A client recently visited me who is locked into recurring, tight loops of guilt, shame and remorse. She fraudulently took something from her employer decades ago and was never caught yet, she's been stuck in these cycles of thinking ever since. Her worry is obsessive and her imagination runs wild, convinced that she is being targeted and hunted down. She frets about what will happen to her family's reputation when they finally catch her. It is very frightening to see somebody so shut out of life because of one mistake, made a long time ago. Of course, she has options to remedy the past and to appease her conscience but it all boils down to the imperative first step of forgiving herself. Often, when the pain of suffering is too great, people shut down in states of deep depression or they try to numb the pain using alcohol, narcotics, uncontrolled sex and many other devices aimed at deflecting their pain energy. Steve Mara-boli said, "The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realise that the situation is over, you cannot move forward."
We are all very vulnerable when it comes to guilt, remorse and shame. We glibly and frequently play with the idea of forgiveness without really knowing what it means. Let's peek into the secrets of forgiveness because, once you understand its deeper meanings, it is a fantastic way to set yourself free.
There are secular, religious and spiritual views about forgiveness.
WikiHow has a very secular view and advises that forgiveness is something that must be created. If done thoughtfully and effectively, it transforms the way you think, feel, and live your life. Approaching the challenge with an "I can do that" attitude will motivate you to face the test. By acting positively, changing your thoughts, shifting your emotions and seeking guidance from many valuable sources you will learn how to forgive others, and yourself. If you want to forgive someone, says WikiHow, then take the first step in the process by reaching out. Some discussions in life are harder to have than others. The goal would be to frame the conversation and guide it toward a peaceful resolution to manage the hurt and disappointment you are feeling. Most conflicts involve a misunderstanding or misconception of what someone did or said. There are things that you must do to loosen the tension in the situation. Taking responsibility for your role is an act that fosters the open dialogue that you want, and it is necessary to reach a resolution. You could be holding strong beliefs about a situation in which someone wronged you. A person's perspective is often askew and needs to find balance. It is important to keep things in perspective, especially if your thinking and attitude are causing you harm. It is true that resentment only harms you because you are the one harbouring the negative feelings toward the other person. Let go of what is holding you back. Some people learn to hold onto resentment and the role of being the victim and allow it to influence many aspects of their lives. Staying in a state of anger and upset is unhealthy. You must release anger to move towards forgiveness. WikiHow goes on to say, we take a risk when we let others into our lives. People can betray the trust that you have built together. An essential part of the forgiveness process however, is allowing someone to earn back your trust. People and opportunities come into your life to teach you something. Each experience prepares you to be smarter and more in tune with what you want out of life. You learn from the good and the bad. Wisdom never comes to you when you are lying on the lawn watching the clouds form; it comes to you from all the tuff experiences you have to work through in life.
There is a delightful YouTube clip posted on bluefish.tv by Shannon Ritter. The video includes various scenes of men, women and children, each holding a handwritten cardboard sign. Here are their messages: You used me. | You hated me. | You stole from me. | You took advantage of me. | You lied to me. | You abandoned me. | You cheated on me. | You fired me. | You talked about me behind my back. | You picked on me. | You ruined my reputation. | You terrorised me. | You never listened to me. | You abused me. | You killed my child. | You took everything from me.
Most of us easily identify with one or more of their statements. I felt touched by many of them. The video concluded by showing each person flipping their sign over to reveal a message they'd written on the back of the placard. Here are those replies: I forgive you. | I will love my enemies. | Father forgive them because they know not what they do. | I will pray for those who mistreat me. | I will do good to those who hate me. | I will turn the other cheek. | I forgive you. | I will show mercy and compassion. | I choose to forgive. | Forgive, seven times seventy. | I will forgive because I am forgiven. | I will never heal until I have forgiven. | I won't be overcome by evil. | I will overcome evil with good. | When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
While these sentiments are mainly Christian teachings, they offer a universal antidote to victimisation — forgiveness. Christian beliefs infer that we are, from conception, serial sinners, constantly clambering to find favour with God by beseeching Him for forgiveness. In this sense, forgiveness is God's act of pardoning our offenses against Him. To do this properly, we must confess, repent and reform. Confession implies that we are to acknowledge our sin, recognising it as an offense against God's law, and then thoroughly and completely divulge it to Him, or His representatives, the clergy. Repentance means feeling, with heartfelt sorrow, the impact of the wrong we've done and then, with resolute determination, abandon our course of action forever. Only then may we again bask in God's favour. I have some personal misgivings about this kind of forgiveness, because: (a) I don't believe that God takes offense if He is a being of unconditional love; and (b) for forgiveness to have any meaning, we must accept and embrace the notion of sin. But, what if there is no sin? What meaning would forgiveness have if there is no sin? This is not a line of thought we can fully explore in this show but, if you are keen to dig a bit deeper into the idea then listen to Soul Searching Episode 38, Let me Remember that there is no Sin. However, there is a point worth making: If God is so ready to forgive you, who are you to establish a higher tribunal than God's by taking the stance that you will not forgive your offenders and that you, yourself are unworthy of forgiveness?
