When you forgive a long-held grievance, you open the door to true freedom.
Annette remembers her father as a red-faced ogre, loud, super-critical, and subject to fierce bouts of anger. When he was drunk, he liked to arm-wrestle her, and at eighteen, he threw her out of the house because he found out she was gay. Annette spent years in therapy working on her anger at her father and trying to recover the self-esteem that was more or less destroyed. By the time she was forty, her identity as Daddy’s abused child had become the cornerstone of her personal story. She blamed him for her fear of intimacy, her distrust of men, her relationship patterns, even her difficulties in committing herself to a career. She often imagined the things she would say to him, if she ever got the chance.
Last year, she got a letter from her father, whom she hadn’t seen in years. He was in a nursing home, and wanted her to visit. It took Annette several weeks to get up the courage to go. When she finally arrived and saw him in the bed, wasted, pale, and partially paralyzed with Parkinson’s, she could find no connection between this man and the larger-than-life parent of her youth.
Still, she had her agenda. “There are some things I need to say to you,” she said. Then she began to list her grievances, her reasons for being angry at him. He lay uncomprehending on the bed. His eyes filled with tears. He tried to speak, but she couldn’t understand his words. The villain she had wanted to confront was no longer there.
When Annette called to tell me about her meeting with her father, she couldn’t stop crying. ‘I’m never going to get closure,” she told me. ‘He’s never going to apologize.”
“Maybe you’ll just have to forgive him anyway,” I said. Silence. Then Annette asked the question, “Why should I do that?”
“Maybe to get your life back,” I suggested.
Forgive to Get Free
Annette’s refusal to forgive her father had imprisoned her in the role of the victim. For thirty years, she had defined herself as an abused child. She believed her father had ruined her life, and she was still looking for reparation from him. In just the same way, my friend Jake believes that his spiritual teacher harmed him irreparably—took his money, forced him to work for the organization for free, all in the service of some promised enlightenment that, according to Jake, never materialized. Neither Annette or Jake has grasped the basic fact that forgiveness is not only for the person who hurt you. It is something you do for yourself—for the sake of your own inner freedom. You forgive so that you can live in the present instead of being stuck in the past. You forgive because your grievances and grudges—even more than hopes and attachments and fears—bind you to old patterns, old griefs, and especially to old stories.
Think of a person you don’t really want to forgive—a parent, an ex-lover or spouse, a teacher, a betraying friend. Maybe you believe, like Annette, that to forgive that person means that you’re excusing their wrong, or that holding onto your anger somehow gives you back the power their offense took away. Or perhaps, as a good spiritual practitioner, you believe you’ve already forgiven. But if you really look, you might see that the grievance is still part of your story, even part of the meaning of your life. “I’m this way because s/he did that to me!” we say—he being the unloving parent, the unfaithful lover, the guru who didn’t deliver. Can you see how, by holding onto the grievance, you also hold onto its shadow belief: ‘I must have been flawed in some way to have attracted that hurt.’
For years, I carried a grievance against a childhood friend who had turned against me and then badmouthed me to everyone in the 7th grade. I didn’t consciously hold onto the incident. But my hurt and anger had lodged in my system and became a sort of default setting, which then started attracting corroborative experience. The effect of my grievance showed up mainly in a defensive refusal to get close to other women and a belief that friends could turn against me without warning. Not surprisingly, they sometimes did. Recent studies in neurophysiology describe a particular type of neurons whose function is to pick up and mirror the emotions of others—literally throwing back what someone is putting out. Mirror neurons seem to be particularly adept at picking up and reacting to someone else’s unconsciously held stance of victimization. If I have a tendency to distrust others, you pick it up, and throw it back to me—maybe by mirroring my distrust, or maybe by keeping your distance. Thus, we create our own vicious cycles, and replicate negative experience.
This is reason enough to do some work with forgiveness, at least for the sake of starting a more positive feedback loop! When I began my own personal forgiveness project, all I had to work with was meditation and some basic yogic teachings about how to shift thoughts. I hadn’t a clue how to access the actual state of forgiveness, so I concentrated on trying to talk back to my grudges. My model was the instruction from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.33,“When obstructive thoughts arise, practice the opposite thought.” It became my discipline to notice my grudge-bearing thoughts and try to reverse them, usually by sending kind wishes to the person I was angry at.
The practice gradually cleared out underbrush in my mind; it even softened some of my defensive shell. But the more I tried to ‘do’ forgiveness, the more I realized that there is a difference between the practice and the actual feeling-state of forgiving. Some of this has to do with the organization of the brain. From the biological point of view, replacing negative thoughts, and the willed choice we make to shift out of grievance, are both performed in the front brain, the cortex—the seat of rational thought. But the emotional reactions to hurt, stress, and trauma are stored in the limbic brain—sometimes called the emotional or ‘old mammalian’ brain—where our more deeply rooted emotional patterning tends to be lodged. Many of these patterns play out automatically in the body, regardless of our intentions or rational decisions. That’s why Lisa gets a knot in her stomach whenever she hears someone speaking in a certain angry tone of voice—even if the person isn’t speaking to her. It’s the same tone her mother used when she was displeased with Lisa as a child. This made Lisa anxious, and her stomach would knot up. Now, she can’t keep her stomach from knotting at the sound of an angry voice overheard in the supermarket. In the same way, each of us holds countless ancient grudges in our DNA, ready to be triggered by someone’s chance word or careless glance.
Shifting those patterns requires something more than practice and choice. It basically requires intervention from our own depths, from the awareness-presence that we cultivate in meditation. Brain-wave researchers mapping the brain states that we access in meditation say that meditation and other forms of inner work activate the deep slow brain patterns called delta waves. These patterns, similar to those that are activated in deep sleep, are associated with the deepest states of healing. Meditators learn to access this deep state consciously—with full alertness. In my years of practicing meditation, I learned to drop my attention into the heart, then to imagine an opening through the back of the heart. There, I found that I could often access a spaciousness that seemed to have no limits or boundaries. If I could then let myself fully experience the feeling of my grievance, or my sense of being flawed and then open up the spaciousness behind the heart, the hard, sharp, painful sensations of that long-held anger and hurt would melt into the space. The more I came in touch with that sense of aware presence in the heart, the more the grievances seemed to let go. What made them let go? Not my desire or my will. Something else, something that felt like grace—the powerful healing presence that we access through meditation and prayer.
I recently read the testimony of a mother who experienced a spontaneous movement of forgiveness in a most unlikely circumstance. Her 20-year-old son had been beaten to death in a street fight. His assailant had been tried and sentenced to a long prison term. The mother had asked to meet with him after his sentencing because she wanted the satisfaction of telling him to his face how much she hated him for what he had done. When she was ushered into the holding room where she was to meet the boy, he was standing in a corner, shackled and crying. The woman said later, “As I watched that boy, so forlorn—no parents, no friends and no support—all I saw was another mother’s son.” Without thought, she heard herself saying, “Can I give you a hug?” She says that when she felt his body against hers, her anger literally melted away. What arose instead was a natural feeling of tender connection with this suffering human being. That amazing story tells us what forgiveness really is—a spontaneous and natural uprush of peaceful letting go, even tenderness. This woman has no idea where her ability to forgive her son’s killer came from; she says she couldn’t have imagined ever even coming close to such a feeling, or to the peace it gave her.
She called it a gift from God. I’d call it an opening of the soul. The point is, heartfelt forgiveness—the natural, spontaneous opening to someone who has hurt you—is not something that the ego can make happen. Our separatist, culturally conditioned ego-self, formed by thousands of years of judgment and vengence, demands punishment as the price of forgiveness. When the heart forgives, it’s because it has stepped beyond the ego to grasp our innate kinship—even our identity–with the other.
When we read about forgiveness in the writings of psychologists or the stories of saints, we can discern at least three levels, and perhaps four, levels of forgiving.
Level One forgiveness is formal, legal, and nearly always given in response to an apology. In Jewish law, it is said that before a wrong can be forgiven, the offender needs to recognize his wrong-doing, look into the inner dynamics of it, feel genuine remorse, then ask pardon. (If he asks three times, the Torah says, you are obligated to forgive him, even if you’d rather not.) The Catholic ritual of confession and penance operates the same way, though with the added understanding that your atonement will clean the slate not only with the other person, but with yourself and God. The Fourth Step in the AA 12-step program, is based on the same basic premise.
