“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mark Twain
One of the cornerstones of the spiritual path is forgiveness. There is no doubt forgiving can bring great freedom, however, for big issues it is rarely straightforward and never easy. Forgiveness, like grief, is a painful yet healing process. If we force ourselves to forgive before we work through the stages, the wound can suppurate rather than heal. Like grief, unhealed wounds blindside us when we least expect it. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not infinitely worth working towards.
My first big lesson on forgiveness came as I practiced a meditation from ‘A Course In Miracles,’ 20 years ago. In the meditation, as I truly forgave and let go, I watched all the chains drop off. To my surprise, they didn’t drop off off the other person, they fell from me. Forgiveness is about freeing ourselves, not about letting the other person ‘off the hook.’
Often we subconsciously withhold forgiveness as a way to punish the other – thinking that by forgiving that person we are somehow making them happier rather than the suffering we think they deserve. Well, although our thoughts are powerful, their most potent effect is on ourselves. The other person’s own thoughts and therefore karma will dictate their state of mind and therefore experiences. By not forgiving them we do not hold them captive, therefore to forgive them does not set them free – it sets us free. When we forgive, we free ourselves from the negative thoughts and feelings that have enslaved us. It is a purification and a reset to loving kindness for ourselves.
Just because we have not quite ‘got there’ yet, doesn’t mean we can’t forgive – any more than we should blame flour, yeast and water for not already being bread. As long as the pieces are in place, at some stage the dough will rise and the oven will be waiting. A great interim thought to have is, ‘I am willing to forgive.’ The rest will follow. Timing is key. For example, it is impossible to forgive while we are still in danger. If we are unsafe in any way, (emotionally or physically,) then we are operating mainly from the limbic brain. Forgiveness requires involvement of the pre frontal cortex, which is ‘off line,’ in states of high stress.
Once we are safe from further harm, we need to attend to our wounds. Our pain has to be witnessed by ourselves, if by nobody else. We need to give that process the time and space it needs – it can’t be rushed any more than you can force a rose to bloom by pulling apart the petals of the bud. As long as our attention is fixed on the transgressor, it is not where it needs to be – on ourselves. The first stage of forgiveness is compassion for ourselves.
“Many people have trouble with forgiveness because they have been taught it is a singular act to be completed in one sitting. That is not so. Forgiveness has many layers, many seasons.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
So once you forgive, you forget, right? No, not necessarily. As a species we have evolved an excellent alarm system in the brain to keep us safe. That system relies on relaying sensory input from the thalamus through the hippocampus to check our memory banks. We need to be able to recognise that the bloodcurdling sound outside our bedroom window that wakes us in the middle of the night with a pounding heart is, in fact, just the sound of rutting deer, in order for us to get back to sleep. Likewise we need to be able to recall that the last time our three year old saw a puppy she ran across the road, so we can keep a tight hold of her hand and keep her safe. Remembering what is safe and what is not is a good thing.
Brené Brown tells the story of talking to her child about trust and how to know who to trust. She suggests the only way is to try. If a friend keeps a small confidence, then maybe they can be trusted with more. If, however, they have gossiped, it is helpful to remember that when you next feel like sharing something intimate. We can forgive but also remember – not the anger, resentment and blame, but the situation to be avoided that is not safe or comfortable for us.
“The stupid neither forgive or forget. The naive forgive and forget. The wise forgive but do not forget.” Thomas Szasz
Of course forgetting the small stuff is healthy. We can all have a bad day and be thoughtless or rude, without intending to hurt anyone. We can strike out at the nearest target when we are distraught and treat our friends badly when we are preoccupied. We never truly know what is going on for other people and therefore are not really in a position to judge. It helps to differentiate the behaviour from the person. We all behave badly at times – that doesn’t make us bad people.
I love the story of the journalist who interviewed HH The Dalia Lama about his cat, who had recently been caught killing mice. When asked how he felt about it, HH replied, ‘I love the cat, but I hate what she does.’
There is so much truth in the saying, ‘don’t judge someone till you’ve walked 13 moons in their moccasins.’ I also love the statement of St. Frances when he was shown around a prison, with the ‘worst,’ people in society. To the shock of his guide, he greeted the people warmly and stated, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’
We are all who we are because of our inherited genes, (not our choice,) and which of those genes are switched on, and because of our childhood conditioning, past experiences and many other influences beyond our conscious control. Of course we are who we are also because of our thoughts and choices – but are they not also partly influenced by our experiences and genes? While karma may be the seminal ground of all of these, it’s not helpful to use its existence as a compassion bypass or as evidence that people deserve the situations they are in. That would be an incomplete, immature and unhelpful understanding of karma.
