“Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness.”
Is there something or someone you need to forgive—maybe even yourself? Forgiveness is a word that we can look up in the dictionary, but do we really understand what it means? I thought I understood the nature of forgiveness until I was on retreat with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2007, where he explained, in a manner of speaking, that forgiveness is not about forgetting that something happened, but rather, it is about no longer holding on to the anger attached to it. Powerful right? It was a true “Ah Ha” moment for me!
So, let’s look at forgiveness a little more closely, and think about forgiveness as the flip side of anger. Consider this: when we are angry with someone, we are holding resentment toward that person. When that happens, we have an important choice to make: We can continue to hold on to those upsetting feelings or we can release them by acknowledging them, feeling them deeply, and then letting go of the anger, little by little.
I have heard it said that “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We are inflicting more suffering and more pain primarily on ourselves when we have not learned to forgive someone or something.
What I learned from the Dalai Llama on that retreat is that forgiving does not mean forgetting, as I mentioned above. Letting go of the anger doesn’t mean we are wiping our memory of what caused the anger. That’s virtually impossible. We will, most likely, remember the experience, but we can learn to release the “charge” associated with it that interferes with our peace of mind.
We begin to do this by recognizing the feelings that come up for us when we think of that particular situation. For example, you might say to yourself, “This person’s actions incited anger in me. What happened here? What is my anger saying to me? Where do I feel it in my body?” Then, sit down with yourself, spend a few moments just sitting in silence, allowing yourself to feel the feelings deep within your body. Honor the hurt by being okay with the pain and suffering you feel—not judging it or pushing it away. Simply let yourself just be with it. In this being, your heart—your inner source of love and compassion—speaks to you, which begins the process of forgiveness.
When you are clear on the reasons for your anger and have honored your feelings, you are then able to take any necessary action with a clear mind that is connected to your heart. Your actions will be thoughtful and heartfelt, and you will be speaking from a place of Truth and not anger. The type of action you take will likely vary from situation to situation or you may make the decision that no action can be taken. In either case, you are slowly beginning the healing process.
This may sound too good to be true, so that is why this is a practice. If something has been really damaging, the hurt runs very deep, and the angry feelings may arise again and again from time to time—even when you thought you had let go of the resentment. This is normal. Each time your anger comes back, just sit with it, feel it, and ask it what it wants to teach you today. You have now peeled off another layer of the hold this anger has on you.
Little by little, by making the choice to acknowledge and then let go of your anger, you can reach the place of forgiveness. I have found that forgiveness is a process of sitting with the feelings day in and day out for a few minutes each day. When you feel ready, you may choose to let someone know that you forgive them for what they did because it feels right to you, or you may decide that it is best to keep your forgiveness for yourself. Remember, forgiveness is primarily for your benefit. Those angry feelings are hurting you and holding you captive. We cannot be free when we are at the mercy of painful, past feelings.
If you are having a particularly difficult time letting go of resentment, you may find that your Sacred Mantra can be of enormous assistance. This was the case for me about fifteen years ago. I had experienced a particularly difficult betrayal, and it took consistent practice to just begin the process. What truly “saved me” and helped me begin to get to the root of the experience so that I could begin letting go was the use of my Sacred Mantra.
When you feel your anger rising up during the course of the day, silently repeat your Sacred Mantra, channeling your energy toward release and peace of mind. Remember, it isn’t about avoiding the feelings; it is about feeling them and then beginning the release. Once we have truly felt the feelings associated with the situation and understood their message, we don’t need our minds telling us to start thinking about the situation all over again. And that is how the Sacred Mantra continues to help: the repetition of the mantra intercepts the angry thoughts and brings you back to the moment of clarity.
I also find it helpful to write my Sacred Mantra for a particular situation and/or person with the intention to find acceptance for what was and the strength to let go. I wrote my mantra for the situation I mentioned above for quite some time on a daily basis. Then, one day, while passing by the place where the betrayal took place, I no longer felt the charge I had once associated with it. Suddenly, it was now just an ordinary place. I did not forget what happened, but through my daily work and practice, I had released the hold and the negative energy it had over me. I was now free.
Simply put: Forgiveness is about becoming aware of the hold the anger and resentment has over our lives and then doing the work to set ourselves free! To close, I would like to share this much-loved quote of mine from Desmond Tutu:
“Because forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.”