“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Forgiveness is a practice, and a painful and difficult one at that. It is one we resist because it is so challenging to let go of the anger, resentment, and hatred that we cling to so fiercely when someone has harmed us. That anger, resentment, and hatred become our shield, our armor. We ground ourselves fiercely in a stance that no one will ever harm us like that again. This is a fine stance to take, yet the harm to ourselves comes when it leads to us cutting off love and disconnecting from others and from ourselves. Meditation teacher and Psychologist Tara Brach teaches us that “When we have been betrayed and wounded, when we are threatened and afraid, holding onto resentment is a way of protecting ourselves. It is our way of armoring against the experience of raw pain.”
When I work with clients around forgiveness I treat it like a grief process in that there are stages and phases of forgiveness. The work is in building the capacity, skills, and strength to bring awareness, loving and compassionate awareness to each phase we are in. It is okay to be angry, it is normal and makes sense, again it is protective. We need to honor and experience the anger in conscious and safe way. It is by naming and feeling the anger that it begins to loosen its grip, be released, and we heal. We can then begin to relax and create the space to trust and forgive. We practice forgiveness to be open to love. This is a courageous act, to let that armor down, maybe not all the time, but if we remain locked in our anger and unable to forgive, I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King in that we cannot love.
In the words of Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, "We forgive for the freedom of our own hearts." Forgiveness is for the forgiver. To me choosing to forgive and practicing forgiveness is a lifetime practice or as Dr. Martin Luther King says, a constant attitude. It does not mean that we become passive to the person who is causing the harm, and it does not mean we condone the harmful behavior. It means that we do not allow them to have the power and influence over us to shape our worldview and to live in the grips of anger, fear, and hatred. More eloquently Tara Brach says “Forgiving is a movement of your heart not to carry aversive hatred or blame. That you can care about someone and still create boundaries… Each of you has this wisdom, heart, being place that intuits that there really isn’t freedom in the moments that you’re carrying blame and judgment.”
I can’t stress enough that this is a courageous practice and a practice to come to in your own time, much like the stage of acceptance in the grief process. Acceptance, like forgiveness does not mean agreement with what happened, nor does it mean that you will feel good or okay. It does not ignore the harm, trauma, or wrongdoing. Acceptance is the practice of coming to terms with the reality of what happened. We forgive, sometimes it is ourselves we are forgiving and sometimes others. To quote Lily Tomlin, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” And much like grief there is no end to forgiveness. We will walk through life being reminded and triggered of the harm that happened to us and we will feel pain. That pain may show up as anger and an armoring. This is an opportunity to once again compassionately and courageously practice forgiveness to remain open to love.
Here are some of my favorite resources to guide myself and my clients in this work:
May you all find the freedom and love in practicing forgiveness. Namaste.