Empathic, or Psychological Forgiveness
Level Two forgiveness is the kind we can access through inner work and the cultivation of empathy. It’s way more demanding than formal forgiveness, because it demands compassion, and a degree of inner processing. Most of the ‘work’ we do on forgiving begins at this level. We might start this process by looking beyond our own reactivity to ask ourselves if the other person actually meant to hurt us.
Often when I feel angry at something that’s been ‘done’ to me, it’s because I’ve been operating on some unconscious assumption or an unspoken contract that the other person never signed off on. Dr Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project calls such contracts “unenforceable rules.” Believe me, we all have them.
For instance, I might have made an assumption that if I help X carry through a project, he’ll help me the next time I need help, or he’ll defend me when the boss gets on my case. In my mind, that’s an agreement. But X never agreed to the deal; as far as he’s concerned, I helped him out of the goodness of my heart. When my friend Jake looked into his assumed contract, he realized that he had expected that in exchange for his service and loyalty, his teacher would inject enlightenment into him; it had never occurred to him to wonder whether it is even possible for another person to enlighten us. If we can step outside our assumptions and implicit unenforceable rules, we have a chance of seeing the situation from a broader perspective, and immediately our view is more forgiving.
The classic method for opening up to Level Two forgiveness is to imagine what it would be like to be the other person. When Annette began trying to forgive her father, she started by imagining him as a child. She asked herself what kind of upbringing he’d had, what difficulties he’d faced in his life, what disappointments had come his way. In the process, it occurred to her that the reason her father couldn’t love her was because he had never really been loved himself. Asking for love from him was probably as pointless as asking for money from the guy looking for handouts on the street. That insight into her father’s story let her see, for the first time, that he wasn’t a monster, and she began to feel compassion for him.
Doing some inquiry can also help you recognize how often the qualities we find unforgivable in others are qualities we reject in ourselves. When I started trying to clear my anger at my sixth grade friend L, I saw that before I’d ever been a victim of her rejection, I’d foisted the same rejection upon other people. Usually, they were people whom I saw as nerdy or unattractive, and behind my rejection was fear of being considered nerdy myself. L, I realized, had probably been trying to distance herself from me for a similar reason: she saw in me something she wanted to avoid identifying in herself. There’s a powerful boon in recognizing how ‘unforgivable’ traits in others mirror the qualities we find ‘unforgivable’ in ourselves. When you forgive someone else, it can lead you to forgive the grudges you’ve held against yourself. It works the other way also: Once you begin owning and even accepting your inner Mean Girl or Manipulative Boss or Charlatan Yogi, you may find that the grudges you hold against the Mean Girls and Manipulative Bosses in your life dissolve on their own.
Sometimes, as we engage in these processes, we find ourselves moving into an even deeper level. At this level, forgiveness is not something we ‘do’, but something that opens up in us. Like the woman who was unexpectedly overwhelmed with tenderness for her son’s killer, we experience the emergence of a powerful and essentially spiritual emotion that comes not from the personality, but from that deeper level of being sometimes called soul. We could call it soul-based forgiveness, since it is on the level of soul that we as individuals connect most deeply with other individuals. At this level, your heart is moved by the sheer humanness of the other person. In William Blake’s words, you separate the act from the person who committed it, so that even though you might condemn the act, you can hold the offender in affection. Level Three forgiveness comes from the recognition that no human being, however terrible or hurtful their actions, is without basic goodness. In some cases, this recognition requires an extraordinary act of loving imagination, or a heroic change of heart.
For some people, Level Three forgiveness morphs into an even deeper level of forgiving: the recognition that you and the person who has offended you are both part of a greater whole. A teacher of mine once had a dream in which she saw the figure of someone she thought of as an arch villain, a truly evil person. A voice nearby said, “He’s really bad.” In the dream, she was nodding in agreement, when she suddenly saw that from this man’s head, rays of light were emanating. Looking more closely, she realized that his entire body was blazing with light. She woke realizing that she had seen his divine core. At this level, we can begin to recognize not only that everyone has their own unique story and their own desire for happiness, but also that the same consciousness, the same awareness that is in you is also in the person who hurt you. This is true depth forgiveness—the understanding that lies behind the Dalai Lama’s refusal to hate the Chinese for occupying his country. His great insight is that on the level of our true nature, which is pure awareness and presence, there is never anything to forgive. Once you’ve intuited this, your heart can never permanently harden to another person. Even while you recognize that there has been a rupture, even while you speak out to express your outrage at the violation, you can still know that on the level of pure awareness, you and the person who injured you are both part of a single fabric of consciousness.
