When even my dearest friend, whom I helped, unexpectedly turns against me may I view him as a great treasure, difficult to find’ Geshe Langri Thangpa
Forgiveness means changing the attitude of disappointment by cancelling the expectations and allowing an attitude of unconditional love to flow out to yourself and to the person who disappointed you. You can only release yourself or another from one expectation at a time. We do this by changing the expectations into preferences. The preference states how we would have liked things to be. Forgiveness is a decision not to punish ourselves anymore for the wrongs of others or our own wrong doing. It is a decision to re-enter into the flow of life and love. Edith Stauffer
Forgiveness is the accomplishment of mastery over a wound. It is the process in which the person first fights off, then embraces, then conquers a situation that has nearly destroyed them. Forgiving is also a gift given to the self (which releases) an injured person from the burdens and shackles of hate. Forgiveness is the ultimate liberator. It is not, however, easily accomplished. It is for those people who are willing to confront their pain, accept themselves as permanently changed, and make difficult choices.’ ‘Forgiving the Unforgivable overcoming the bitter legacy of intimate wounds. Beverly Flanigan
Those who forgive easily have both a lower resting blood pressure and smaller increases in blood pressure rate than bigger grudge-holders. Forgive to live longer. Psychology Today
A wise woman, Edith Stauffer taught me this process when in her eighties, a power packed, silver haired, little lady with incredible stamina and optimism.
Before you are ready to forgive she said, you first have to be ready and willing to let the wrong go. Then to name the injury, and reclaim it as your own. That can take a little time exploring the wrong doing, in balancing the scales, in concluding the blame and then, integrating the experience into life. And then, finally, it seems almost effortless allowing unconditional love to illuminate our life again.
A premature forgiveness, however, can rebound painfully. Some anger, like a fever, must run its course. Sometimes there has to be a full hearing, a prosecution and punishment of the wrongdoer before one is willing to forgive. Standing up for yourself and taking a firm stand with another may require the application of equal parts toughness and compassion that is tough love.
What if you have done all that and tried to forgive and still found the wrongs unforgivable, that you just can’t come at a free pardon for yourself or another? In the absence of genuine contrition, vigilant self-reflection and changed behaviour from the offender, how do you begin forgiving the unforgivable and feel safe near them or decide to move on and live again?
It starts and ends with your own stuff and in your own heart. Your support for this comes from a foundation of those who believed in us and stood by us in foul weather as well as in fair. It is through the years of other’s kindness, those inexplicable moments of sweetness that nourished you, even if only once. Some gifts like these are unbidden, undeserved you might think, an act of grace.
Then comes a time to ask yourself how long will you go on punishing yourself for being so stupid to let it go on for so long or for lying to yourself, family and friends about what was really happening? You may ask yourself at the end of the day if you get contrition and changed behaviour from the offender, will it be enough if you are still holding out on forgiving yourself.
Is it time to stop beating your self up? By holding yourself to an expectation that, as you were then you should have known better, told it like it was or behaved or even been born somehow different. Holding out on your self can be your betrayal of a moral contract with yourself on which your dignity and self-respect are built. This might be a greater and a more contemporary offence than the original inability to stop or leave the cruel situation.
Where do you begin to deal with injuries and betrayals inflicted in childhood that manifest now in the crazy ways you may now keep yourself safe from harm? Sometimes the traumatic payload of that hurt may need to be dealt with before forgiveness is even thinkable or practicable – post traumatic injury.
Sometimes you can forgive at the same time as knowing you will never get over it, like parents who have lost an adult child through a sudden death.
Sleeping with the enemy
We are never made whole… without at the same time being broken. Ronald S. Wallace
It takes juicy courage, gentle determination, secure containment and clear boundaries to forgive when you are daily reacting to real or symbolic recurrences of the original violations. You may have considered separating yourself from the person unless or until you can be assured that the events or anything like those that gave rise to the hurt, will never happen again.
When symbolic recurrences trigger your distress, it may also be that you are living out the effects of a post-traumatic injury in the symptoms of hyper-arousal, hyper-vigilance and intrusive thoughts or images of the event. A forgiveness process necessarily comes after an evidence based, clinical psychology, trauma healing process.
Or it may be your beloved is re-offending and deceiving themselves or you about it, such as an affair.
