Crack Open the Door to Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not a feeling, but a decision. It is the act of “letting go.” It is making the decision to set down a heavy load we are carrying -- of resentment, blame and wishing things were different than they are. We take back control of our well-being and put our desire to feel good over our desire to be right. Although it often provides relief to the person forgiven, it definitely benefits us as individuals to forgive. The person being forgiven, still has their own path to walk -- which may involve atonement, making amends, apologizing, looking for underlying causes, forgiveness of self or others. Similarly, we still have our own path to walk -- which may involve self-care, looking at our part, boundary setting, initiating change. Whatever actions are necessary, they are done in an environment of compassion and personal empowerment.
When we experience pain in our lives, our first response is to self-protect, which can take the form of blaming or moving immediately into fix-it mode. Forgiveness and moving on can be so difficult, we may even mistakenly believe that it is not in our nature to forgive. Primatologist Frans De Waal observed that peacemaking activities are extremely common in the animal kingdom (apes, sheep, goats, hyenas, and dolphins). Of the species studied, not surprisingly, only domestic cats have failed to show behavior that reconciles relationships after conflict. As social animals who desire connection, conflict and disconnection create stress and imbalance in the social dynamic. Psychologist Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet asked people to think about someone who had hurt, mistreated or offended them. She monitored their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands. When people remembered their grudges, they had a stress response (blood pressure and heart rate increased and they began to sweat). They felt sad, angry, intense and less in control. When they were asked to empathize with their offenders and to imagine forgiving them, their stress responses returned to normal.
If we make the choice to forgive, the question then becomes, how do we go about it? You can’t move beyond the feelings until you have fully felt them. So the first step is to be conscious of your emotions. Eckhart Tolle describes his concept of the “pain body” as the accumulation of our past hurt and pain. We all have one, and we all operate out of our pain body at one time or another. Once you learn to recognize it in yourself and others, you can relate to each other from your true essence rather than the pain. This makes it possible to suspend judgment and forgive. Your relationships will improve exponentially simply by recognizing the pain body in yourself and others. You no longer take things personally and you don’t define people by their struggles, but see beyond them to their true divine essence. Any time you experience a strong emotional reaction in yourself or witness one in others, that is the pain-body waking up. Once you recognize it, you can practice witnessing the pain body rather than identifying with it, or defining others by it. There is no need to fight it. Awareness is enough. The pain body can only survive if you identify with it. It may feel substantial and overpowering, but when you shine the light of your attention on it, it will begin to dissipate.
In addition to not fighting our emotions, it is also important to cease fighting the present moment. Bring yourself into the present and accept it as it is. Anything else is futile. It is likely that certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. If you are still resisting what happened in the past, then you are also resisting what is. “Only through accessing the power of the now, which is your own power, can there be true forgiveness. This renders the past powerless, and you realize deeply that nothing you ever did or that was ever done to you could touch even in the slightest the radiant essence of who you are. The whole concept of forgiveness then becomes unnecessary.” (Eckhart Tolle)
Once we have this present-moment emotional awareness, we can begin to cultivate compassion. We can realize that basic human nature is good. We are born with pure, open hearts. Destructive actions stem from ignorance of the truth that we are connected to all life, and ignorance of the truth that grasping and hatred create the very separation and suffering we are trying to avoid. This can be hard to believe when we are faced with extreme atrocities. Basic goodness can be hidden under an overwhelmingly substantial pain body! But remember, recognizing the humanity of others doesn’t mean that we overlook harmful behavior. You don’t have to overlook the wrong behavior. You remember it and keep choosing forgiveness. You can still seek justice, but you don’t lose sight of the humanity of the other person while responding with clarity and firmness. This is easy to say, especially coming from a life of relative privilege, so I often refer to the stories of others who have undergone challenges I can only imagine. In the Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama recounts stories of extreme forgiveness --mothers who forgave the men who murdered their children, victims of violent terrorism. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades and was able to move past his anger and recognize the humanity in his captors.
We can start by looking through another’s eyes. Imagine how it would feel to be in the other person’s body and mind, living in his or her circumstances. Once we delve into the causes and conditions that led to the wrong act, we may feel our anger shift off the person or their pain body, and onto the causes and conditions that brought them to that place. We can feel sorry for the people, and angry at the conditions. Nobody chooses dysfunction, conflict, or pain. Nobody chooses insanity. If you harbor resentment about something they did or did not do, then you still believe they had a choice - that they could have acted differently. It always looks as if people had a choice, but that is an illusion. As long as your mind with its conditioned patterns runs your life, then you don’t have choices. Almost everyone is suffering from this to some degreed, and when you realize this, there can be no more resentment. How can you resent someone for their illness? The only appropriate response is compassion.
