Saturday, January 02, 2010
First, understand that the subject of forgiveness is enormously complex. Are we talking about forgiving slight offenses like gossip and simple unkindness, or about forgiving a grievous offense like rape, infidelity or murder? Does the offense continue to occur regularly, or are you still struggling to forgive something that happened ten days ago or ten years ago? Are we talking about forgiving ourselves, someone else, or seeking forgiveness? What is making it difficult for us to forgive? There are many mindsets and mental habits that make it difficult to forgive and these must be addressed too, thus complicating the subject further.
Beyond all of this, what exactly do we mean by the word forgiveness anyway? Is it always a once-and-done spontaneous event? Does real forgiveness mean that we won’t think about the offense or feel strongly about it anymore? Should we forgive for our own sake, for the sake of the offender, or both?
We’ll narrow our scope a bit and take a look at a few elements that can help us to cultivate forgiveness for others, but I’d like to suggest that you take a look within and examine yourself a little bit first. A struggle with forgiveness grows out of suffering and it can be difficult to see clearly when we’re hurting. My experience is that we often find a path to healing when we sit with a problem in contemplation instead of trying to figure everything out on our feet so to speak. It can be very helpful and enlightening to allow ourselves to sit with questions like:
“What is making it difficult for me to forgive?”
“Why should I forgive?”
“What are my unexamined attitudes towards the subject of forgiveness?”
“Should I forgive for their sake, mine, or both?”
The No’s of Life
To a greater or lesser degree, we all practice forgiveness every day. We forgave the person who brought too many items to the express check-out lane. We forgave the person who crossed in front of our car in the parking lot. We forgave the person who failed to notice that the light had turned green ten seconds ago.
Forgiveness, among other things, is a way in which we respond to a “no” in our life by letting it go, not taking it personally, moving on, and not letting it hinder us mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. “No, you may not proceed quickly and easily through the express check-out lane.” “No, you may not proceed unimpeded through the parking lot.” “No, you may not go about your day without this person getting in your way and slowing you down.”
The No’s in life are to be expected and most of us have developed the ability to forgive these kinds of No’s through the understanding that it would do us no good to carry them with us and let them get to us. These No’s are easy to let go of (for some of us) and not take personally. But what if we are faced with No’s like:
“No, you will not have a perfect marriage free of infidelity.”
“No, you will not feel safe, secure, loved and cherished in your own home.”
“No, your career path will not be free of miscommunications, misunderstandings and false accusations.”
“No, you will not be able to save for a rainy day let alone retirement.”
No one likes to suffer, and we’ll do almost anything we can to avoid it, but painful life experiences cannot be avoided completely. When we do suffer, we’re typically responding with our own set of No’s like, “No, this shouldn’t have happened to me.” See if you can tease apart the difference between your feelings about how your life is unfolding at this moment and your feelings for the person you’re struggling to forgive.
In other words, sometimes our inability to forgive someone has more to do with our illusions about life than about the person or the infraction. Yes, they are responsible for their actions, but forgiveness flows more easily when we are in a place of present moment acceptance. Practice cultivating the perspective that what is happening now is simply how life has manifested for you and try to not take it personally. Such is life.
Distortion of Love
Fear and love are opposite sides of the same coin and our inability to forgive is often rooted in distorted self-love. Understandably, we fear loss, pain, and suffering and we avoid them assiduously. When we experience suffering at the hands of someone else, we often make a silent agreement with ourselves that we will not be hurt like that again. We erect walls of protection and put up defenses like resentment and judgment, and refuse to extend forgiveness because we fear it will make us vulnerable again. This is like an allergic reaction where the system designed to protect us actually causes us harm. We get locked inside and we become increasingly sensitive and reactive to perceived threats.
“If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
Look below the anger, resentment, and inability to forgive and you’ll find fear. Look below the fear and you’ll find an unskillful application of love for self. When you come across this fearful aspect of yourself, extend loving-kindness and compassion to it and practice Metta meditation. As you help to heal the fearful self, the need for walls and defensiveness will relax, your openness to life will arise, and your ability to extend forgiveness will flow more easily.
Control or Rather the Illusion of Control
Withholding forgiveness is often based in an unconscious attempt keep us safe and control the world around us. It’s readily apparent, however, that this only presents an illusion of safety and control. Not forgiving someone will not ensure you won’t be hurt again, and forgiving someone won’t ensure you will be. People are unfolding events, not things.
“Letting go is an act by which you release your need to control every situation, person, place or thing in order to ensure that your sanity (and safety) is not threatened.” ~ James J Messina, PhD
Letting go can be very scary and can come with unwanted feelings of vulnerability. Fortunately, the vulnerability we feel is only a temporary state that occurs as we make the radical shift from our illusion of control and safety to openness and acceptance of life.
“Letting go is the natural release which always follows the realization that holding on is an energy drain and it hurts. Letting go happens effortlessly when there is no other choice. Letting go does not mean giving up.” ~ Larry James
Letting go of what cannot be controlled and what cannot be changed ultimately comes with a profound sense of freedom, potency, resilience, and peace of mind. In fact, true happiness and true freedom are impossible without learning to let go of our need for:
Knowing why things have happened the way they have.
“Letting go is a journey that never ends.” ~ Larry James
Stress and anxiety; mental, emotional, physical exhaustion; dysfunctional relationships with ourselves, others, and life – these are all directly correlated with our inability to let go.
The Grieving Process
“When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive” ~ Alan Paton
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has named five stages of grief people go through following a serious loss. Sometimes people get stuck in one of the first four stages. Their lives can be painful until they move to the fifth stage - acceptance.
Denial and Isolation - At first, we tend to deny the loss has taken place, and may withdraw from our usual social contacts. This stage may last a few moments, or longer.
