Practicing Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a process that allows you to release negative emotions so that they don't cause you further rumination and suffering.

You can't fully move on in life if you allow bitterness and anger to reside in your heart or to consume you.  Forgiving the person (or persons) who wronged you doesn't mean that you erase the memory of what happened, condone their behavior, agree to reconcile, or minimize their actions.

Let's be clear - forgiveness isn't about whether the person who harmed you is deserving of your forgiveness.  It's about deciding that your health, your peace of mind, and your happiness are simply more important.

You can't change the event that transpired, but you have 100% control over your reaction and attitude towards what occurred and whether to let the transgression continue to affect your life.  Continuing to assign blame or negative judgment towards the person who harmed you only serves to keep you stuck in victim mode.  If you continue to tell yourself such things as, "This isn't fair," or "I didn't deserve this," or "Why me?" you are allowing yourself to remain victimized.  This type of negative thinking only magnifies the situation, making it worse.

The act of forgiveness transcends your natural egoic response of needing to be right while making someone else wrong.  Forgiveness dissolves the urge to punish wrongdoing or to seek revenge again the person who hurt you.  Finally, forgiveness allows you to move past judgment into understanding and even compassion or empathy.  It allows you to take back control over your emotions and to take responsibility for how you're feeling in any given moment.  The other person may have been responsible for what they did to you in the past, but you are solely responsible for where you are in life right now.  If you're unhappy with your life, you can carve out a new path for yourself starting today.

True forgiveness is unconditional and is not dependent upon the other person taking responsibility for their actions or for apologizing to you.  You effectively choose to let go of any unmet expectations that you have about the person or the situation.  For instance, you may want the person who harmed you to seek your forgiveness or to show remorse for their behavior.  You may want a justifiable explanation from them about why they did what they did.  Maybe an apology or explanation would improve your relationship.  Maybe having any sort of relationship with this person was not and will not ever be a possibility.

Unconditional forgiveness means that you forgive them regardless of whether any conditions are met.  You choose to forgive because it's the kindest, most compassionate and loving thing that you can do for yourself.

A study by John Hopkins showed the detrimental effects of "unforgiveness."  Chronic anger puts you in a "fight or flight" mode, affecting your heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and sleep patterns.  This type of prolonged or recurrent stress can be damaging both physically and emotionally. 

Although most cultures have their own versions of a forgiveness practice, the idea that forgiveness leads to one's own peace is a universal concept.  Forgiveness isn't always easy, and it rarely happens immediately after the offense has taken place.  Forgiveness is a process that usually occurs over time - sometimes taking years or even decades to fully work through.

Consider what your anger and resentment has cost you up until this point.  You've probably heard the adage, "For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind."  Have you ever considered what your pain or suffering has cost others that you care about?  What does your future look like if you are unable to find forgiveness?

Looking at the event from a different lens can sometimes allow you to become more compassionate and empathetic towards the person who wronged you.  You may have heard of Gestalt Therapy and the Empty Chair technique.

This technique usually takes place in a clinical setting between a patient and therapist.  The patient may or may not be placed in front of an empty chair.  The patient is supposed to envision the person who wronged them sitting in a chair across from them.  They verbalize their feelings about what happened to the imaginary person.  The next step in the process is for them to switch proverbial seats.  They put themselves in the other person's shoes and respond to the conversation from the other person's perspective. 

They might consider what the other person’s family life looked like growing up. They might imagine what kind of world view they adopted given their upbringing.  They might also consider whether the other person was struggling with addiction, depression, mental illness, or other issues. They might even think about what their state of mind was at the time of the transgression.  This can sometimes create new insights that foster compassion and empathy. 

Meditation is another wonderful tool to help with the process of forgiveness.  In meditation, you quiet your mind and allow your thoughts and feelings to arise while objectively observing them.  You don’t question or judge your thoughts and feelings.  You simply allow them space to exist.  Over time, you realize that your thoughts and feelings are transient.  They simply come and go, and you realize that they were never really “attached” to you, making them easier to release.

Forgiveness Meditation Exercise:

Find a quiet space to sit or lie down where you will be uninterrupted for 20-30 minutes.  Take a few deep cleansing breaths in through your nose and exhaling out through your mouth.

Set the intention for the person or situation that you would like to forgive before beginning your meditation. 

Allow yourself the opportunity to fully experience any memories, thoughts and feelings about the person or the specific event.  If there are multiple events, just choose one.  This can be very emotional, and you may begin to cry or become intensely angry or upset.  Just know that this is completely natural, and a necessary part of the healing process.  It’s important to let your emotions surface so that they can be dealt with. 

Once you reach a point where no new thoughts and feelings emerge…repeat the following statement in your mind:

“I am a loving being. 

I choose to release any feelings preventing me from fully experiencing love and joy. 

I choose the path of forgiveness. 

I choose the path to inner peace.” 

Repeat this phrase (or something else that resonates with you) several times until you feel any remaining hurt, anger or tension dissolve.  Allow yourself a few moments of silence, then open your eyes.