We can look for ways that we are similar to the person. Pema Chodron says “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness, can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Remember also that people are always changing. Most of us fall into the habit of pinning a narrow and static identity on those around us, often based on the behaviors we find unpleasant or annoying. We forget that every person, including ourselves is new in every moment. Real love is allowing someone the space to change.
The next step in forgiveness is to broaden our perspective-- letting go of ideas of right and wrong. Being right or wrong closes us down and makes our world smaller. We make things wrong or right out of a desire to obtain some kind of ground or security. Keep an open heart and mind so you can enter a space and not be entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong. Imagine how our interactions would be different if we approached serious conversations with no agenda-- not imagining in advance what we or the other are going to say. This broader perspective also includes remembering that the distinction between self and other is an illusion. Really all forgiveness is an act of self-forgiveness, because we are all cut from the same cloth and unity is the true nature of things.
Forgiveness grows out of the intention to forgive. This can be key when it feels impossible to forgive-- when we can hardly imagine it. We don’t forgive through effort and force of will. It just requires openness. If we open the door just a crack with our intention, and continue to allow and observe our emotions, our heart will eventually widen to include the person we would like to forgive as well. We maintain the intention to forgive because we understand that not forgiving hardens and imprisons our heart. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime that he did not commit, because he was black and in the state of Alabama. He was actually working in a locked factory at the time of the crime. He spent 30 years in solitary confinement in a 5x7 foot cell, allowed out only 1 hour per day. During his time he became a counselor and friend to other inmates, 54 of whom were put to death. He also befriended the guards, many of whom pleaded with his attorney to get him out. Finally he was released with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling. “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away. People run out of the rain. I run into the rain. How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious? Having missed the rain for so many years, I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.” When asked how he could not be angry that they took away 30 years of his life, he replied “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”
How do you know when you have forgiven? When you think of the person or event, you no longer experience the stress response in your body. You no longer obsess. Then the next step is to wipe the slate clean. It’s so easy to semi-forgive someone, but then continue seeing them through the lens of their past actions-- to define them as “that person” who did “that thing.” You can choose to give them a clean slate, release your expectations and expect only the best from people. You might be surprised when you get just that!
It is important that forgiveness be paired with good boundaries. We can forgive but hold the person accountable. Some of us have been trained since childhood to forgive quickly and freely. If a person makes an apology we are likely to forgive him and not question his sincerity. Unknowingly, we may end up encouraging destructive behavior. Holding someone accountable for negative behavior is an act of love. In the case of Anthony Ray Hilton, he may choose not to harbor resentment, but still fight for prison reform. When we do decide to extend forgiveness, we still might need some time to rebuild trust. Forgiveness is a decision, but trust is an emotion. Trust is a gut-level confidence that the person will do what they say they will do. Trust is rebuilt by being trustworthy, one day at a time. I love the description of trust as a jar of marbles. If someone betrays your trust in a small way, a couple of marbles might be taken out of the jar, but if they betray your trust in a big way, they might, in effect, be smashing the whole jar of marbles on the floor. It can take time and patience to allow the person to rebuild your trust, one marble at a time.
They will never know how to rebuild your trust, how to respect your boundaries, until you get clear in your own space-- until you love and forgive yourself. If someone abuses you a bit more than you abuse yourself, you will probably walk away from that person. But if someone abuses you a little less than you abuse yourself, you will probably stay in the relationship and tolerate it endlessly. So you must work on loving and accepting yourself so that you can set healthy boundaries. Seeing the goodness in others begins with seeing the goodness in ourselves. If we begin with forgiving ourselves, it releases the armor of resentment and blame that surrounds our heart and prevents us from feeling the goodness in ourselves and others. Sometimes we don’t want to forgive ourselves because we think it would let us off the hook when we don’t deserve it or because it won’t help the people we’ve hurt. We can start just by forgiving the experiences that we are identifying with -- by giving permission for our inner life to be as it is. Thich Nhat Hanh also recommends “beginning anew” by doing good works that naturally grow out of our wrong action or speech. By making amends, shame and guilt will lessen naturally over time.
It is important to realize what forgiveness can’t do, lest our unrealistic expectations set us up for failure. Forgiveness does not remove the consequences of the behaviors. The actions and words are never fully removed. It does not remove all of the painful emotions. It does not remove the memory of the event.
We have to sit with the feelings and memories, and not cling to or resist them. Allow them to be part of our experience and release them to our higher power over and over again. Take comfort in knowing that it, like all spiritual practices, is a gradual, gentle unfolding -- a softening. If we seek to heal ourselves from the poison of resentment, the antidote is as simple as opening the door a crack, and inviting forgiveness in.
** (For more information on this topic check out the following books. Much of the content of this article was taken from these insightful works. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Book of Joy by the 14th Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams, You are a Badass by Jen Sincero, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, collected writings of Pema Chodron, The 4 agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz)