11 Mar Forgiveness is like and onion…(Part 2)
With only the street lights illuminating my path, I walked the same familiar route. I smiled as my dog Lily, gracefully pranced alongside me. Every morning went much the same. I would force Lily out of bed to which she would begrudgingly join me on our morning walk. Each day, I would select a new podcast to listen to. Todays selection – ‘How to Create Heaven on Earth – With Dr Bruce Lipton.’ Lily and I set off on our usual route around our suburb. As we navigated the streets,I listened to Bruce’s strong message about how we can create more happiness in our own life through conscious decision making. I stopped dead in my tracks at the top of the hill. Today I was hearing this message. I knew in that moment that I was going to make the decision to change how I viewed my past and handled the present. I closed my eyes and thought to myself, “Today I am going to start to work out how I can forgive my dad. I want to move on from our past. I don’t want to hate him any longer.” And with that, the universe sent me a strong message that almost knocked me over. Something undeniable. This had never happened to me before in my life. An opportunity, a message, a test…
I heard the motor of a car approaching. A big black four wheel drive pulled up right in front of me. The driver wound down his window. Without even thinking, without my heart skipping a beat, a smile spread from one side of my face to the other.
“Hi Dad, I was just thinking about you…”
When one forgives, two souls are set free. In part one of this post, I shared about the onion analogy. There is more to forgiveness than just the act itself. There is a process involved. Before forgiving thoughts even hover on your radar, you must peel back the layers one-by-one. In order to forgive a person (or yourself), you need to identify, acknowledge and welcome the suffering that you endured as part of the process. Without this essential step, you fail to see the opportunities in the obstacle or the lesson held within the experience. In this post, it is my goal to help you understand what forgiveness is, what it is not and how it can help you to live a happier life.
Forgiveness is universal. The message is similar, yet the approaches can vary. There are Christian teachings of “turning the other cheek,” Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness, there is the mercy of Allah in Islam and so on. As I wandered down my spiritual path, I found an approach that suited me. I was never going to be able to “trust in a higher being” and “do what God/Jesus would do” in able to forgive the people in my life who had betrayed me. I didn’t believe in that. I needed tangible practical strategies that I could apply. I read lots of texts and listened to podcasts (Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, Dalai Lama etc), all of which shaped my views on forgiveness. In Buddhism (there it is..the B word again!), there are thousand different trainings to support forgiveness. I am a person who needs practical, hands on resources. There are trainings in mindfulness, in compassion, in forgiveness, in loving kindness, in compassion for those who are different than you, and so on.
Alongside spiritual masters, most psychologists (like my friend Jack Kornfield) advocate for forgiveness as a tool to happiness. Chat to a psychologist and they are sure to recommend mustering up genuine compassion for those who have wronged you, and moving on from the past, instead of allowing bitterness and anger toward others to fester. Equally, and perhaps more important, is learning to acknowledge your missteps and forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness is often the first step toward a more loving and positive relationship with yourself, and therefore with others.
Layer 4 – Understand what forgiveness is and what it is not
When we forgive others, we do it for ourselves. We do not have to accept bad behaviour or trust a person again. We forgive so we can let go and move on with our own life. Eckhart Tolle (a famous spiritual teacher) shares how forgiveness is to “relinquish your grievences and let go of your grief.” It happens naturally when you realise that your greievnce serves no purpose. The alternative to forgiveness is pain and suffering, a greatly restricted life and in many cases physical disease. The moment you forgive, you have reclaimed your power of the mind. The mind cannot forgive on it’s own. Only YOU can.
Forgiveness is also NOT a number of things. If I haven’t yet succeeded in convincing you of a need to forgive, then you still must not fully understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offence against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offences. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you. This is especially so if you create an unsafe situation for the forgiver. Robert Enright discusses the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a virtue and behaviours flow from insight and compassion (“I can be good to those who are not good to me”). Reconciliation is a behavioural negotiation strategy used to bring people together in mutual trust. If available to you, you can do both (i.e. forgive a gambling husband but still stay with them or forgive a friend for saying something that hurt you and continue to have a relationship). You can also forgive someone and not reconcile (if the other person remains an abuser or is unable to change behaviours to ensure trust).