Betrayal of trust in an intimate relationship can be as traumatizing as witnessing a homicide. It is a death of sorts, in the very fabric of relationship. It is an intimate injury. It gets in so close to the heart, to the core that it may have threatened your existence. If it is also sexual betrayal, then a risk of STD or HIV compound the threat and the humiliation.
Even if it were possible to give full pardon to the injurer, sometimes you fear you might allow yourself to get hurt again. Sometimes this is a question of developing and trusting your own boundary setting and remaking your judgements about people and even about your core beliefs about life.
And if it were a parent, partner or child who was pathologically self-absorbed or involved recovered memories or who suffers bi-polar disorder? You are then likely to be talking about complicated traumatic grief.
Forgive and forget
Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s words typify a belief contributing to a bad press for forgiveness. Try telling that to one dispossessed of their language and culture. There are many ideological challenges to the process of forgiveness. It has acquired a mythology of its own, like the erroneous saying ‘forgive and forget’. Contrast that with the Anzac message ‘Lest We Forget’ and compare it to the response of some parts of our community to reconciliation and to refugees. Here are human Rights facts sheets from the UN.
No one who forgives can really expect as a result of that surrender, to totally forget the trespass, the violations nor the betrayal that gave rise to hurt. No more does forgiving mean you become a doormat for further betrayal than does saying sorry give you a license to do it all over again.
You can both forgive and leave the situation. That is easier said than done when it is a parent who themselves did not have a ‘normal’ childhood with the support of well-integrated parents and are now diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Depending on your circumstances and the healing of the trauma, what diminishes with forgiveness is the intensity and frequency of painful and intrusive recall of the events. You can expect to be less often tripped up or ambushed by your stuff or theirs.
As well, one’s sense of compassion increases, for all those who have suffered injustice or similar hurts. But one does not completely forget it happened. Forgiving yourself does not necessarily mean forgetting the wrongs. So go easy on yourself if you have truly forgiven and still occasionally look back and remember the mistakes or errors of judgment. There is much to learn from your wound it is potentially a great teacher and liberator.
Forgetting and denial are essential components of healthy living. It depends on how they are used and where the balance is.
Shame too can be a healthy boundary, which signals the line between right and wrong and it can also be toxic, destructive – totally condemning.
When chronic remembrance and toxic shame are combined, hatred ensues and that is a loveless, fear driven prosecution that can destroy both parties.
Sometime you have to ask yourself do you want to be right or happy?
Steps in forgiving an other
This forgiveness practice comes out of a decision you have consciously made, to no longer hurt yourself for the wrongs done by others, done by your self or due to other circumstances. It is a decision to re-enter the flow of life unconditionally, no longer cutting your life off from the web of exchange, restraining the joy and celebration of your life in some way, until some condition is met, some expectation fulfilled.
You do not do it initially face to face with the person but in the manner described in the two sections below. The transformation has first to occur with you and within you.
If at the conclusion of this process, it seems appropriate to forgive the person face to face, then you are of course free to do so, but that is not the intent of Edith Stauffer’s work. Her process is an ideal preparation for such a mission and a way to validate your truth and your readiness to forgive.
Key points in the process
Adopt a split-level approach to all instructions: On the one hand follow the instructions exactly, so that you can discover the experiences to which they point. On the other hand be sensitive to yourself and your own body. Assume that only sound expansive experiences are worth having. The moment doing it feels wrong in your body, stop following the instruction, and back up slightly. Stay there with your attention until you can sense exactly what is going wrong.
You start by facing an empty chair or an empty space where you imagine putting the person being forgiven. This externalises the process. Sometimes it is necessary to put them far away from you or have them represented by a photograph or a figure or a piece of clothing. You begin with a statement of will , which may contain some or all of the following elements.
“I choose to stop hurting myself for what (name of person) has done or is doing (or not done, not doing). I choose to name and reclaim my injury and to release (name of person) from debt and to end my prosecution of their wrongdoing. I choose to set them free and if necessary, to cut the ties that still bind me to (name of person). I choose to move forward.”
Next, you tell the imagined person exactly what they did or failed to do and how it impacted on you. You re-iterate specific and concrete events and recollections. In this part you are honestly stating how things were, without taking their side or offering an explanation for their omissions or commissions.
