How do I forgive? I’ve tried so hard, but I can’t. It still hurts; my mind is still clouded with those memories.
The first thing is to heal all the pain, to cease the suffering. I have heard that the ancient meaning of forgiveness was to cancel and let go. So begin with your pain, let go of that, let that be the first step. Forget about the other person for now. Turn your attentions towards yourself first.
The way out of our pain is to go through it – we heal these feelings by feeling them completely. But even that can be hard. I was so afraid of my feelings; I still am. It was easy to puff my chest out and say loudly that I am angry at what happened. But it took a long time before I could drop, curl up, and admit that I was hurt, that I was scared, that I was lonely.
Perhaps this is why we struggle with forgiveness; we rush into it to avoid feeling our pain. We try and cancel what they have done, and hope that in doing so, our pain will disappear on its own. It might be different for others, but for me, going into this pain was the only way I could finally let it go. Forgiving someone without letting go of our pain is false forgiveness.
So all that I’ve done – that was not real forgiveness? It was wasted?
The psychotherapist Hal Stone once said that love isn’t love if it is forced – in fact, forcing love will lead to repression. I believe it is the same for forgiveness, compassion, and understanding; they have to come of their own accord. Just keep watering the seeds, and let the flower bloom when it does.
Years ago, someone told me that all I needed to heal and feel better was to forgive. I was so desperate – my pain was so strong – that I tried to push my way into it. I denied my feelings and told myself I shouldn’t feel this way, for I had already forgiven those that hurt me. And all that did was drive my pain even deeper into hiding. And when they came flooding back, I began to hate myself. I thought I was such a failure, that I couldn’t even forgive!
Try a question. Ask yourself, do I really want to forgive him? Or is it something I was told to do, feel like I have to do? And wait for the answer. As long as there is unresolved pain, it will be no. Perhaps there is more pain hiding somewhere, afraid to come into the light.
When the pain is completely gone, forgiveness will seem to be the natural thing to do. If you asked yourself that question again then, the answer might be – what other choice is there?
But you have not wasted your time. Trial and error is always a part of learning. And there is reason to be relieved – all this work shows willingness, and willingness is the most important ingredient.
But why does it take so long? Why is it such a struggle? Is it just me?
Forgiveness is a struggle for many, and I despaired many times in the past. But this despair came from seeing forgiveness as working on that one event, that one person.
One day I realised that I had been looking in the wrong direction. This work was changing me on a very deep, fundamental level, and that was why it was taking so long. I was not resolving that one event – I was changing my entire life, my inner state, my way of being in the world. This is not an exaggeration; you have to see this for yourself.
To truly forgive, we have to become a person who can forgive. People wish to find inner freedom, to reach peace of mind and compassion. But these things come from who we are, not from a single act or decision.
Peace and understanding comes from a growing consciousness – to really have it, not just an intellectual understanding, we have to be it. Perhaps this is why it can take so long. Changing who we are is one of the hardest – but most rewarding – things we can ever do.
This is hard to understand. Is that why some people can forgive so quickly, and I can’t?
Perhaps a map of the path will be helpful. My favourite model is that discovered by Lester Levenson; he described our states of consciousness as a ladder. At the lowest levels are states of grief, helplessness, shame, and hatred. Just above these states are fear, anger, and pride – still negative states, but a tremendous relief compared to those below it. In contrast, the highest levels are states of compassion and peace.
These are not just feelings, but dominant states of being. We all get angry or sad once in a while – that isn’t a sign of who we are or where we are at. But look at someone you know, someone who is always angry, always arrogant, always sad. What will it take for them to change? Can someone who is always in such a state find true forgiveness? Maybe this will comfort us when we get discouraged – this is why forgiveness can be such a long, slow process. To truly forgive, we have to change on a very deep level.
When I first discovered inner work, I was dominated by the lowest states. I felt nothing would work, that life was hopeless, I was worthless – always was, and always will be. I was tortured every waking moment by memories and painful feelings.
I remember despairing – one year later – when I saw I hadn’t fully forgiven them after so much work. What I didn’t realise was that life was different, I was different. I still carried contempt and anger, but the self-hatred and worthlessness had lifted. I had energy and hope for the first time in years, I genuinely laughed, I genuinely smiled.
A year after that, things changed even more. I was reading through my old journals late one night – I had written in many of them about the “Big 9”, the nine people from my past who had hurt me the most. Their memories had tortured me for years, and I didn’t bother writing their names down as I thought I will always remember them. But that night, I put the journal down and tried to remember who they were. What I got was a really pleasant surprise, for I could only name two.
So is that the goal of forgiveness? Simply stop all resentment and forget?
I don’t know. That might be the dictionary definition, and for a long time I was satisfied with that. Being content and peaceful inside, not even remembering who they are, was a tremendous step forward for someone who had struggled with depression for years.
But it has been said that forgiveness is the only thing we need. I don’t know if that is true, for I still have a long way to go. Maybe it is. As we keep forgiving, as we forgive everything that we see and experience – even our own thoughts and feelings – perhaps there will come a time there is nothing left to forgive. Would that be true freedom? Would that be the end of suffering, where nothing and no one could ever hurt us again?
True forgiveness might be painful, slow, or difficult… but perhaps the old teachings were right. It might be the only thing we really need.