Forgiveness – Even in the Most Challenging Circumstances

Forgiveness – Even in the Most Challenging Circumstances

One of the joys of teaching for Leading Edge Seminars in Canada, as I did three weeks ago, is that Toronto is such a multi-cultural city, people of diverse cultures from all over the world living in relative harmony and ease. True for the clinicians in the seminar I taught on Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth, too. Clinicians from Sri Lanka and South Africa and Portugal and Quebec working with the widest variety of clinical populations.

When I taught Jack Kornfield’s meditation on forgiveness (see below), the topic sparked such a deep, soul-searching respectful discussion.  A counselor working with Inuit youth in a residential high school in Toronto said there is no word for forgiveness in the Inuktitut language.  Not that the practice doesn’t exist, but it is not conceptualized abstractly as it is in English.

Another psychotherapist, whose first language is French, voiced her confusion because “forgiveness” in English translates as “pardon” in French, not exactly the same practice. The South African therapist, having lived through apartheid, liberation, and then the era of Truth and Reconciliation, said forgiveness as in reconciliation can’t work unless there is truth and accountability for the truth. Of course. The Muslim students who shared our space for their prayers at lunch that day might have had different perspectives on forgiveness to contribute as well, but respecting their transition into the room I didn’t ask.

I did share with the participants the story I heard, also from Jack Kornfield, about the practice of forgiveness from the Bebembe tribe in Africa. When someone committed a transgression of any severity, they were brought to stand in the center of the village; members of the village told them what they appreciated, respected, and loved about them. For three day.  And then everyone went home.  That was it. No recriminations, no shaming, simply calling into remembrance the person’s virtues and better side, and their place in the community.

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult practices to open our heart to. (See previous Nine Steps to Forgiveness and How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness.)

Usually people do have to do important preliminary work to even come close to possibilities for forgiveness – facing and working through fury and desire for revenge and retribution, moving through unbearable grief, overcoming fear that the abuse or betrayal will happen again, having to develop skills of protection and empowerment to make sure it never does happen again.

And time and time again, even across cultural differences as I experienced that day in Toronto, I find Jack Kornfield’s meditation for forgiveness practice to be the most powerful tool to release the burdens of a contracted heart.  May it prove useful to you and yours.

(Adapted from The Art of Loving Kindness, Forgiveness, and Peace by Jack Kornfield, used with permission.)

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.

Exercise: Forgiveness

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.