The next step is to tell them how you would have preferred them to be. Here you are changing your expectations of them, as they were then and as they are now, into preferences. This is a small step in word but a giant step in language, in how you think about your experience. It is like cancelling a goal or an ambition or a fervent hope that the other person should change the way they had been then or now. As if you are no longer willing to wait for or work for something to happen in their life before taking you life back and getting on with living.
You acknowledge how it actually is or was with them and you cancel your expectations, one at a time, that they ever be or do otherwise. The cancelling can be done with a gesture of decisive action such as running one palm off the other or pushing down to the ground, which engages the physical body in letting go. You cancel all your demands and expectations of them one at a time.
Then you take a clear, strong and liberating step, saying something like this:
“I give you (back) responsibility for your life, your words, your actions, your inactions, your deeds, I take (back) responsibility for my life, my words, my deeds, my actions and my inactions.”
You then raise your consciousness to your higher self or to a higher power or place of wisdom as you understand that. Particularly to that aspect of that knowledge that is within you and a part of you. The Essenes called it the Naphsha, and visualized it as a light, much like a guiding star above your head.
Every being, each family, every community and nation was understood to have a guiding star. Knowing this, it is possible to use this process to forgive a family, a community or even a whole nation. The Essenes described this place as one where divine qualities reside, where one draws on a depth of tenderness, compassion, wisdom and understanding, which at times appears greater than we thought we were capable of. Today we might think of this as residing in the heart space, which connects us to all of life but in this forgiveness process it also helps to have an external location that is above the fray.
Edith Stauffer suggested people stand on a chair in order to enter that space more clearly and get more distance from the situation. From this elevated perspective, you review the whole of your life with kindness and compassion, and allow your heart to open to the exchange of love again. You open your heart to tenderness, compassion, unconditional love and acceptance of yourself just as you are now and as you were then. You imagine the energy of this flooding down into your body, washing you, cleansing you and filling you with whole, holy, wholesome wellbeing. This can be imagined as light, as colour, as a silken caress anything, which is meaningful to you.
And then, you connect that love from your guiding star to the other person’s guiding star, your higher self to their higher self, your wisdom to theirs how ever you understand that.
Sometimes this will only be possible when you are ready to stop the blame, close the case for the prosecution and release the person from any debt that has held them to you. Sometimes getting up higher still, onto a table even, can help surpass rather than dissociate from these issues.
At some level of higher consciousness you are both in the same hologram, are the same and are equally in the process of becoming. You might imagine at this level both your crown charkas are perfect and your connection with all beings undivided. Way below this is the ego caught in the cycles of rebirth, which may continue until all beings are happy.
The process step by step
- “I choose to stop punishing myself for what (name of person) has done (not done) or is doing (or not doing). I reclaim my injury and I choose to release (name of person) from debt and to end my prosecution of their wrongdoing. I choose to set them free and if necessary, to cut the ties that bind me to (name of person). I choose to move forward.”
- Address the person as you imagine them – use a chair, cushion, or coloured cloth to represent them. Use specific and concrete words to depict each of the damaging events that occurred. If there are many, cluster them eg most Friday nights, most school holidays, each time I was pregnant, etc…“You did/did not …That hurt me by……………… I would have preferred that you had said/done/felt/believed ………………”
- “But you didn’t do that. I will not punish myself any more for this. I am finished with the pain of holding onto it. I relinquish it, I let it go completely and welcome healing and creativity into the space I’ve now made.”
As you breathe this out use a physical gesture of release like opening both hands and arms out, empty and then, as you experience the space so created, slowly breathe into it, welcoming with open arms the life force coming home.
- “I cancel all demands, expectations, and conditions that you do (or say or be) what I would have preferred then and now. I cancel the demand that you be in any particular way. You are totally responsible for your actions and for your life. That is completely your responsibility (and I release you now to your own good).”
As you breathe out use a physical gesture in saying this also. Repeat this sentence and gesture for each of the expectations you held of this person until you notice you are done. Breathe in the choice you have made to live your own life then,
- Allow your eyes to softly close and notice your consciousness arising in the higher self or however you imagine that. Imagine the love that Life or the higher self as you know it, had for you then and has for you now. Sense the eternal compassion and love from there. It may be represented in your mind as a sight, a colour, a sound, a touch, even a fragrance or a taste. Allow it to flow into you in whichever way it will and release all the demands, conditions and expectations that you have held on to.
