“…everything can be taken from us but the last of human freedoms…the freedom to choose our spirit in any circumstance.”
Viktor E Frankl
‘The Heart & Soul of Forgiveness’ is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 21 Days of Living Mindfully, offering a timely topic for starting the New Year off from a place of inner peace and compassion. I hope that you will find the words and suggestions to be gifts – or at the very least, an opportunity to consider, as you follow your own path towards living mindfully.
Traditionally, the work of the heart begins and ends with forgiveness. To heal, we must forgive. To live mindfully, we must forgive. But first, we need a clear and wise understanding of forgiveness. Once that is accomplished, we become more able to forgive both others and ourselves.
Forgiveness is a letting go of past pain and betrayal – releasing the burden of hate that we carry. Forgiveness honors the heart’s greatest dignity and purity. When we are lost, it brings us back to our center and to our ability and our choice to love. With forgiveness, we become unwilling to wish harm on another, no matter the circumstance. When we forgive, we free ourselves from the past and its grasp and hold on our heart. Even in the worst experience, our heart can be free.
Often, though, we find ourselves in difficult situations and our problems and feelings can seem insurmountable. Pain, anger and fear arise, and we want desperately to find a way out of our suffering. We need to know how to forgive and why forgiveness is a virtue that is necessary for health and healing.
To be clear, forgiveness does not mean we condone a certain situation or that it is necessary to pretend that nothing has happened. It means, instead, that a conscious act of letting go of the past, of betrayal, anger, and disappointment is made which is freeing and allows for the heart to soften once again. Forgiveness is good for well-being: the act of forgiving, of letting go, frees us from anger and bitterness, allows a release of the tension in the body, and allows to move forward with life. Forgiveness releases us from the power of fear. It allows us to see with kind eyes and to rest with a wise heart.
So how do we begin? In any moment we can learn to let go of anger and fear. It is never too late to live in peace, love and forgiveness. Yet to sustain the practice of forgiveness and kindness, we need to develop practices that cultivate and strengthen our natural sense of compassion. It is not enough to know that forgiveness is possible. We have to become familiar with skillful ways to navigate forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others.
Let’s look at four truths that reveal the heart and soul of forgiveness
First: Forgiveness is not weak or naive.
Forgiveness requires courage and clarity: it is not a naïve thing. People mistakenly believe that to forgive is to simply “forgive and forget” – just that – once and for all. This is not the wisdom of forgiveness. Sometimes it is impossible and not even desirable to forget. This is asking, often, too much of us and can cause guilt if we are unable to “forget” on demand. The action that heals is forgiveness –letting go of past anger and hatred, letting the heart ease its grip on resentment and judgment.
Second: Forgiveness does not happen quickly.
For a great injustice, a deep pain, embracing forgiveness may ask for a long process of grief, outrage, sadness, loss and possibly great suffering. True forgiveness does not gloss over what has happened in any sort of superficial way. It is not an attempt to ignore or suppress our pain. It is, instead, something that can’t be hurried. It is a deep process that is repeated often in the heart, which honors grief and betrayal, and in its own time, ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.
Third: Forgiveness does not forget nor does it condone the past.
Forgiveness is willing to acknowledge what is unjust, harmful and just plain wrong. It recognizes the sufferings of the past and understands the conditions that contributed to the suffering. There is a power and strength in forgiveness. When we forgive we are also saying: “Never again will I allow these things to happen in the way they did.” These moments can be life changing, empowering and deeply healthy.
Fourth: Forgiveness does not mean that we have to continue to relate to those who have done us harm.
For some people the best practice may be to end our connection with a person in a complete way. Sometimes, in the process of forgiveness, a person who hurt or betrayed us may wish to make amends, but even this does not require us to put ourselves in the way of further harm. We have the power, permission and ability to “just say no” and be at peace with those words.
In the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.
One of the most common places we get stuck is holding on to resentment. If there is even one person we are unwilling to forgive, our heart closes from bitterness and will prevent us from experiencing the equanimity of genuine happiness.
Forgiveness is a quality of the awakened, mindful heart. Sadly, it does not come to us naturally. Forgiveness takes practice and determination. Many of us hold on tightly to “being right” when we feel that someone has done us wrong, even when that way of thinking clearly brings us unhappiness. Never underestimate how difficult it is to give up resentments! Fortunately, part of the practice of forgiveness, and part of the path toward genuine happiness, is to first acknowledge whatever blocks the path. We start where we are, not where we think we should be.
Ask yourself: Am I willing to surrender to ‘what is’? Whatever you are feeling – whether it is hurt anger, resentment, bitterness, or fear – try to stay with the physical experience of the emotion. How does the body feel? Label any strong thoughts that arise, but keep coming back to the body over and over again. Gradually, try to breathe the painful feelings into the center of the chest on the in breath, until they can rest there peacefully. This may take a number of practice sessions, so patience will be called for as well as equanimity: the art of keeping an even keel as the experience unfolds.
Since this is a “work in progress” there is no need to feel any pressure to have things a certain way. It takes many times to begin to establish a forgiveness practice. Be kind to yourself and above all, be patient and compassionate.
“To remember the transformative power of forgiveness and loving kindness is life saving. To remember that no matter where you are and what you face, within your heart peace is always possible.”