When I introduce forgiveness as a practice, I emphasize that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves and not for other people. We live in a culture that likes to hold onto hurt. The difficulty with that is that holding onto past hurts can keep us stuck in the past. It can compound the damage of past negative events and experiences by adding additional suffering on top of the original pain.
Forgiveness meditation is similar to loving-kindness meditation. You bring to mind individuals or situations that fit each section and then work through the phrases. As you repeat the phrases to yourself, you are working to let go of past hurts. You start with yourself, move on to ways you have hurt others, and then to ways others have hurt you.
Understanding the Practice
The phrases for each of the areas you are working with are below. As you repeat each of the lines to yourself, let whatever needs to be released for each section float to the surface of your mind on its own. Don’t force anything. Be with whatever naturally arises. If nothing surfaces, that is okay. You can simply work through the phrases and move on to the next area.
1. Forgiving Ways You’ve Hurt Yourself
In all the ways that I have hurt or damaged myself
Knowingly and unknowingly
May I forgive myself and let them go
2. Forgiving Ways You’ve Hurt Others
In all the ways that I have hurt or damaged you
Knowingly and unknowingly
Please forgive me and let them go
3. Forgiving Ways Others Have Hurt You
In all the ways that you have hurt or damaged me
Knowingly and unknowingly
I (am willing to) forgive you and let them go
Forgiving Your Own Mistakes
As you recite the phrases for each section, let the events or people needing forgiveness surface. See them and hold them in your mind. Particularly, pay attention to the feelings that arise with each one. As each event or person commands your attention, it’s important to know the difference between the words regret, remorse, shame, and guilt. Regret and remorse are actually virtues. Shame and guilt are not.
The difficulty people have is that they often confuse regret and remorse with the feelings of shame and guilt that initially come with them. When you’ve done something really wrong and hurt yourself or another person, the regret comes and it carries the baggage of guilt and shame with it.
The work of forgiving yourself is about accepting and acknowledging your mistakes without minimizing them. The work of remorse is then to release the baggage of guilt and shame while accepting what can't be changed in your history. As you work to release the feelings of shame and guilt, you begin to fundamentally change. You develop remorse.
The hard work of forgiveness ensures that a new you will emerge from the ashes and that you will not go down the road that led to your regret again. Without the need to work through and release what is difficult, you would remain the same person. The guilt and shame you are releasing are what change you for the better. Developing remorse in this way serves as a form of redemption.
Forgiving the Mistakes of Others
The third group of phrases is about letting go of what other people have done to you. And it’s here that it’s important to remember that forgiving someone does not mean they have to stay in your life. Forgiving someone’s actions is not the same as accepting (or even excusing) those actions. You can forgive someone and still acknowledge that what they did is wrong. Forgiveness is about saying, “You may have hurt me in the past but I don’t want what you have done to continue hurting me into the future.”
For a lot of people, saying “I forgive you” in this third section can be problematic -- at least at the start. Your mind may fight saying it. Don’t force anything you’re not ready for. Remember, forgiving another person is really for you and not them. You can take your time.
If you struggle with saying, “I forgive you” or it really doesn’t seem natural, the phrase can be replaced with, “I am willing to forgive you,” “I let go of,” or “I am willing to let go of.” The word forgive is a hard word. Swapping it out for “let go of” can really be helpful. It's important to acknowledge what you are ready to say and what you are not ready to say when doing this meditation.
Forgiveness often happens gradually and in degrees. Maybe today you have forgiven yourself or another person 96%. The remaining 4% can be worked on in the future. It’s not a 100% forgiveness or nothing equation. It’s a gradual process and it takes time.
As you add this practice into your routine, remember to take it easy on yourself and not to rush the process. Often when someone forgives too quickly, they haven’t really forgiven someone – they’ve only suppressed the hurt or shoved the feelings down. Thus ensuring that everything suppressed will show up again in the future. Give yourself the time you need.
Learn to forgive and learn to let go.
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