“You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.” ~Cheryl Strayed
I used to be a massive grudge-holder. In arguments, I would never scream or yell; I would just make a mental note of every wrongdoing or poor choice of words, so that I might forever hold it over the head of whoever had wronged me. It was a sort of mental purgatory for us both.
This grudge-holding ignored the fact, of course, that I often made my own mistakes (and would wish desperately for forgiveness). It also ignored the fact that holding these grudges never really affected the person who had hurt me — at least, not as much as it affected me. Often, they didn’t even know a grudge was being held against them.
So, who was I hurting, really? And, even more importantly, why did I feel it was necessary to hurt anyone at all?
In her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach shares the words of Tibetan meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa, who said: “…every human being has a basic nature of goodness.”
That can be hard to believe when people hurt us personally, or even on a broader, global scale. When there is seemingly so much hate and violence in the world, are we really all basically good?
Tara explains it this way: “Basic goodness is the radiance of our Buddha nature — it is our intrinsic wakefulness and love. This doesn’t mean we can do no wrong…Basic goodness can be buried under an ugly tangle of fear, greed and hostility, and seeing it doesn’t mean overlooking harmful behavior in ourselves or others.”
So when we hold a grudge against another — when we withhold understanding and forgiveness — what are we accomplishing, other than holding on to negative feelings that serve no purpose and cause extended suffering?
Forgiveness is For YOU
American motivational speaker and author, Tony Robbins, has been quoted as saying: “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” On the surface, this doesn’t seem to make sense. Doesn’t forgiveness just let the other person off the hook? Not actually.
Lesson 121 in the spiritual thought curriculum, A Course in Miracles, is titled: “Forgiveness is the key to happiness”. One passage of the lesson states: “The unforgiving mind is full of fear, and offers love no room to be itself; no place where it can spread its wings in peace and soar above the turmoil of the world. The unforgiving mind is sad, without the hope of respite and release from pain. It suffers and abides in misery, peering about in darkness, seeing not, yet certain of the danger lurking there.”
And Tara says of unforgiveness: “The word resentment means ‘to feel again.’ Each time we repeat to ourselves a story of how we’ve been wronged, we feel again in our body and mind the anger at being violated.”
Forgiveness isn’t about turning a blind eye, or condoning bad behavior. It’s an acceptance of what has happened; a recognition of the basic goodness (and basic humanness) of the person you’re forgiving; and, most importantly, it’s a choice to free yourself from the suffering that accompanies holding a grudge.
In the end, forgiveness is for you. It isn’t about giving someone a “get out of jail free” pass for any wrongdoing they may have committed. Forgiveness offers you freedom as the forgiver — freedom from anger, resentment, sadness, hatred, despair. The only person “punished” by these feelings is you, so forgiveness is about letting yourself out of that jail.
Tara says: “If we feel hatred toward anyone, we remain chained to the sufferings of the past and cannot find genuine peace. We forgive for the freedom of our own heart.”
Don’t we all want that gift?
So, How Do You Do It?
There are many powerful practices and meditations to assist with the process of forgiveness. But, in its simplest form, forgiveness is about accepting and letting go. In their book, Life Loves You: 7 Spiritual Practices to Heal Your Life, Louise Hay and Robert Holden remind us that, “Forgiveness can’t change what happened in the past, but it can change the meaning you give it.”
Forgiveness isn’t something we can force. We have to sit with our pain first and really feel it. Only then are we ready to change the meaning we’ve given something; only then are we ready to let go of the blame and the pain.
And that starts by recognizing that a person is not their behavior — seek to understand the deeper, underlying reasons why people do what they do (even if that person is you). It doesn’t mean you need to accept or condone bad behavior, it just means you can understand why mistakes may have been made. It means you’re able to separate the mistake from the human who made it.
When you forgive, you don’t forgive the act, you forgive the person who committed it. And then you assign new meaning to the act in your life — what have you learned from it? What has it given you? How have you grown? How might you now live differently?
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It’s more painful to live a life where you withhold forgiveness — from others or yourself — than it is to focus on this present moment, and choose to set yourself free from the pain of your past.
I have grown much better at practicing forgiveness, both of others and of myself. Sure, I still hold grudges occasionally and I find it especially tough to forgive some of my own mistakes, but I’ve also begun to recognize it when it happens, so I can soften that hardness in my heart and free myself.
It’s a process and a practice, and it’s one I grow stronger at all the time. I wish for that same strength and freedom for you.
Share your experience of forgiveness and how you practice it in your own life and relationships. We’d love to hear your insight in the conversation box below.