Forgiveness is good for us. It is a voluntary process of letting go of feelings of offence, anger, hurt, and resentment – whether the person deserves it or not. Forgiveness releases the victim (that’s you) from being a carrier of bitterness and suffering. It is a natural resolution of a grief process.
If I develop bad feelings toward those who make me suffer, this will only destroy my own peace of mind. But if I forgive, my mind becomes calm. Dalai Lama
Forgiveness is an act of love, undertaken by the mind as an act of will as much as love and compassion, and is a tool for growth and development. As such, forgiveness is a ‘pillar of purpose’, and a powerful resource in our lives.
Most religions of the world offer teachings on forgiveness.
In the Christian church forgiveness plays an important role as the basis for acceptance by God with Jesus asking in the last moments of his life “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. (Luke 23;34). The phrase to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us” in the Lord Prayer offer a teaching of both asking and giving.
In Judaism a whole day is dedicated to forgiveness every year – the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. During this time a person is to reflect and atone for any wrongdoing. On receiving an apology, a person who is wronged is religiously bound to forgive the offender and forgiveness considered a pious act (Deot 6:).
The word Islam has root in the word ‘peace’ with forgiveness as a prerequisite position to obtain ‘real peace’. The Qur’an holds that “those who pardon (forgive) and maintain righteousness are rewarded by God. He does not love the unjust” (Qur’an 42:40).
The Baha’i faith believes all human beings are equal in God’s creation – “forgive all, consider the whole of humanity as our own family, the whole earth as our own country, be sympathetic with all suffering, nurse the sick, offer a shelter to the exiled, help the poor and those in need, dress all wounds and share the happiness of each one” (Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy).
Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation and that forgiveness should not only be asked for and given, but that proper reflection and acts of charity, meditation and purification have place in the process. Forgiveness embraces the concept of mercy, compassion and grace with unbound unconditional love. Forgiveness is seen as a restraint on the power of intolerance and hatred.
Traditionally Buddhism does not recognise that human dealings are ‘transactional’ so the idea of being in debt or needing to atone are not directly applicable. However, an interpretation of Buddhist forgiveness is to ‘let go’ of an offence, be released from suffering and increase harmony in life, rather than asking forgiveness from a person or God.
It can be argued that the inclination to forgive is present in us all – but is it? Morally we are brought up in this world of dualism … the sacred and the profane, saint and sinner, right and wrong. But surely it is in the wisdom distilled from the learnings of our lives, the experiences, understandings, and the compassion of forgiveness found, that gives us perceptions and insights into the purpose of life itself.
Our perception of right and wrong is subjective as Tolstoy said:
It’s not given to people to judge what’s right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more than in what they consider right and wrong.
Through the challenges of life, we come to realise that none of us are perfect, we are all affected by the conditions and experiences we face, and we all make mistakes. So, though the ability to forgive is in us, it can be challenging to identify the need for forgiveness in ourselves, and then bring together the ingredients and skills of what is necessary to enact it. It can take will power, emotional energy and effort to dig deep and find the reason why you do what you do; or to find the willingness and compassion to begin the necessary reflection to enter the forgiveness process.
Once we can ‘enable’ forgiveness in ourselves we can strengthen it by meditating on the reasons ‘why’ we should forgive, and when this achieved, we are able to bring the strength of this reasoning to the fore in times of weakness more readily.
So why forgive? Well, the main beneficiary is you and your well-being. It’s hard to live with unforgiveness and it can be very damaging. On a physical level it can disrupt eating and sleeping, and it can also affect you mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well as damaging other relationships around you. It can eat away at your peace causing suffering and bitterness that can affect your mental health, even changing the way in which you view the world at large. In the long term unforgiveness takes far more emotional energy, causes far more stress and unhappiness, than forgiving.
Learning to forgive, and letting go, is, as the Rev Martin Luther King, Jn said “… not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude”
An analogy that helped me personally to identify a constant attitude toward forgiveness arose from Taoist story about the river of life, and ‘going with the flow’. Recognising that unforgiveness blocks the flow of life energy, I began reflecting on the ‘wrongs’ of life that I held on to as bits of flotsam. With that came recognition that flotsam catches twigs and branches, which in turn snag or become a bed for stones. Following on from that, those stones build walls, walls become dams, and dams hinder or stop the flow of the river.
It is now a regular practice for me to catch things by noticing my internal reaction to people and things, so that I can let it go. Reflection, meditation and journaling practices have helped me uncover some ‘stones’ of hurt or resentment from the past and I use conscious awareness practices, contemplation, prayer and meditation as a bridge toward deeper understanding. I have found that acceptance and letting go aid forgiveness and help build the bittersweet territory of wisdom.
It is the confession, not the priest, that gives absolution so, ‘if you don’t forgive sins, what will you do with them?’ (John 20:23)
As forgiveness is about becoming the person you want to be, or your perception says you ought to be, here are some practical suggestions to help relieve the suffering of the future, by remedy today.
- Consider your own behaviour – was it childish or adolescent in the light of you age and experience – are you thinking and acting out in an age-appropriate way?
- Bring empathy and compassion into your pain, work toward insight and understanding it
- Find something good about the person or situation that offended you, then add to it
- Stop taking offence – discern what it is in you that needs attention, and then give it
- Stop blaming others – about anything at all
- Refuse to be critical or negative – if you can’t say something neutral or nice, don’t say anything
- Practice being thankful anywhere anytime – for your health when visiting the doctor; for the food when in the supermarket; for the provision of education when at college; the fresh air in the outdoors and so on.
- Be more aware, practice contemplation and mindful meditation
- Do small acts of kindness – start with one per week
- Believe in yourself, and then believe in something more than you
In closing consider that receiving forgiveness carries a responsibility to change behaviour. Its ok to make mistakes, but the response is to take the necessary actions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
For how can we not forgive when we are part of a creation that gives us all we need to flourish?
How can we not ‘go with the flow’ of the rich experience of life, loving, living and forgiving, within the unity for which we were created?
Helpful meditations on site here ... Loving Kindness, Working with Challenging Emotions, Reframe with RAIN, Gratitude of Body, Big Blue Sky – and why not try one of our contemplations…