New research shows a clear link between addictions and trauma in childhood. The link is clear. Emotional pain activates the same areas of the brain that physical pain does. There are actual differences in brain function in people with psychopathic tendencies. If someone with this brain pattern has a good childhood, they will function well. If there is trauma, there’s a high chance they will be capable of murder. So, who, or what, exactly would we blame? We all do the best we can with what we have at the time. Sadly, often what we have isn’t good enough. And hurt people hurt people. Those of us with tools like Reiki are very fortunate indeed as often no amount of wanting to change will shift us from where we are – it takes a significant shift in our energy to do that.
“Forgiveness takes time. It is the last stage of the grieving process.” Elin Nordegren
On Reiki courses, if forgiveness comes up as a spiritual ‘duty,’ I’ve often used the analogy of walking into a room where someone instantly hits you on the head with a baseball bat. Ouch! You rush out of the room, holding your head. When the pain subsides you think, ‘I’m a spiritual person. I should forgive, right?’ So, you walk back into that room and the person hits you on the head again. OUCH!! You run out. You are really mad this time and your head really hurts. Eventually it eases and you remind yourself of your obligation as a spiritual person. You forgive and go back into the room, full of love and light. Once again, you are hit full on the head with the baseball bat. Sigh. Sometimes the spiritual message we have to learn is not only about forgiveness, kindness, compassion, understanding, but also about discernment – maybe it’s time to stop going into that particular room?
It is helpful to be clear that we can have positive feelings and wish the best for someone while at the same time having clear boundaries of engagement. Even if we have decided that it is better for us not to have any further contact with them, it is still healthy for us to be able to clear and let go of all negativity and resentment in our own minds and hearts and to even wish them well. A great way to work towards forgiveness and free us from the tentacles of negative thoughts and feelings is the Buddhist Metta or Loving Kindness meditation, where we wish all beings well. (Instructions below.) It can be repeated as often as required until the positive feelings around the person are maintained. The aim is that should we meet the person, (externally or in our thoughts,) we will have only positive or at least neutral feelings towards them.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting lessons learned. It can be easier to forgive when we realise that it does not mean we are letting the person ‘off the hook’ for what they have done – they are still accountable for their behaviour. But what it does mean is that we no longer hold feelings of hate, of anger, or resentment, we don’t want to see them die a horrible death and we don’t want to continue punishing them with our negative feelings because we realise that in order to to punish them with our negative thoughts and feelings, WE actually have to have those negative thoughts and feelings in the first place … not them. Forgiveness is refusing to be defined by someone else’s behaviour. Forgiveness won’t change the past, but it will free up the future.
“The holiest place on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love.’” A Course in Miracles.
And maybe, just maybe, when you have forgiven others, you can turn that loving light of forgiveness onto yourself and truly begin to forgive yourself for everything you have ever done, said, felt, thought, wanted, omitted, forgotten, been … for being you .. for not already being that perfect being who doesn’t actually exist. And maybe just begin to love yourself exactly as you are right now.
“Forgiveness takes time. It is the last stage of the grieving process.” Elin Nordegren
* METTA MEDITATION *
Begin with grounding, connecting and protecting if you are used to working this way.
Sit comfortably, either cross legged or with your back straight and soles of both feet on the floor. Set your intention for the meditation, (this might be forgiveness, or it might be to find greater inner peace – whatever is right for you.)
Relax and observe the breath, either at the belly or tip of the nostrils.
When you are ready, call to mind a being you love dearly. Enjoy the feelings of love you have for them. Think of all the things about them that you love, as you intensify the feelings of loving kindness, compassion and appreciation.
- Then, as if they were sitting in front of you, repeat, (with deep love, using their name,) “May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be blessed.” Pause as you say each, imagining it is so and feeling what you are saying, with great love. Repeat 3 times.
- Next repeat the process, (as far as possible holding the feelings of love,) this time call to mind someone you feel neutral about, maybe someone you don’t know very well.
- Next call to mind the person you are willing to forgive and do the same. Remember that they will still be accountable for their own actions. You are simply purifying yourself from feelings of ill will.
- Finally do the same for yourself.
Complete with a purification visualisation of golden source light flowing down through and around you. Then the dedication, “May all beings be safe. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be blessed, three times.
(You can vary the order – try starting with yourself if this works better for you.)
You can repeat the meditation as often as necessary until it is easier to hold the positive feelings when thinking of the person. It can be surprisingly easy sometimes to have beautiful loving feelings. But if not – allow it to take as long as it needs. And be aware that there may be other levels you need to look at and address.
For little things, especially when you have practiced the meditation previously, you can just go straight to the 4 statements while thinking of the person – whenever it happens and wherever you are. With practice, this can shift your thoughts and energy around them almost instantly, as long as you can emote the feelings of love at will. It can be helpful to briefly think of a loved one or an animal companion, feel your love for them, hold and enjoy those feelings, then supplant the person who has annoyed you. As you think of them with the loving feelings state, ‘…….. (name,) May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be blessed.’ X3