After years of torturous imprisonment under apartheid and with every reason to seek vengeance and retribution, Nelson Mandela took another course of action and said, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."
Christians are not the only teachers of forgiveness. All religions however, stress the power of forgiveness. Here are a couple of Buddhist teachings that give us a slightly different angle on forgiveness. The first story is one that I have told a couple of times before in other Episodes but it is worth telling it again here. When I told the story on previous occasions, I used it as a reference for reincarnation and how it wises us to prevent the devolution of our personal power. This time however, I'd like you to listen to it while holding on to your ideas about forgiveness. The story is of a Chinese General who lead a platoon of soldiers into Tibet as part of China's quest to annex this mountain kingdom. The General was an arrogant and mighty man and enjoyed wielding his power wherever he went. Marching his soldiers across Tibet, he set villages alight, had them rape the women and abuse their children. He dealt with all the Buddhist monks in a most atrocious way. The monks that survived fled into the hills except for one monk who stood his ground and stayed in the temple at the top of the hill. Upon hearing about this solitary monk, the general commanded his adjutant to assemble the troops before dawn the next day so that he could lead the soldiers up the hill to the temple. There, he intended to personally teach this dissident monk a lesson. The soldiers surrounded the temple and the general marched up to the monk. The pious man swept the fallen leaves from the courtyard, as he had done every morning. Spraying saliva and jabbing his finger against the monk's chest, this vexed General barked, "Do you know who I am? Because in an instant, I could draw my sword and plunge it into your belly." But the monk was a man of faith who firmly believed in reincarnation. He just looked at the furious General with peaceful, tranquil eyes. The monk had stopped sweeping for a moment, and replied in a gentle tone, "But you don't know who I am! Because in a moment, I would allow you to draw your sword and plunge it into my belly." What power had this General over this gentle monk who had no fear of death. Stripped of his power, the General slumped to his knees and after a while, looking up at the serene monk, said, "It is only now that I realise my arrogance. Please would you forgive me!" The monk looked at him kindly and after a while replied, "I cannot forgive you…" "Why not?" pleaded the General. "I cannot forgive you," replied the monk, "because I never took offence. I have nothing to forgive!"
Wikipedia describes forgiveness like this: it is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude about an offense. Forgiveness allows the victim to let go of negative emotions such as vengefulness. With an increased ability, the victim wishes the offender well. The article is not suggesting that forgiveness is about condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning, or even reconciling an offense.
Here's the other Buddhist story about forgiveness told by Ge-long Thub-ten from the Mindvalley Academy:
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Mother Teresa advises, "These are the few ways we can practice humility: To speak as little as possible of one's self. To mind one's own business. Not to want to manage other people's affairs. To avoid curiosity. To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully. To pass over the mistakes of others. To accept insults and injuries. To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked. To be kind and gentle even under provocation. Never to stand on one's dignity. To choose always the hardest [path]."
In 1990, Oprah Winfrey interviewed a panel of guests and asked them to define forgiveness. One man (I don't know who he is) said something about forgiveness which was a pivotal, aha-moment for Oprah. Here's her story:
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
The interesting concept is that forgiveness is really letting go of our past. It is up to you whether to hold onto an aggrievance or not. It is your willingness to see the offender in a light of love. It's about letting go the past that you thought you wanted, the past that cannot change. It is about releasing the negative perception of it and coming back to the present. Oprah paraphrases his definition this way: Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different. The expectation is not for you to believe that what happened to you was okay but rather, that you accept that it happened, it is forever in your past, and for you to choose how you will free yourself from what has happened to you. Oprah also said, "True forgiveness is when you can say, 'Thank you for that experience.'"
Sogyal Rinposhe, in his must-read book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" says this about forgiveness: Forgiveness already exists in the nature of God; it is already there. God has already forgiven you, for God is forgiveness itself. He then quotes Alexander Pope, "To err is human, and to forgive divine," and adds, suffering only exists in your heart and mind. Feeling unforgiven and unforgiveable is what makes you suffer so. At death, he says, a great golden presence of light arrives that is all-forgiving. It is we who judge ourselves. Not everyone believes in formal wisdom but everyone believes in forgiveness. Through forgiveness and forgiving, we purify ourselves of the darkness of what we've done, and prepare ourselves most completely for the journey ahead.
We find much about forgiveness too in Helen Schucman's transcriptions of Jesus' teachings in "A Course in Miracles." The Course says, the emptiness engendered by fear must be replaced by forgiveness. You who want peace can find it only by complete forgiveness. Forgiveness is an empty gesture unless it entails correction. Without this it is essentially judgmental, rather than healing. To forgive is to overlook. Look, then, beyond error and do not let your perception rest upon it, for you will believe what your perception holds. Forgiveness … lies simply in looking beyond error from the beginning, and thus keeping it unreal for you.
