Resources for Recovering Resilience: Forgiveness: the Ultimate Repair

[The forgiveness practice below is based on Jack Kornfield’s The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace. I’ll be teaching this practice soon (see today’s related post “Why Forgiving Yourself Is the Best Thing You Can Do – for Yourself”) at the following venues:

May 15-17 Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, MA

May 19-20 Leading Edge Seminars, Toronto, Canada

May 29-31 EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA

June 6 Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, CA

June 12 Authentic Leadership in Action, Tacoma, WA

July 3-5 Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY

July 24-25 Institute of Noetic Science conference, Chicago, IL

July 27-31 Cape Cod Institute, Cape Cod, MA]

Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of us will experience injury, injustice, disappointment, or betrayal at some point in our lives. Staying caught in those experiences can block our resilience and our relational intelligence from developing. Continuing to feel judgment, blame, resentment, bitterness and hostility against those who have caused us harm can cause us pain and suffering ourselves. The same can be true if we haven’t been able to forgive ourselves for harm we have caused others or ourselves. In order to re-wire the patterns of complaining, criticism, disgruntlement, and contentiousness we can so easily get stuck in, we can use de-conditioning to open us to the genuine understanding, compassion, grieving and forgiveness that are needed to move forward into resilient coping and relational intelligence.

When we drop below the level of story, below the level of our personal emotional pain, into the deep inner knowing of our own goodness, we can remember the inherent goodness in all of human beings, regardless of the conditioning that overlays and obscures it. In the mode of defocusing, where de-conditioning takes place, we access inner states of kindness, compassion, and goodwill; we evoke the state of processing in the brain from which it is possible to forgive.

Forgiveness does not mean a condoning, pardoning, forgetting, false reconciliation, appeasement or sentimentality. It is a practice, daily and lifelong, of cultivating our own inner peace and wisdom that allows us to see that our pain is part of the pain of all human beings universally, to re-set our moral compass, and to remain compassionate even in the face of injustice, betrayal and harm.

Forgiveness Practice

This formal forgiveness practice is adapted from an exercise learned from the Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield.

1. Let yourself sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to be natural and easy. Let your body and mind relax. Breathe gently into the area of your heart, letting yourself feel all the barriers you have erected and the emotions you have carried because you have not forgiven yourself or others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed.

2. Breathing softly, moving through each of the following possibilities for forgiveness. Begin reciting the suggested words, letting the healing images and feelings that come up grow deeper as you repeat the phrases of forgiveness.

3. Seek forgiveness from others with the following words: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, have betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion.

Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others. See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret. Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say: I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.

4. Seek forgiveness for yourself with the following words: Just as I have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Repeat to yourself: For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.

5. Find forgiveness for those who have hurt or harmed you with the following words:
There are many ways I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed.

You have been betrayed. Let yourself picture and remember the many ways this is true. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past. Now sense that you can release this burden of pain by gradually extending forgiveness as your heart is ready. Recite to yourself: I remember the many ways others have hurt, wounded, or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart long enough. To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.

Gently repeat these three directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release; instead, you may experience again the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and the images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving kindness.

The Neuroscience of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a powerful practice that begins to ease the shift between the focusing mode of processing in our brain – the self-focused, narrowly-focused, past and future oriented mode that could be described as the mode of “me” – to the defocusing mode of processing – more expansive (even universally oriented) mode that could be described as the mode of “we.” The defocusing mode allows us to see other people’s struggles and suffering as well as our own from a much larger and more compassionate perspective. When we are caught in habitual self-limiting patterns of resentment and hostility, we can let ourselves drop into that merciful spaciousness from which new, more adaptive responses can emerge.