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Before Forgiveness

May 07, 2021

Those who have taken my class know that I warn about “spiritual bypass” — a tendency to cling to happiness practices in a way that ignores real suffering that may also be there, just as highway bypasses can carry us quickly over homeless encampments and the suffering and injustice around us. When I hear people talk about “forgiveness,” there are times when I sense that spiritual bypass could be taking place.

Forgiveness is important - it’s a key to our freedom. To dwell in anger and resentment is like living in a prison that blocks us off from the flow of life. However, just like most things that bring spiritual freedom: forgiveness is not an easy path or process. In this post, I’m speaking of forgiveness as it relates to people who have caused us serious harm, such as abuse.

If forgiveness for a serious transgression comes too easily, it may not be real. When people advise others to forgive without acknowledging the wronged person’s need to first attend to their own wounds, it can add to the harm. It centers attention on the transgressor, the person who needs to be forgiven, rather than on the person who has been harmed.

Survivors of abuse in particular need to know they are important, and have the harm they experienced be seen and acknowledged - by themselves and those who support them. That is part of the healing they need. Before true forgiveness can occur, we need to bring healing care to the harm that has been done. The best way I know to do this is by what Tara Brach calls “the U-turn.” This is where we turn our gaze and attention from the situation of harm, from the person who has caused harm, to our own experience. That means: what is happening in my body? What are the emotions that are here? What were the messages that were transmitted or received in the act of harm? And what is the antidote? (Hint: the antidote is almost always some version of love: feeling worthy, feeling important, feeling safe, feeling protected, feeling seen, feeling heard, feeling understood, feeling included … all the varied flavors of love).

Giving ourselves and receiving the love we needed is a key to deep healing. This healing can be like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold, which makes the piece stronger and more beautiful.

Once we identify the feelings and the needs, we give ourselves that which we need in our meditation practice. Other modalities such as psychotherapy, somatic therapy, bodywork, and acupuncture can play important roles in healing from past harm or trauma. In an ideal world, restorative justice would play an important part in healing as well. Attending to and healing ourselves is often the most empowering thing we have available to us, the realm in which we have the most agency.

Getting in touch with those painful feelings is not easy - it can be like walking through the fire. We often need the witness and support of caring and reliable others to do so. But when we can find refuge in universal love, compassion, and inclusiveness, forgiveness can flow. We can release ourselves from the grip of anger, resentment, and bitterness. It’s not something we have to work at - it can be a natural outcome of our own healing.

by Prajna Choudhury, Inner Peace, Outer Peace Teacher

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