We were teaching a forgiveness workshop when John, one of the participants, told us that his brother had continually abused and even molested him as a child. He said quite emphatically that he would never forgive him. After John had spoken, there were a few minutes of shocked silence, another participant gently said, “If you can’t forgive, then you can’t dance, you can’t sing, and you can’t smile.”
Those few words exactly describe the emotional blocking that takes place when there is no forgiveness. Our ability to dance—to move emotionally, to give, to love, to feel alive and free—gets stuck. All the pain, grief, and hurt get held in this immovable place. We cannot move forward when a part of us is locked in the past.
All around us is the evidence of a lack of forgiveness: broken families, self-hate, guilt and shame leading to depression, huge amounts of anger, bitterness, and closed-heartedness. We learn to live by ignoring this dark place without realizing how deeply limiting it is, how it holds back our joy and laughter. We point the finger and see the other person as the cause of the suffering but we do not see how, by holding onto hurt feelings, we are simply creating more grief for ourselves.
Deb used to work with the elderly. As she recalls: “I worked in a nursing home where I saw numerous residents clinging to incidents from the past: words said in anger, distorted memories of how they had been wronged by children who had disagreed with them and left in anger. So much bitterness. They could not let go, even now, so near to dying. Over the years the hurt and anger had become solid, fixed, and immovable, as if they were surrounded by prison bars.”
How many times have you rerun the tape, gone over the details of who said what to whom, of how it all happened, of the injustice and blame or the guilt and shame? How many times have you done this, and did it ever help you feel healed, more joyful, or happier? How often do you have to repeat this before you see that all of it is going nowhere other than prolonging your unhappiness?
We are not trying to be simplistic. From a rational point of view, it can seem impossible to forgive: You are hurt and want revenge, it is the other person’s fault, so why should you forgive? But if we want to reach closure then we have to confront this desire to hold on to the story, for this simply causes further suffering. We are the ones feeling the pain, and the longer we hold on, the more suffering we cause ourselves.
To forgive includes fully acknowledging our feelings: how angry, upset, betrayed, bitter, or indignant we are; how unfair life is; how let down and sad we feel, and that it is absolutely okay to be this way. We know and feel the pain, but the desire to no longer continue the suffering is stronger; we care enough about ourselves to not want to carry the anger or sadness any longer.
If we do not forgive it is like carrying heavy baggage that weighs us down so we cannot go forward, but nor can we be without it as it contains our history and identity. Or it is like holding on to hot coals but we are the ones getting burned. Letting go of the past, of the story and the details, enables us to open to the present, to who we are now. We do not need to live in the drama, to keep the story alive, to maintain suffering. We can come back to sanity and goodness and bring that sanity into our lives.
As Gangaji says in our book, Be The Change: “We have all experienced being hurt by someone, such as our parents, lover, or friend. But it is not about denying the hurt; it’s actually about opening and meeting the hurt, and then the hurt itself becomes a deepening of our heart. In that moment, it is natural for forgiveness to occur.”
Sitting in meditation, we can come to forgiveness and bring compassion to ourselves, making friends with who we are, knowing we cannot change the past but we can change our attitude toward it. As we do this a remarkable thing begins to happen. The boundaries that normally keep us isolated from intimacy, boundaries that have been maintained over the years to protect us from being hurt, begin to come down, like old walls crumbling and falling.
In this way, forgiveness is truly revolutionary. It releases the pain of the past so we are free to live in the present. It changes fear and hate into love and acceptance, just as an oyster uses the irritation from a grain of sand to produce the beauty of a pearl. It enables us to live with kindness and caring.
You can develop forgiveness for yourself for another. You may want to meditate on just one of these areas when you do this practice. Find a comfortable place to sit, and settle your attention on your breathing.
1. Focus on memories, feelings or issues that you have not forgiven yourself for. Simply observe, without attachment. Hold yourself with care and tenderness, inviting forgiveness. Silently keep repeating: “I forgive myself, for my words and actions, intentional or unintentional, I forgive myself. May I be peaceful and filled with loving kindness.” Keep breathing, letting the breath open and soften your heart.
2. Now focus on one person you wish to forgive. Breathe out any resistance or anger, and breathe in forgiveness and gentleness. Silently keep repeating: “I forgive you, for your words and actions, intentional or unintentional, I forgive you. May you be peaceful and filled with loving kindness.” Be gentle with yourself. Do not get sidetracked by the details of what happened. Let go of the story and breathe in forgiveness.
Feel the joy of forgiveness throughout your whole being. When you are ready, take a deep breath and slowly let it go.