My bet is everyone reading this blog has someone that they have not been able (or thought they even wanted) to forgive. But I would also bet that this lack of forgiveness has been fraught with suffering. Not only have you suffered from whatever happened in regard to the other person but you have suffered from the emotions inherent in the energy it takes to not forgive.
Do I Want to Forgive?
I have been on a quest to forgive. For me, it has become the deepest spiritual journey I have taken in a long time. It started as a desire to forgive one particular person in my life that I have had a hard time forgiving and then opened up to a desire to forgive everyone, including myself, and even life itself. It has required a lot of self-reflection, meditation, self-awareness, love, compassion, and a willingness to see my stories from a lot of different angles.
Please don’t misread me; I believe that you have every right to feel anger and even disgust at some of the actions that have been taken by others in your life. These emotions are all part of the fabric of being human. Feeling all of the emotions deeply is an important first step in being able to move through them effectively. If they are not felt and acknowledged, they cannot be appropriately processed and then possibly released. And I do mean “possibly.” I don’t know your story and will not presume what is possible for everyone.
Unfortunately, a lot of us hold on to certain special angers for years. Telling the same story over and over again. And, there can be a real reluctance to forgive because it can feel like an exoneration or acceptance of what the other person did. However, that is not my understanding when I’m thinking clearly. What I do see is that the anger that I hold on to makes me the victim of the situation and the person that I feel like I can’t forgive. I know because I have done it for many years. The anger and the hurt that lies under it have been an open wound that I try to cover. But, without forgiving, it remains unhealed and pops up on a regular basis to torture me.
Instead of forgiving, my strategy with this particularly difficult person was to set really good boundaries. I felt like I had to stop loving first and put a barrier around my heart in their regard. That seemed to work for many years. And, to be honest, it was good enough for a while. But there are some people that, even with a boundary and a wall, you will continue to be confronted with, nonetheless.
The Journey of Forgiveness
Today, my process of forgiveness has been to look clearly at my previous strategy and see that it was still holding me as the victim. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote in the foreword of the book, The Forgiveness Project by Marina Cantacuzino, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you. When you forgive you are free of the hatred and anger that locks you in a state of victimhood.”
Part of my reason for forgiving is that I decided I do not want to be a victim. Being a victim means that I am giving the perpetrator way too much power over me. And that is not something I want to continue to do. And another reason is that I do not like having my heart hold fear and anger toward another fellow human being. It feels heavy and constricting. At this point, it has become more uncomfortable to be angry and unforgiving than to engage in the process and journey of letting go.
A big part of my spiritual practice is to offer lovingkindness to all beings on a daily basis. It dawned on me that I could not set aside my unforgiven person from the category of “all beings” and truly be practicing the way I wanted. I strive toward bodhicitta, which is defined as “the mind that strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.” It is a beautiful undertaking and is very helpful to me on this journey of forgiveness. I use the image of my difficult person these days while offering my wishes of kindness. It is getting easier.
While forgiveness can be extremely healing, it is also, as Marina Cantacuzino writes, “a direction rather than a destination, a difficult process in the course of which one day you might forgive and the next day hate all over again.” There is not one way to forgive, a definition for forgiveness on which everyone must agree nor is forgiveness something you do and forget about. I’ve given you a little window to peer through to see how I have been approaching it, but everyone will need to find their own way.
I have a long way to go on this path of forgiveness, but I hope you consider how you might join me in bringing more of it to the world. I do recommend the book I have mentioned—The Forgiveness Project. In it are the stories of people who are survivors and perpetrators of crime and violence and which demonstrate the true impact of forgiveness. The subtitle of the book is quite poignant—“stories for a vengeful age.” In this age of cancel culture and deep division, maybe this is the time for us to dig deeper into our hearts for the answers to what ails us.
Lastly, here is a forgiveness meditation that you can practice from my website. I wrote it as part of my first book, The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution. In it, I talk about how forgiveness can be directed toward yourself and others. Yes, we also need to forgive ourselves for the harm we have done, both to ourselves and to other people. Forgiveness is something that happens not just once, but over time. Peeling off the layers of emotions that may have hardened over the years requires patience and trust. Give them time to soften and release. Make forgiveness a part of your regular meditation or reflection practice. You will be giving yourself a beautiful gift.
If you catch this blog when I post it, I will be leading a forgiveness meditation through The Center for Mindful Eating on Wednesday, December 22. It is free. You just need to register here.