Many people feel dutifully responsible to forgive someone and reconcile if they want to be a “better person.” This places so much pressure on an individual. Why continue to endure pain in the long term? There has been significant studies over the years to support psychologists with this notion. In order to live a life not filled with debilitating resentment of another, it is okay to forgive someone yet not continue a relationship with them. When it comes to family, we find it hard to disassociate ourselves with someone who has hurt us as we feel bound to them by blood. If the situation is unsafe for you as the forgiver, you DO NOT have to reconcile with anyone who brings forth more suffering. Of course, if it is self forgiveness that you are working on, you are going to need to reconcile with yourself and in this instance, it is suggested that you seek assistance to do so.
When someone does something wrong, dont forget all the things they did right. In the case of my ill feelings towards my ex boyfriends and my father, I was unable to forgive them for so many years. I had it in my head that I wanted them to learn a lesson. I wanted them to carry around a feeling of dread, pain and regret for the rest of their lives. Both ex boyfriends have reached out to me over the years to apologise for their behaviour and I put up a sky high wall, stood with my hand help far out in front of me, my face frowning and turned them away. I was so filled with hatred, anger and sadness, that all I wanted to do, was have them feel the same. Who knows if that actually worked?!?! I mean, really, the only person who has been hurting, is me. They could be enjoying a lovely time in Hawaii, while here I am, raged up, rain clouds over head! Once I understood that forgiveness had nothing to do with them, it was about me. I found it much easier to know and accept that I had to let go. If I didnt, I would carry these feelings around for the rest of my life.
Layer 5 – Set an intention to forgive
When you forgive, you don’t change the past, you change the future. Now that you understand that forgiveness does not mean condoning the poor behaviour of another or having to reconcile with another party, are you ready to forgive? I hope so! If not, return back to the earlier steps and sit more with your suffering and negative feelings. Is this where you want to stay for the rest of your life? For some of you, this may be all you know, a safe place. The magical thing about our minds is that we make them up. Nobody else has that power. Make up your mind to end your suffering and open up all the avenues to the rest of your beautifully happy life.
If you can learn to develop patience and tolerance towards those who have wronged you, everything else becomes much easier. When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best part of your brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long-term and short-term consequences of your actions. You can no longer action your power of judgement. Here, insanity manifests and you lose your grip on what is really important in life. The Dalai Lama shared how hatred’s only purpose is to destroy us. He explains how living in a place of wanting to take revenge upon your enemy creates a vicious cycle. The result is that both sides suffer. Through making the decision to release your suffering, it flows on to others and opens your life up to experiences that you never knew possible.
The benefits of forgiveness far outweigh that alternative:
Forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger that plagues their every move in life. You may notice that your negative feelings (anger, hatred, jealousy, attachment and so on) knock on your door unexpectedly at times. Through applying forgiveness, you don’t invite these unwanted guests into your life anymore.
It empowers you to recognise the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life. Through acknowledging your suffering, you see you past and sometimes present situations as opportunities for growth. Be grateful for these experiences, for the pain for the lessons for these are what have shaped the person you are today. Not the unforgiving person you were yesterday, the strong, brave and bold person you have made the decision to be right now. The one who has decided to forgive others, move forward and take control of the rest of your life.
Forgiveness makes us happier. Research suggests not only that happy people are more likely to forgive but that forgiving others can make people feel happy, especially when they forgive someone to whom they feel close.
Studies of patients who received therapy in forgiveness experienced greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and hope than those who didn’t. I think this is a given. Through letting go of our suffering, embracing it and using it as a strong lesson in our lives, we role model to others that we can rise above anything with the greater goal of living our best life.
Forgiveness improves our health: When we dwell on grudges, our blood pressure and heart rate spike—signs of stress which damage the body; when we forgive, our stress levels drop, and people who are more forgiving are protected from the negative health effects of stress. Studies also suggest that holding grudges might compromise our immune system, making us less resistant to illness.
Forgiveness sustains relationships: When our friends or family inevitably hurt or disappoint us, holding a grudge makes us less likely to sacrifice or cooperate with them, which undermines feelings of trust and commitment, driving us further apart. If you are able to forgive and reconcile with people who are important to you, you send a strong message of commitment and love. As I mentioned before, this does not mean that you must reconcile with everyone you forgive. For those that you can, keep those relationships going and be clear about your suffering, why you are forgiving them and set the boundaries for future interactions. Remember, you can exit a relationship at any time you feel unsafe.
Forgiveness is good for marriages (most of the time): Spouses who are more forgiving and less vindictive are better at resolving conflicts effectively in their marriage. A long-term study of newlyweds found that more forgiving spouses had stronger, more satisfying relationships.
Forgiveness boosts kindness and connectedness: People who feel forgiving don’t only feel more positive toward someone who hurt them. They are also more likely to want to volunteer and donate money to charity, and they feel more connected to other people in general.
