How do we learn to forgive?

If someone has hurt you deeply to your core, can you, or indeed, do you find it in your heart to forgive?

I know it’s a difficult one for some, including me. Some people can speak their mind, have a blow out, get quietly angry about something that’s hurt them and then close the door and move on. Whilst the rest of us cling onto it, play it over – ‘if only I’d said this, if only I’d done that!’. We feel we need that sense of justice, that closure, to feel redeemed of our values, of our pride, of our sense of righteousness.

But what if that closure is never going to come? What if you can’t have that conversation with said other? Or, you have had that conversation and it’s still unresolved? (And by the way, if you can set it to rights with said other party, then great, that’s definitely an appropriate course of action).

Where there is a solution – sort it.
Where there isn’t a solution – let it go.

A famous Buddha quote comes to mind right now – it goes something like ‘it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die’. By holding onto feelings of rage, resentment, injustice, hate, anger, hurt, blame, who are we hurting but ourselves? As someone who does not forgive easily, I know how hard this can be, but what if we started small? Tackling those lesser ingrained hurts and releasing ourselves from them. How liberating would it feel to just lift that weight from your shoulders that’s been bearing down on you?

In mindfulness practice, we are not looking to change feelings, we are trying to accept what’s here. We look to not load these feelings with more judgement on ourselves, more harsh self-criticisms of ‘I’m frustrated that I feel this way’, ‘why am I letting this bother me so much?’, ‘I’m angry for still feeling angry!’.

What we aim to do is acknowledge, allow, sit in acceptance and eventually the feelings will pass. If we are gentle with ourselves, if we have an awareness of these thoughts and feelings, we can make a choice, a choice as to how we deal with this state of mind. And in doing so, in not putting up resistance or pushing away, but living in acceptance of what’s here, the thoughts relinquish their power over us. They reduce in potency and you start to realise that these are just thoughts, they do not define you, they come and they go, but they do not have to control you. You are not your thoughts.

Naming the thought and acknowledging its presence can be a way of gaining that slight detachment, that space from it – ‘ah that’s you again, there you are’. You are not inside the whirling mass of it, you see it, you can even greet it head on, but you don’t have to engage with it if you don’t choose to.

Mark Williams and Danny Penman in their ‘dealing with difficult emotions’ practice, move the focus away from the mind to body sensations and feelings. As they state in their book ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’, – it is more skilful to work with the body as the mind can be too goal-orientated when faced with difficulty. The mind tries to help by problem solving or suppressing the thoughts. Focussing on the body gives us that sliver of space I was talking about, that detachment that takes us out of our heads and from the immediacy of the problem.

Once we have the space to explore a little more, an interesting question to pose to yourself may be ‘would I rather hold onto this or would I rather be free?’. And maybe you can make some connection with that place, however small, that wants to let go. Offer it space, compassion and warmth. Breathe into it with peace and equanimity, trying to experience on some level what it’s like to let go.

Forgiveness and letting go is something we do for ourselves. We are not excusing bad behaviour towards us, we are choosing to move on and heal. And, if you are not ready? Well that’s fine too. Realising that forgiveness can not be forced and healing takes time, requires great strength, it’s an important first step to freeing yourself.

So can we ever truly forgive? I think so. Some hurts are easier to release than others. The deeper the wounds the longer it can take. But when we recognise that we don’t want the burden anymore, we can start on the path to letting go. We can only forgive for ourselves, when we are ready and when we can truly let go. And when we can allow this forgiveness into our lives, then we are truly free.

References:
  • Calm app – Forgiveness for others meditation – Tamara Levitt.
  • Mark Williams and Danny Penman – Mindfulness – a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world.
  • My own musings.