Forgiveness essay & Practice

Tonight’s theme is the challenging process of forgiving. Before leading forgiveness practice, I’ll read a short essay by Lisa Ernst in the Insight L.A. sangha:

“Have you ever forgiven someone and felt a release, only to experience the hurt and anger arising again? If so, you may have discovered that forgiveness is not always linear, no matter how strong your intention to forgive. In fact, this very insight may allow you to accept your true feelings as a path toward healing rather than forcing forgiveness prematurely.

When you can’t forgive, your heart may be calling you to honor and acknowledge the anger and hurt still present. You may need to offer compassion to yourself, to the pain, many times before you can even contemplate letting go. Gradually this process opens the door to deeper, more genuine forgiveness.

This never means you allow inappropriate behavior from people after you’ve forgiven. You may need to set strong boundaries. Forgiveness does mean that you don’t continue to carry burdensome hurt in your heart.  Ultimately forgiveness is done, not for others, but to free your heart from bondage to the past.

Conversely, have you at times clung to anger and hurt in a relationship that reinforced a feeling of separation? During a retreat I had a dream about a friend who I felt had betrayed me. I found perverse satisfaction in clinging to a narrative of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though it kept my inner needle stuck on anger. In the dream my friend and I were trapped in a tug of rope with no winner.

My dream told me to put down the rope, and soon after our friendship resumed. I realized how precious deep friendships are and how time can be lost over disagreements that aren’t at the heart of the relationship. The dream helped me access my tender heart in the present moment, where the hurt could be touched and finally released.

So, whether you’re pushing to forgive before you’re ready, or clinging to a perceived slight that is binding your heart, finding the way to freedom means honoring what is true for you in this moment.” Lisa’s essay concludes, “When you understand that forgiveness is not always linear, you’ll see that it requires patience, time and compassion. This helps to bring you back to yourself, your wise heart, which can reveal the way to peace.”

Recognizing how hard it can be to forgive ourselves, meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein reminds us: “Whatever we’ve thought, spoken or done in the past could not have been otherwise due to the causes and conditions of the moment.” We did the best we could with the level of consciousness that we had at that time. When we react from greed, hatred or delusion, which are part of being human, there is no need for shame and guilt. With self-forgiveness, we have an opportunity to take responsibility for learning from unskillful actions, so that we don’t repeat them.

Jack Kornfield suggests using a formal meditation practice that helps develop our capacity to forgive by extending forgiveness in three directions. He himself undertook this practice hundreds of times before he could accompany his father through the process of dying:  

Breathe gently into the area of your heart, sensing the barriers you’ve erected and the emotions you’ve carried because you haven’t forgiven yourself or others.  

Feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. 

The first direction is to forgive ourselves for hurting others. 

Breathing softly, listen to the following words, noticing any images and feelings that emerge: 

There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, that I have betrayed or abandoned them, and caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger, and confusion. 

Let yourself remember and visualize ways you have hurt others.  

See the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. 

Feel your own sorrow and regret.

Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness.

Take as much time as you need to picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then as each person comes to mind, gently say:

I ask for your forgiveness.  I ask for your forgiveness….

Doubts and resistances are a normal part of the forgiveness process. Note them with as much compassion as possible and gently return to the phrases… 

Now let’s turn towards the second direction of self-forgiveness:

Just as I have caused suffering for others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself.  

I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word or deed, knowingly or unknowingly.

Feel connected with your own precious body and life.

Picture the ways you’ve hurt or harmed yourself. Remember these moments.

Feel the sorrow you have carried, and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one…. 

Repeat these phrases to yourself:

For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness.  

I forgive myself.  I forgive myself.  

Now let’s extend the practice in the third direction, forgiving those who have hurt or harmed us:

There are many ways I have been harmed or abandoned by others, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed.  

All of us have been betrayed at one time or another. Picture the moments of betrayal in your life. Feel the sorrow you’ve carried from the past. 

Now sense that you can release this burden of pain by gradually extending forgiveness, when your heart is ready. Listen to these words and repeat what feels right to you at this time:

I remember the ways others have hurt, wounded or harmed me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger.  

I have carried this pain in my heart long enough. 

To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness.

To those who caused me harm, 

I offer my forgiveness.

I forgive you. 

Sometimes when you’ve had a conflict with a person who causes you difficulty, this practice may involve a combination of asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself for your part in the interaction. Observe how it feels to recite the following phrases silently to yourself: 

For your thoughts, words or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed me, I forgive you.  

For my thoughts, words or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed you, I ask for your forgiveness. 

For my thoughts, words or deeds, intentional or unintentional, that have harmed you, I forgive myself.  

It may feel comforting to place a hand over your heart. Remember that forgiveness is a complex and ongoing process and let go of the practice for now. Breathe into the area of your heart, sensing its reservoir of lovingkindness for yourself and others. 

At your own rhythm, slowly open your eyes. Notice how your heart feels after practicing lovingkindness and forgiveness.