Anger - The grieving person may then be furious at the person who inflicted the hurt (even if she's dead), or at the world, for letting it happen. He may be angry with himself for letting the event take place, even if, realistically, nothing could have stopped it.
Bargaining - Now the grieving person may make bargains with God, asking, "If I do this, will you take away the loss?"
Depression - The person feels numb, although anger and sadness may remain underneath.
Acceptance - This is when the anger, sadness and mourning have tapered off. The person simply accepts the reality of the loss.
Letting go, acceptance and forgiveness go hand-in-hand. Realize that grieving is a process, and so is the journey towards acceptance, letting go, and forgiveness. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself time to heal. With this in mind, it is better to regard forgiveness as a skillful life principle, not as a rule or a moral imperative.
Sometimes our ability to heal and forgive will come quickly and easily. At other times and in other circumstances we may find that healing and forgiveness takes days, weeks, months, or even years. Forgiveness is not always a once-and-done event. We may be confronted with the memory of an act long after we have forgiven a person for it and be faced with the same rush of feelings we had when it first happened. This is ok. It doesn’t mean that your efforts at forgiveness were in vain. It simply means you’ve had a painful memory resurface.
Being In the Now
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” ~ Paul Boese
When we find ourselves plagued by painful memories we can utilize our mindfulness practices to transform the moment into an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Let go of the rumination – Anchor yourself in the present moment by using your senses. Feel your body breathing, tune into your sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing or sight.
Be with Your Emotions – Really feel your emotions in the body in a physical or visceral way. Resist the need to label the emotion you’re experiencing but regard the experience with a sense of curiosity like, “What is this?” Explore the sensations of the emotion in your body. Where does it seem to be located? Is it associated with a temperature? Is it sharp or dull? Is it moving about your body, pulsating, vibrating?
The more comfortable and friendly we become with our emotional life, the more our emotional selves have the opportunity to arise and pass away. What we resist, persists. What we allow, passes. By employing this skill we help ensure that we are not repressing, suppressing, denying, or avoiding our authentic experience. Letting go, acceptance, and forgiveness are not synonymous with repression, suppression, denial or avoidance.
The less we resist what is happening within us emotionally, the more opportunity we have to be present for the experience and see what might be below the surface. Employing this skill is how we begin to see the love behind fear, compassion behind hate, forgiveness behind resentment, and the more we understand ourselves the more we will understand others.
For My Benefit and Their's
“Sincere forgiveness isn't colored with expectations that the other person apologize or change. Don't worry whether or not they finally understand you. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.” ~ Sara Paddison
Much of what we have looked at so far is with regard to how practicing forgiveness is helpful for our own health, wellbeing, and general benefit. There is also, however, the possibility of extending forgiveness to someone for their benefit as well.
Understand that in some cases they too are suffering. In the case of a loved one who has hurt you, they are now naked and all of their darkness is revealed. Their illusion of perfection is shattered. Their greed and selfishness is out in the open. They have nowhere to hide. This can be a good place to be if they are to grow as a human being, but it isn’t easy and it’s a very painfully isolated experience. Also realize that others wound us because they are wounded. They cause suffering in the world around them because they too are suffering.
Imagine that you stop at the video store to return some movies. The clerk is acting very strange, rude, and offensive as you drop the DVD’s in the return box and leave. Later, on the evening news, you learn that the video store had been robbed and the clerk murdered at the same time you were there to drop off your movies. They replay the surveillance tape showing you walk in, drop off your movies and leave, while the perpetrator crouched below the counter holding a gun to the clerk’s belly. He needed help. Perhaps he was hoping you would notice.
While this isn’t a perfect analogy, it gets close to the reality of what’s really going on when someone is cruel to you and perhaps can help awaken a caring and giving heart within you. You don’t always have to let someone know that you’ve forgiven them, but it can often lead to a release and a freedom for both of you if you choose to do so.
Do No Harm
While it’s not always possible, I encourage you to refrain from doing harm to another in thought, word, or deed. As a principle, try to keep the phrase, “Do no harm” close to heart, especially when you have been harmed by someone else. Try to not gossip. Watch your intentions when talking to other friends about the person who betrayed or wounded you, particularly if it is a loved one. Exact no revenge whether in little ways or big.
“Most of us can forgive and forget; we just don't want the other person to forget that we forgave” ~ Ivern Ball
Maintain your own dignity. Protecting yourself is one thing; punishing someone is another matter entirely.
Making it Easier to Forgive
Try the following. You’ll feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally and your capacity to forgive, let go, and accept the present moment will grow organically.
Mindfulness Meditation Practice – Sit for 20 minutes each day simply feeling the bodily sensation of breathing. When the mind wanders off and you’re no longer simply feeling yourself breathing, just come back to the breath without judgment.
Metta or Loving-Kindness Meditation Practice – Take time to sit and extend thoughts of wellbeing, peace, happiness, and love to yourself and the other person(s).
Compare and Contrast – Depending on the offense, it may feel more painful or less so in relation to what you compare it to. By way of analogy, I am very rich compared to most of the world’s population and very poor compared to Bill Gates. See if you can manage to find relief by comparing your suffering to that of others who are in situation that is far worse than your own.
Breathe – No, really! It helps. Let your insides relax and feel yourself breathing deep into your belly for a few moments each day. Your body and mind will relax, the chronic tension that comes with suffering will soften, and you’ll be able to think more clearly and creatively.
You can find more information about Mindfulness Meditation practice at www.whyimeditate.com and as always, feel free to email me anytime for anything.
Being Nurtured and Protected,
Mind Clear and Alert,
Body Fit and Strong,
Heart Pure and Open,
May you Dwell Always,
In Peace and Love.
meditationscience at live dot com (to prevent spam)