NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Forgiveness” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Forgiveness: To forgive, divine
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Our religions all have teachings on forgiveness, evidence that forgiving and being forgiven are universally important to us. But the need for these many teachings also shows that forgiveness is, and has for millennia been, one of the more difficult states for us to achieve.
Motivations for granting and receiving forgiveness are strong. Forgiveness is a liberating process that relieves us of the burdens of guilt, shame, fear, resentment, hatred, and victimization. Yet, according to a Gallup poll, although 95% of us recognize the need for it, 85% of us also need help forgiving.
So what makes forgiveness hard?
First, we must be protected from further harm before forgiveness is possible. If we are the ones being harmed, we must get out of harm’s way before we offer forgiveness. If we are the ones doing harm, we must become people who will not harm again before we ask to be forgiven.
Forgiveness is also difficult when injuries are unhealed. For those who have been deeply injured, attempting to forgive can itself be reinjuring. Even when we have been less severely hurt, our wounds and resentments can lock us into a pattern of reinjury, attracting others who harm us as we have already been harmed, or can imprison us in self-protective shielding so dense that nothing healing gets through. Similarly, when we have hurt someone, our guilt and shame can keep us in a state of self-recrimination that halts both forgiving ourselves and asking for forgiveness.
For most of us, however, the chief impediment to forgiveness is unwillingness to forgive.
Our culture glorifies retribution and vengeance, a tradition of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” that spans millennia. Forgiveness in any of its contexts – forgiving others, seeking forgiveness, forgiving ourselves – is seen as weakness. If we have been harmed, we should punish those who hurt us, and if we cannot, we punish them in our hearts. If we have done harm, we should suffer our guilt or shame. Anger, even anger directed at the self, feels empowering, and to release that anger through forgiveness opens us up to a vulnerable shifting of relationships that feels unsafe and unknown.
We can carry these patterns, these emotions, for decades.
When I work with couples and see them holding onto hurt and anger, there has often been a breach of trust, sometimes going back to the early years of the relationship: an affair, a rejection, another form of betrayal. I encounter similar patterns in families affected by addiction, where the addict and other family members are entangled in a mutually punishing limbo even when they all long for reconciliation. Wounds from childhood also fracture families. I held onto mine for many years, harming both myself and my parents and siblings in subtle ways none of us fully understood. With my mother, mutual forgiveness followed an apology 20 years ago. My father died before either of us was able to forgive.
Forgiveness comes to us most easily when there is a sincere apology followed by an effort to make amends: The affair is confessed and regretted and heartfelt assurances offered that this will never happen again. The addiction is admitted, treatment sought, and efforts to restore trust made. The affection withheld, emotional abuse, rejection is atoned for and a new kind of welcome extended. From these actions, forgiveness often springs.
Sometimes just a sincere apology and removal of the possibility of further harm is enough. When I visited, in prison, one of the medical malpractice attorneys who robbed me, he seemed glad I had come even though my testimony had helped to imprison him. He was, he said, grateful to have the opportunity to “unburden myself of guilt.” He seemed remorseful and still had a long sentence ahead of him. We talked for a long time. Without quite saying so, I knew he was asking for forgiveness, and without quite saying so, I gave it to him.
Even in the absence of apology and amends, forgiving can still take place. Recognizing that something in us has recovered from an injury and is now whole begins the process. Forgiving my father began with a dream several years after his death. It concluded when I realized, finally, I was no longer affected by what had been damaging in our relationship. I was then free to regard him with compassion, to understand how his difficulties and limitations had shaped him, and to forgive him for his part in our lifelong estrangement and myself for mine.
Similarly, it is possible to ask forgiveness from those we have harmed even when offering an apology and making amends are not possible. A decade ago, a close friend committed suicide. Haunted by guilt for having avoided him in his last months, I struggled with how I might have prevented his death. Months later, I was able to see that, if our positions had been reversed, I would not have wanted him to feel any responsibility for my death. I asked for his forgiveness, and in a surge of grief and tears was released from the weight I had been carrying.
Forgiveness can reach beyond broken relationships, freeing us not only from current injuries, but also from older, deeper ones. I see this process in couples who have repeatedly hurt each other in ways that replicate wounds each had suffered in childhood. It is as if they have been brought together to act out old dramas and to create different endings. When both are willing and able to forgive each other and themselves, they often also provide an opportunity for healing their old wounds. In a co-transformative process, the forgiveness extended to each partner stretches back into the past, undoing the injuries they had brought with them into the relationship.
The most helpful tool for forgiveness that I have encountered is a meditation by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk who has taught meditation internationally for nearly 40 years.
Kornfield’s meditation begins with instructions to let us first feel the pain of keeping our hearts closed and then offers gentle, clear instructions for opening them enough to ask for forgiveness from those we have harmed, to forgive ourselves, and to forgive those who have harmed us. Cautioning that forgiveness may come slowly and cannot be forced, Kornfield’s meditation allows a gradual letting go of the burdens of unforgiven acts, with each iteration lightening our load just a little, like a sigh of relief.
By Jack Kornfield
To practice forgiveness meditation, let yourself sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to be natural and easy. Let your body and mind relax. Breathing gently into the area of your heart, let yourself feel all the barriers you have erected and the emotions that you have carried because you have not forgiven – not forgiven yourself, not forgiven others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. Then, breathing softly, begin asking and extending forgiveness, reciting the following words, letting the images and feelings that come up grow deeper as you repeat them.
FORGIVENESS OF OTHERS: 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 and feel 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. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then to each person in your mind repeat: I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.
FORGIVENESS FOR YOURSELF: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times through 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 of them, 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.
FORGIVENESS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE HURT OR HARMED YOU: There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed. Let yourself picture and remember these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness when your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.
Let yourself 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 but only 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 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.
“Forgiveness Meditation” © Jack Kornfield. All other text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.