On Forgiveness

Sep 20, 2023
Reflections on Inner Peace, Outer Peace

The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, about forgiveness and atonement, as well as the start of autumn, a time of harvesting lessons and letting go of the past like the falling leaves, is a ripe time to reflect on Forgiveness.

I was at a large family gathering recently, infused with the energy of love, harmony, and celebration. I feel fortunate to come from a large family that celebrates and enjoys coming together, with no one left out or left behind or taking themselves out. But it also felt poignant how forgiveness has to play a role in this, over decades and lifetimes. Because we are all human, and there are always going to be transgressions and hurt feelings, large and small.

So I’ve been reflecting on how important forgiveness is—for connection, for the freedom of our own hearts, and being able to give and receive love. However, it can be a very misunderstood practice. Perhaps the biggest mistake people make with forgiveness is trying to force it. True forgiveness cannot be forced, or it won’t lead to freedom. Also, contrary to the popular phrase, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting.  Burying things as if they did not happen denies our experience and the part of us that felt hurt or harmed. That can actually hinder true forgiveness, which is a heart opening practice. 

Personal healing is a prerequisite for true forgiveness. Self-healing involves holding with compassion that part of ourselves that felt hurt or harmed. We may need a therapist, or skilled friend, to help us by listening deeply as we share our experience. Our support person should be able to hold our experience with compassion, without adding more fuel to the fire of our resentment or outrage. Growing and getting stuck in those feelings can take up the space needed for our feelings to shift and transform. 

It can help to express our hurt by writing a letter to the person who harmed us. Sending the letter is optional, depending on the circumstances. Before sending a letter or having a conversation with the person, it is wise to pause and discern if there is enough safety to do so. Is there an ongoing pattern of harm? Does the other person have the capacity to hear and understand us?  If they have mental health issues, active addiction, or other blocks or barriers that interfere with their ability to truly hear us, their response may do further harm. It is helpful to assess ourselves as well. Do we intend to express only anger and blame? Or are we prepared to share our hurt and vulnerability, and maybe even some strengths or good qualities we see in the other person? If we do not approach with openness, our message has little chance of being received or heard, which will ultimately cause us more pain. We should also be prepared to listen deeply to the other person’s experience as well, though we may ask for that to happen at a separate time.

If there’s trauma involved, it would be wise to engage trauma healing practices, such as EMDR or writing therapy. PTSD occurs when the body and spirit gets stuck in the state of trauma, or the traumatic event. Even if we cognitively know that it’s not happening to us right now, our nervous system keeps responding as if it is. We may habitually run the same thoughts and stories over and over in our mind—about not being safe, how we were wronged, how we can’t trust. As Sister Dang Nghiem teaches, people often magnify the impact of the trauma and inflict more suffering and harm on themselves, by continuing to rehearse and revisit that moment in their minds. Trauma healing treatments and therapies help our bodies and minds to get out of that stuck pattern—to “rewrite” our story—so that the event can behave like other, non-traumatic memories in our lives. Knowing that it happened in the past, we can put it away in the file cabinet of our lives, rather than the memory behaving like an experience that is still happening today.

Healing is a process, of course. It rarely happens all at once and who knows if we are ever truly “done.” But I think some level of self-healing needs to occur before we can approach true forgiveness. Making peace with ourselves and our experience, teaching our bodies that what happened is in the past and not occurring right now, allows us to be fully present and available to experience life as it is right now.

Ultimately, the process of self-healing usually leads to being able to see the other person in their full humanity as well. But that can normally occur only after we’ve held our own vulnerability —not just the anger, but the tender feelings below the anger. For forgiveness to happen, we need to be able to hold the bigger picture - one in which both parties, and the situation, are held by something larger. This could be God, Spirit, Nature, Love, the Universe—however you like to think about it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous poem Please Call Me By My True Names speaks to this “something larger that holds it all.” Here is an excerpt:

“... I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”

Hold that there was a vulnerable person (yourself) who was hurt or harmed. You are resilient and healing. This experience was part of who you became, but does not define who you are. You, like every other human, have experienced suffering and deserve compassion.

Hold that there was another person, perhaps overcome by ignorance, unskillfulness, misperception, or their own past experiences of trauma that they had not healed from. Like so many, or even all, humans, knowingly or unknowingly, they caused hurt or harm to another. 

Hold that there was a break or a rift, and that there is also a possibility of healing. In the words of Rumi, “the wound is where the light enters you.” And like kintsugi, the Japanese “art of precious scars,”—in which broken pottery is mended with molten gold to hold the pieces together—these “precious scars” make a stronger, more complex and beautiful piece.

Much of the time, forgiveness is not a one time, all-or-nothing, quick process. It may happen over the course of years. In my own experience, I have seen and felt the higher vibration and frequency of love that is present when it happens in an authentic way - when our heart can be open, even in just accepting the past, and understanding even to a small degree, the person who caused us hurt or harm.

Connection and harmony, especially among family or others we care about, feels more important now than ever. At a time when it can feel like our society and the world are coming apart at the seams, forgiveness is part of the glue, the gold, that can keep us together, and allow us to both give and receive the love all people need.

by Prajna Choudhury
[email protected]

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