Feel or sense the positive qualities of the higher self, that part of you that has protected you, loved you, and nurtured you all the days of your life. This is the ‘you’ that will never leave you, though you may at times have lost touch with this sanctuary. Sometimes it helps to remember a teacher or a guide or a friend from whom you experienced this gift of unconditional acceptance and love. Someone who believed in you, stood by you, no matter what.
Sometimes we can feel this for and from an animal or a pet, but not for ourselves. If that is the case then bring that also to mind and imagine that love and kindness coming back to you, from above or below or from somewhere within you. Use the senses that work best for you.
- With your eyes softly closed, continue to feel or sense in any way that works for you, the love from this sacred place. Breathe it in and out with every breath and each heartbeat.
“I send this love out from my higher self to you just as you are now and as you were then, and I release you to your highest good.”
Allow this love to flow from your greatest good out to this person’s greatest good. Take your time to experience it. If you are not ready for this stage, then it may be that you are not willing to let it go, to finish with the balancing or with blame, or that you are still holding onto some expectation waiting to be turned into a preference. It may help to go back over the earlier stages to check on this. Or it may be that you have also to forgive yourself in some way, as yet unspoken. If that is the case go on to the next section, and then come back and attempt step 6 above.
- Now become aware of your body. Do a slow, complete body scan with full awareness. Check out if you are holding on anywhere, grasping any demand that this person change in any way. Sometimes the holding place is difficult to reach with the mind, as if it were behind you or somewhere unreachable. Interview that body space or location. If it had a voice what would it say? If it had a movement or gesture, what would it be? A colour, a sound, a scent? What meaning does this have for you now?
If something still feels incomplete, ask, ‘what is this’?’ and just sit with that for a while. An answer will come in some form and you can proceed. When you have done what you can and it is good enough, allow a sense of deep gratitude to arise, for a life in which you can experience love and can send love to one forgiven.
Thanking your teachers and guides, make a prayer for yourself and for others who may be in need of this soul food.
Forgiving one’s self
Forgiveness begins and ends here, for ultimately the only life we have any hope of mastering is our own. ‘You can try to run from your own wounds, but you’ll leave a trail of blood anyway’
The process of forgiving another may have helped to clarify where you were blocked in forgiving yourself. Sometimes we blame ourselves many years after the event, for staying in a situation too long or not long enough, or for having misjudged that place or those people so badly at that time. There is a statute of limitations on prosecuting many crimes and misdemeanours, but few of us choose a cut-off point for our own.
We maintain the attitude and the goal that we should have known better or tried harder then and now. We hold ourselves to fulfilling that failed goal, without cancelling or modifying it in the light of new experience. We live under a small cloud of condemnation, until we can make it right in some way. I see adult children returning to the family of origin, longing for a change in the relationships and every time coming away empty handed, sick in the guts. When the parents are in their eighties and the kids in their fifties, I sense something is awry. ‘Insanity doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.’
In this way, we block or disallow the free flow of unconditional love for ourselves, that the rest of our life might bring us if only we would live it fully. We block others from caring for us, and not letting in their recognition and affirmation of us. If we fully open our hearts to life we are going to have the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows.
The state of un-forgiveness can feel like a half-life or a half-empty life. It is a life lived in fear. An unlived life. We can be tricky with it and make ourselves know the life that is half-full, half-lived and ignore the rest. And, bizarrely, this can even feel righteous. We can do this until the unlived life can be silenced no more.
We live this until we are ready to cancel the expectations that we ought to have behaved in a different way at the time in our lives when we were hurt. It is almost as if we set a goal to be all knowing and powerful. Yet when faced with the failure of that goal, we wilfully maintain an attitude that if only we had done or not done something then, we could have prevented the impact of those events. In this way we keep an unlikely goal alive and judge ourselves for continued failure to achieve it. In the grieving process this is called bargaining. Eric Fromm called it fear of freedom.
The process step by step
This process is much the same as forgiving the other, because we have in some sense made ourselves ‘other’ some part of our self became ‘not me’ after we were hurt. Sometimes this is experienced as a fragmenting of self, which we may recognise by self-critical inner talk.