The truth is that radical forgiveness always includes the recognition of our universal connection to one another. Yes, you have an individual self, which means that at times you will need to set boundaries to protect yourself and your history. Your individual self has the capacity to be hurt, to be angry, and to forgive. But you are also a part of the larger whole, or what yoga philosophy identifies as the “Self,” of which each individual self is a spark. Every time you empty yourself of personal grievance, even for a moment, it opens the possibility of recognizing wholeness. As my small self, there are certain wrongs that seem unforgivable. As my great Self, I accept that I am part of both the wrong-doer and the one wronged. When I look at the world through that lens of non-duality, I can see that rather than me forgiving someone else, it is as though I forgive another part of myself. When that happens, there’s no need to let go of grievance. Grievance just isn’t there anymore.
From Anger to Forgiving: A Process
Grace aside, most of us cannot leapfrog from injury to forgiveness with ease. A process is necessary, and as with any healing, it always starts by turning toward your own hurt.
1) It may seem paradoxical, but any effective forgiveness process begins with the telling of the story. I often suggest writing the story out, making sure to include not only what happened, but how you felt about it.
2) Pay attention to the feeling-words in the story. Then, summon up the feelings they refer to. Try to discover and focus on where in your body you feel your anger/sadness/hurt most strongly. Let yourself fully inhabit the feelings of hurt, anger, grief, or whatever else arises. Say out loud that what happened was wrong. Breathe as you do this, and remember that your aim is to feel the feelings, not to act them out.
3) Recognize that the hurtful event cannot be undone. It has already happened. Neither your anger nor the other person’s apology can make it go away.
4) Realize that the person who has hurt you may never apologize to your satisfaction. Accept that. Notice how you feel when you accept it.
5) Now recognize the price you pay for holding onto the grievance. Is it burning a hole in your heart? Making you feel victimized and powerless? Bringing up fantasies of revenge? How has your grievance influenced your feelings about yourself? About people in your life other that the person you are angry at? How has it influenced your future expectations? Is it possible to put down the grudge and feel more free and peaceful?
6) Consider the fact that you are the only person who can change your attitude.
7) Ask for help from the universal power of love. Here’s how:
Bring your attention to the heart, breathe in and out of the heart, and imagine that there is a door in your chest wall. Imagine it opening to receive grace. Ask to be shown what you need to do, think, or feel in order to forgive. Ask for grace to give you the power to forgive.
8) Write down any positive insights that arise from this practice.
9) Now choose one of the following forgiveness rituals, or make one up of your own. Spend a few minutes practicing it.
Forgiveness Ritual A) Imagine yourself in front of the person you want to forgive. Tell the person how you feel. Tell the person that you want to forgive them. Give the person a gift—flowers, a book, a leaf, or stone.
Forgiveness Ritual B) Write your grievance on a piece of paper. Light a candle, and place it in the flame. Let it burn. Or, write it on a leaf, and send the leaf down stream in a flowing river or brook.
10) Whatever the result, write down any positive insights you have had about this person or the situation.
Remember to notice and honor your noble intention to forgive and let go of the offense.
Don’t expect instant results. You may have to do this process several times. But as you practice these symbolic rituals of forgiveness, understand that they are working inwardly on a much deeper level than the mind. Symbols and rituals go to the limbic brain, shifting the patterns that are held there, literally changing the stored memories of grievance to stored experiences of forgiveness.
Sally Kempton is one of today’s most innovative spiritual teachers. Drawing from more than 30 years of practice and teaching, (including 20 years as a swami in one of the traditional Indian Saraswati orders) she has a gift for bringing transformative insight to the questions facing contemporary seekers. She is author of the groundbreaking meditation book The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience (published under her monastic name Swami Durgananda), one of the teachers at the Integral Spiritual Center, and writes the “Wisdom” column for Yoga Journal.
© Copyright 2008. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Date Last Modified: 9/27/08