The Course is saying that you and I, in the limited capacity of our minds, are not who we think we are. We are far greater! We are amazing, formless beings, made in the likeness and image of God. If we saw ourselves the way God does, we'd have no doubt about the illusion we have of ourselves and the futility of harbouring grudges. Then, like the gentle Buddhist monk, we would also have no need to forgive because we would never have taken offense. I'm convinced that whatever we do, does not offend God and He therefore, is in no need of our apology. We, in our state of misguided thinking, need forgiveness to liberate ourselves from those mistaken beliefs.
The Lord's Prayer also strongly embraces the idea of forgiveness. If you are Christian, you'll know the prayer off by heart. Here, however, is an interesting variation of that prayer from "A Course in Miracles:" "Forgive us our illusions, Father, and help us to accept our true relationship with You, in which there are no illusions, and where none can ever enter. Our holiness is Yours. What can there be in us that needs forgiveness when Yours is perfect? The sleep of forgetfulness is only the unwillingness to remember Your forgiveness and Your Love. Let us not wander into temptation, for the temptation of the Son of God is not Your Will. And let us receive only what You have given, and accept but this into the minds which You created and which You love. Amen."
Mark Twain said, "Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." Mahatma Gandhi believed that, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." But, "Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude," so said Martin Luther King Jr.
There is however, one powerful trick that makes it easy to forgive others and to set yourself free. It is enshrined in the principles of the Polynesian practice, called Ho'oponapono.
The Hawaiian therapist, Dr I-hal-eaka-la Hew Len, cured an entire ward of criminally insane patients, without ever meeting any of them or spending a moment in the same room with them. How? By using the Ho'oponapona practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. Indigenous Polynesian healers practice and perform versions of this forgiveness ritual on islands throughout the South Pacific, including Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand. Sadly, these ancient practices have also been cobbled into many New Age workshops, attracting great opportunities to market them as modern-day self-help tools.
There are four steps to the practice and they are: (1) The Step of Repentance, "I'm sorry!"; step (2) The Step of Seeking Forgiveness, "Please forgive me!"; Followed by step (3), The Step of Gratitude, "Thank you!"; and culminating in step (4), The Step of Love, "I love you!"
Ho'oponapona may at first glance seem very incongruent. Are you literally meant to take these four steps when working with your offender? How is it possible to say, "I'm sorry!" when it was the offender's fault and not yours? Why should you be saying, "Please forgive me!" when it is the offender who ought to be saying this to you? Even the Step of Gratitude and the Step of Love seem very awkward in this context. Let's briefly unpack each step therefore, to unlock that one powerful trick that makes it easy to forgive others and to set yourself free.
- Step (1) is The Step of Repentance, "I'm sorry!"
As we've seen in "A Course in Miracles," in Oprah's aha-moment and in the Buddhist stories we told, there is a recurrent theme: you are responsible for everything in your mind. Saying, "I'm sorry!" is a vital starting point towards personal freedom. Start by saying the Step of Repentance more clearly: "I realise that I am responsible for this (issue) in my life and I feel terrible remorse that something in my consciousness causes it." How could you possibly say this if a thug threw you to the ground and raped you? Surely it doesn't make sense to say, "I am responsible for it." Mm! Fair point until you look at it spiritually. The world out there does not exist outside your consciousness. It's a big statement to make but everything you know came into your mind through your five senses. Your brain labelled all the neurological inputs it received from your sense organs and systematically created your world, according to you. Once you've made the shift that there is no world other than the one in your head, and it can be a difficult shift to make, you are then ready to take full responsibility for everything in your consciousness. The thug may have raped you and run away but you hold him in your mind, until you let him go, as a threat against you. Remember what Oprah said, "True forgiveness is when you can say, 'Thank you for that experience.'" In the context of the rapist, you might wish to say, "I am sorry that I created an image of him in my mind which, until now, has caused my suffering."
- Step (2), The Step of Seeking Forgiveness, "Please forgive me!"
This is a little easier to understand in the context of what we discussed in Step 1. As with the previous step, it might sound as if you are saying, "Please would you forgive me!" or, "I'm sorry for you!" but that's not what you're doing, you are asking yourself to forgive yourself. These are powerful statements and intentions, said by you, to you. These intentions have very little to do with your offender but everything to do with you. Perhaps you could state this step this way, "Please forgive me because I'm a slow learner and it has taken all of my suffering and pain to come to realise that I am responsible for my own thinking and that I have always had the power and choice to let this matter go."
- Step (3), The Step of Gratitude, "Thank you!"
Thank your body for all it does for you. Thank yourself for being the best you can be. Thank God. Thank the Universe. Thank whatever it was that just forgave you.
- Step (4), The Step of Love, "I love you!"
Say it to your body, say it to God. Say it to the air you breathe, to the house that shelters you. Say it to your challenges. Say it over and over. Mean it. Feel it. There is nothing as powerful as Love.
Big thanks go to the onlinelaughteruniversity.com for all their added insights.
So, I guess you've got it by now, the one powerful trick that makes it easy to forgive others and to set yourself free is to change the way you think about the offense and the offender. You might not have the power to prevent nasty things from happening to you but you have all the power to change the way you respond to these things.
In conclusion, Robert Brault wrote in one of his books, "Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got."