- Try out these warm up, unfinished sentences.
a. The essence of the issue I have yet to forgive myself for is ..?
b. This issue has played out in my life in the following pattern.?
c. If I forgave myself I would be free to ….?
d. If I forgave myself my loved ones would ..?
e. If I forgave myself my life would ….?
f. Up until now my barrier to forgiving myself has been .?
g. The wisest thing I can tell myself about this is …..?
h. Significant others will know I have forgiven myself when ..?
j. I will know I have forgiven myself when …?
- Choose a special place, inside yourself and also in the external environment, to make contact with the truth of you. It may help to go on a self-guided meditation to find or to create or to visit your inner sanctuary. Position yourself there in a way and with a gesture that affirms that this is your place and your time. You have a right to be here, now. You are welcome. All the resources that you need for this moment are or will be available as the need arises. This moment is sacred. Do what any reasonable person would do to secure such a time and place from intrusion or interruption. Quieten yourself, aware of your breathing and the sensations in your body, and when ready affirm:
“I reclaim my life. I choose to stop punishing myself for what I have done (not done) or am doing (or not doing). I choose to pardon and release myself from any debt I owe to myself and to end the prosecution of me, (say your name), for this issue. I choose to set myself free from this and to move forward.”
Allow your consciousness to arise in the greatest good in you or in Higher Self as you know it to be. Ask there, in the manner you feel appropriate, for forgiveness of…(whatever you seek forgiveness for). It may help to bring to mind other times in your life when you have received great kindness and unconditional acceptance from another being or to call on your teachers or guides in this moment of necessity.
- Next adopt a gesture of a receptivity that opens to the core of your being. With eyes softly closed, body softly held, move physically or in imagination to the place of higher self (if that is okay with you) or near to where the Higher Self resides, looking on your personal self, below. From here you will be transmitting to the receiver below. If this hierarchy doesn’t fit (and for anyone hurt in an institution this could be a problem) find an arrangement that allows for the exchange.
As Higher Self, align yourself with kindness, compassion, unconditional love and understanding. Sense these qualities with full awareness. Breathe them in and out as the Higher Self. With gentle breath, send these qualities to the personal self. Sometimes it helps to stand on a chair or a table or outdoors on a rock or another elevation, where you can look to where you first began.
- Speak to the personal self, assuring her you forgive what they have asked forgiveness for. You release her from any debt and grant her full pardon for whatever she has asked forgiveness for and even for what she may not have named in asking forgiveness for.
- In quiet contemplation of what has transpired, notice anything further that higher self may wish to offer your personal self.
- As this process reaches a lull, return to the first receptive position physically and in imagination and hang out there for a while, receiving and absorbing the forgiveness and love being transmitted from that place of higher self, in whatever form it took.
- Knowing that you can return to this place whenever you choose, offer whatever appreciations and farewells seem appropriate to the moment and go back and check in with what you wrote in answer to the warm up questions at the beginning.
- Consider how you can give your learning from this experience to the world in order to promote a more forgiving culture.
- Consider a regular practice of loving-kindness, such as the one below, quoted from Chapter 16 of ‘being zen bringing meditation to life’ by Ezra Bayda. Shambhala 2002. The author is a student of Joko Beck and of Pema. I particularly recommend Tonglen.
Ezra Bayda’s instructions for this practice of Loving Kindness include: “on the in breath bring awareness, via the breath, into the heart region as you exhale silently say (the first line below) to yourself. Repeat this a couple of times with the breath before moving onto the next line. Direct your awareness to the area indicated in each line first to the centre of your heart, second to what clouds it, third to everything around you and within you, fourth extending whatever loving kindness arises to other beings, including any specific people who may come into your awareness. In the second paragraph, breathe in the image of a person close to you for whom you have positive feelings, and to whom you wish to extend loving kindness, breathe her presence into the heart space and on the out breath extend loving kindness to them while repeating the four lines. In the third paragraph bring into awareness all beings however you may conceive this. Breathe them into the heart space and on the out breath extend loving kindness as you repeat each sentence.”
May I dwell in the open heart.
May I attend to whatever clouds the heart.
May I be awake in this moment, just as it is.
May the awakened heart be extended to all beings.
May you dwell in the open heart.
May your suffering be healed.
May you be awake in this moment, just as it is.
May the awakened heart be extended to all beings.
May the hearts of all beings be awakened.
May the suffering of beings be healed.
May all beings be awake in this moment, just as it is.
May all being awaken their hearts to one another.