5 Essential Elements to Help You Move Toward Forgiveness and Freedom
To forgive is to set a prisoner free
and discover that the prisoner was you.
~Lewis B. Smedes
Recently, I went “home” to visit my parents.
Before I left on this trip, I took a quick look at my horoscope (yes, I do that!). One of my favorite astrologers, Rob Brezsny, clued me in about a window for forgiveness that was opening:
Once every decade or so, you’re asked to make a special point of practicing forgiveness and atonement. According to my reading of the astrological omens, that time will be the next few months. I think it’ll be quite important for you to cleanse the grungy build-up of regrets and remorse from your psyche. Ready to get started? Compose a list of the sins you could expiate, the karmic debts you can repay, and the redemptions you should initiate. I suggest you make it into a fun, creative project that you will thoroughly enjoy.
Rob makes it sounds so easy.
I’m now 50 years old but truth be told there are some grudges I still hold on to, particularly with my mom and dad. I’m not proud of this. In fact I’m a bit ashamed of it. (But forgiving ourselves is one of the essential conditions for forgiving others, as you’ll see below.)
The details aren’t important – the way we can get wrapped up in our own story is often a major obstacle to our liberation. But in a nutshell, I was holding them accountable for events and interactions that happened many years ago, and for which they had neither the insight nor the tools to do things in a different way.
We can hold a thousand resentments against our parents, family members, and others who may have hurt us or who may not have loved us in the most helpful way at the time. My doggedness in hanging onto those criticisms was imprisoning me, and I could feel that in the tension my body held whenever I was in the presence of my parents.
So during this trip, as I was walking back to my mom and dad’s house on a balmy Southern California winter evening, with every step I practiced saying to myself, “All is forgiven.” Like a mantra. “All is forgiven.”
I kept doing this until I finally felt something shift in me, something that felt like a deeper level of physical relaxation.
Finally on the last night of my visit, I said to my mom, “I just want you know, all is forgiven.” She looked a little puzzled but also very appreciative. We didn’t talk about it beyond that, but we didn’t need to. I felt a huge sense of relief as I said those words to her. And I could feel the difference on a physical level as I released all the blame that I had been holding.
I didn’t get to this place of forgiveness overnight, of course. A lot had to happen in the intervening years for me to be able to surrender my resentments. But it felt like a true gift to my mom and to me to finally bring this process to a deeper level of completion.
This experience got me curious about the conditions that give rise to forgiveness, and the freedom that is related to that forgiveness.
Based on my own reflections and a bit of research, here’s my take on five essential elements of forgiveness:
1. We need to understand the truth of interdependence.
We literally depend on each other for our existence (and we depend on the generosity of the earth as well). This is a fact of our lives, and it has been called by various names including interdependence and interconnection. This basic truth translates to the act of forgiveness as well: When you forgive someone else, you actually let yourself off the hook. It is impossible for us to be truly happy and free if we are investing energy in relentless anger toward another person.
I like what another blogger, Dave Ursillo, has written about this:
Forgiveness is a liberating practice that not only enables the one who has wronged you to be free from the past, forgiving also liberates yourself equally as much and allows you to live more fully in the present, and on behalf of a better tomorrow.
You have everything to gain and nothing to lose when you genuinely forgive someone. Understanding this truth deep in your bones makes it possible to move on to the next steps of forgiveness.
2. We need to hold the belief that we are all doing the best we can.
It may be hard to understand the reasons why someone did whatever they did that hurt you so much. It may indeed be unfathomable to you in this moment. But at some point, for forgiveness to take place, you will need to have some faith in the possibility that in any given moment, all of us are doing the best we can given our upbringing, conditioning, and beliefs. This includes yourself, and this is why forgiveness of yourself is also a prerequisite to forgiving another.
3. We need some kind of spiritual practice to give us the tools necessary for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not easy. It requires a tremendous amount of insight, courage, and willingness. A spiritual or contemplative practice can help you to cultivate all these qualities (and more). If you don’t currently have a practice like meditation or yoga, this is a great time to begin.
4. We need to be able to make meaning out of the experience.
No matter how terrible your experience was, it has somehow contributed to who you are today. Perhaps it helped you develop resilience, courage, or even a sense of humor. All of us have the capacity to transmute suffering into wisdom, but not all of us have flexed that muscle. The practice of forgiveness provides us a very powerful way to make the most of our lives.
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, in a wonderful talk on transformative joy, notes that the capacity to acknowledge the bigger picture of life is central to forgiveness. This includes recognizing the ever-present possibility of change. According to Sharon, forgiveness is about “being willing to imagine new beginnings.”
5. There needs to be a forum for telling the truth.
Desmond Tutu, who witnessed firsthand the suffering of so many of his fellow citizens in South Africa during the era of apartheid, said this:
“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. Forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than the way they are.”
In some shape or form, there needs to be a way for you to honestly express what has happened and how it has harmed you.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who transgressed you needs to accept what you’re saying or even needs to be physically present and hear what you have to say. There have been cases where people have forgiven a deceased parent or another person who has harmed them but is no longer living. In these situations, you can create your own forum for truth telling, whether that is through intensive journaling, therapy, or another context where someone else can listen to and witnesses your truth.
It’s worth noting that forgiveness is not necessarily the same thing as reconciliation. You may never hear the words, “I’m sorry.” The key here is that the truth telling is for your own benefit, and does not rely on the outcome with the other person.
If you’d like to learn more, the “Forgive for Good” website based on the work of Stanford researcher Dr. Frederick Luskin is a wonderful resources.
How about you? What have you learned about forgiveness? What steps have helped you to forgive another person?
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