2.
  7. Some things cannot be fixed. Some relationships cannot be repaired. Big lesson. Learn it and let it go. See 3.
  8. Use empathy, intuition and a light touch. Treat others like you would like to be treated. Or, if this applies to you, treat yourself like you treat others. See 3.
  9. Don’t get angry if the offended person does not accept your apology. Try 5 to clear the situation energetically and then try again.
  10. Letters can be good.


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