People who practice self-forgiveness tend to have better physical and mental health. Forgiving ourselves may also improve our relationships.
I’m thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength. In my experience,I knew that I needed to release my pent up anger as it was so strong that whenever I lost my temper about something totally unrelated, I replayed past events about my betrayal. For example, when arguing with my husband, the pain of my experience with my father would whip through me faster than hurricane winds. Before I knew it, I was gripped with panic and accusation. Convinced that my (lovely, gentle and caring) husband was going to abandon me just like my dad did. As soon as a recognised the impact that this anger had on me, I was ready to release it. I stopped the blame game when I learnt that I could also blame all these men for the good fortune I had now. Without having dated these two past men,I wouldn’t have been a person I am not proud of and grown to be who the person I am today. I made awful decisions in how I responded in the past, but I learned from them. I had learnt that physically and verbally attacking partners wasn’t right. I’d watched my father do it my whole life. It only made all his children and step child hate and resent him. Through appreciating my suffering, I understood that if I hadn’t been with these partners or grown up around my father, I would not have learnt how not to behave the way I do now. I wouldn’t have landed an amazing, kind and caring man like my husband. Upon meeting him, I had learned big lessons about who I was and the person I wanted to be. I also learnt what kind of man I needed to avoid and I knew a winner when I saw it. Without my dad, without those boyfriends and without my conscious mind, I wouldn’t have the life I do now. I am grateful to have all three of them for they have led me here, to this moment.
When you forgive, you heal. And when you let go, you grow. I knew I was ready to forgive in that moment when my father’s car pulled up in front of me. I haven’t spoken to him in 2 years. He hadn’t attended my engagement party, my wedding, he didn’t know where I lived. I had spent the past 2 years trying to justify why I didn’t want him in my life to anyone who would listen. I managed to get everyone on side. I knew he was toxic and I needed to move on with my life. Although, making a big decision to end a relationship with him was so painful. Painful because I had grieved the loss of a parent already. This time it was different because I grieved for a father who was still alive lived around the corner. Painful because all I did each day way analyse what i did that resulted in him not loving or wanting me anymore. Painful because I feared he would die and I would live the rest of my life in regret, having wondered if I made the right decision.I have come to understand that all of this fear, anxiety, grief and soul tearing pain was there because I hadn’t forgiven him. I held onto my past with so much negativity and blame that I didn’t know if I could forgive myself for all my poor decisions after the fact. When the stars aligned on my walk that morning, when I made that decision to forgive and was delivered with the opportunity to do so, my whole life changed.
The moment my dad stopped his car, I walked up and leant in the window, embracing him with a loving hug was the most beautiful and authentic moment of my life. For the next 3 minutes that we spent with each other (any longer and I know it could have turned bad), we both forgot about the past. We just loved each other. A father and a daughter engaged in a few minutes of bliss. No ill feelings ever crossed my mind in that time, no anger, no pain, no hatred. It really was heaven on earth. As I said goodbye to him and his car drove off. I knew that something had shifted inside my soul. I stood on the side of the road, frozen in time. All of a sudden, the corners of my mind started rushing around, gathering perspective on every situation in my life. I just knew that if there was a time to forgive him, to forgive the others and to forgive myself, it was now…
“So I need a miracle moment like hers to forgive those who have wronged me?”
Not at all!!! Once this intention was set, I set about exploring all the strategies that would help me to do so. I didn’t just automatically know this stuff – I studied it. I understand that not everyone is presented with a universe delivered experience like mine. If you know you want to forgive someone but don’t exactly know how, do not worry – there is time for that. The important part of this whole process is that you have now acknowledged your suffering and appreciate it for what opportunities it has created for you. By now, you should understand what forgiveness is and how it can benefit you, which (hopefully) means you have set an intention to pursue it.
In my next post, I will share how gaining perspective, being grateful and cultivating kindness and compassion can steer you down the path of forgiveness and lead you to greater happiness.
References and resources
Kornfield, Jack (2011) https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_ancient_heart_of_forgiveness
Kornfield, Jack (2011) The Ancient Art of Forgiveness video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiRP-Q4mMtk&t=2394s)
The Greater Good Magazine (2018) Forgiveness Defined- https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition
Williamson, Marianne (2018) A Course in Miracles (Podcast) https://melissaambrosini.com/podcast/a-course-in-miracles-with-marianne-williamson/
Tolle, Eckhart (1997) The Power of Now