As a healer, I often work with the principle of forgiveness. When I work with someone who has a physical illness like cancer for example, it's one of the first questions I consider:
How much unfinished emotional business does this person have?
How many unresolved past situations is this person giving energy to?
We live in a dualistic reality, and we all know too well that we make mistakes and that sometimes our actions hurt other people, and there are consequences, which is to say that it changes things.
Difficult situations are part of the cycle of life, and bad things happen, or at least things can happen that we frame as ‘bad’, and we are left haunted by a memory etched into our minds.
When we decide that bad things have happened to us, they are very difficult to forget. How common is it that we can readily bring up a memory of a time when someone wronged us, but it's harder to get the same granular detail on a joyful event? We tend to remember happy moments in quite a different way to bad ones, unless the happy moments are so few and far between that they function as beacons of light in a sea of constant hardship.
The word ‘forgive’ has an obscured meaning. In German it is ‘vergeben’ and in French it is ‘pardonner’, and like English they share the same pattern; essentially [for] + [give]. This odd combination comes from a too-literal translation from the original Latin word ‘perdonare’, which means “to give completely without reservation”.
But what is forgiveness?
Well lets start with what it is not:
Forgiveness is not condoning
Forgiveness is not forgetting
Forgiveness is not excusing
Forgiveness is not about minimising your hurt
Forgiveness is not reconciliation
Forgiveness is not denying or suppressing your feelings
Forgiveness is not ignoring accountability or justice
Forgiveness is not pardoning
On a practical level, forgiveness is energy management; its a psycho-spiritual practice that frees up energy in our lives and optimises health and creative potential.
How does this work?
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Let's say in the past that someone wronged you; perhaps they lied and those lies led to events that felt like a betrayal of trust, and as a consequence you felt hurt. Being hurt made you feel angry, and the first thing you wanted was for them to feel the same pain as you did. So you broke connection with them, took more distance, perhaps you never saw them again, but even years later, when that other person’s name is mentioned you find yourself retelling the story and why they should never be trusted and how they are not a good person etc. Every time you tell the tale it is more or less the same, and each time you can’t help but feel wronged and a bit hurt even after years have passed. This is a sure sign that you have not forgiven the situation. Your vital energy is tied up into the past; you are invested in a story that never changes and the one person who suffers the most is you. Once the story is told, you push the unresolved emotions back down and you try to put it behind you.
Repressing emotions takes energy. Gabor Maté, a leading figure in trauma awareness, likens the repression of emotions to holding a beach-ball down under the water; it takes a lot more energy than we might think to push emotions down, every minute of every day.
Let’s think in terms of physical health. Ideally, in perfect health, we would have 100% energy available for natural healing processes, which we can think of as a sort of bank account with $100 in it. Whenever we commit psycho-emotional energy to the past, it costs us a portion of that money. In the above example, the attachment to a painful story and the negative emotions it generates, plus the amount of energy needed to repress those emotions, costs you $10. So now you only have 90% energy available for physical health. So far so good, since you can get by ok with 90%, but what if there are more unresolved past events, which are tying up your energy? Let’s say you have 4 major unresolved events that are costing you $50, leaving just 50% energy for physical health. At this point your immune system is struggling and you may have a minor chronic condition; repressing emotions is stressful even if you are not conscious of the stress. If this strategy of dealing with painful events continues, at some point you will cross the threshold where there is just too little money left in the “health-account” and now something much more serious can manifest like cancer.
This is why forgiveness is worthwhile, even if it is unattractive and takes effort and time, because forgiveness frees up vital energy and brings us into the present moment. With more energy: joy and fulfilment are increased.
Gabor Maté reports that almost all people with cancer are compromised by unresolved trauma and the chronic stress created when feelings and emotions are repressed. Medical intuitive Carolyn Myss tells a story in one of her audio lectures of a woman who was so ill with cancer that she was told she had only weeks to live. In her desperation she decided to attend a healing workshop on forgiveness, and was literally wheeled in on a bed, she was so ill. As the story goes, she listened to the facilitator speak about forgiveness and after it was over she left. About a year later, Carolyn Myss tells of how she bumped into this woman, and she to her surprise was bright and healthy in stark contrast to the year before, and she asked this woman in amazement how she had healed herself, and the woman told her that in that lecture she suddenly became aware that she needed to forgive her husband for a past infidelity, and when she did, her health suddenly changed for the better.
Although this story is a rare and powerful one, it offers a tantalising glimpse into the potential of forgiveness. In this case the woman had a personal revelation; her higher-self gave her the insight beyond any doubt, catalysed by the workshop, which enabled her to truly forgive and let go, and it tipped the scale in her favour back toward health; energy directed to the past became available for healing in the present.
But why do we commonly adopt the strategy of repression?
I think this has much to do with pain avoidance. When we get hurt, the instinctive reaction is to move away from the pain, so we try to put bad experiences behind us. We get angry about it, and use that anger to reenforce our perception of what happened, and it's a lot easier to blame everything on someone else; in so doing we get to avoid looking at our own patterns of behaviour and enjoy the heady feeling or self-righteous superiority.
My point here is that even if someone violates our boundaries, breaks agreements or takes advantage of us, no matter how real that is, we have some part to play in why things happen the way they do. If we don’t take any responsibility, forgiveness is very hard to achieve.
For example, you have a good friend and he or she is reliable and close to you. But then one day someone else comes on the scene, and your good friend drops you for them, and you are left feeling betrayed and rejected. It's painful, and you naturally get angry because after all a subtle agreement and understanding has been broken. Natural anger is important because it tells us that a boundary has been crossed and it needs to be attended to. In this case you decide to take space from your friend and become more distant because you no longer trust them in the way you did before. This is appropriate, and yet it's easy to bypass the real emotions; the feeling of betrayal and rejection; the desire for retribution and so on.
When we allow ourselves to go deeper into emotions as they occur, we may find ourselves asking why we take rejection so personally, and begin to consider whether we were projecting an ideal onto the relationship that wasn’t agreed on both sides. When we don’t give space for emotional processing, we construct a story that panders to existing patterns of wounding, one that is an edited version of the full truth, and typically lacks objectivity; in short we are building a monument to all prior unresolved emotional material from early childhood, which doesn’t help us in the longer term.
Using this strategy locks us into a limited storyline that leaves us perpetually hurting, and does nothing to resolve and heal, so we can’t move on in life and express our true fullness.
Forgiveness is complex; we are giving away completely without reservation our preconceived idea of things, letting go of any attachment to storylines that reenforce a position of superiority, and moving instead into a state of open neutrality. In this way we begin to cultivate a viewpoint that is more true; one that accepts we don’t know exactly why something happened, allows us to let go of our assumptions and takes a more humble position. From a neutral viewpoint, we can more easily recognise that the ‘offender’ may have been in a difficult place in their lives, and that perhaps they were acting from their patterns of wounding, and didn’t intend to hurt us deliberately. We can also more easily see that we also have unresolved wounds that became more active through the experience, and that we had the opportunity to become more aware of this repressed aspect of ourselves. We may conclude that painful events can serve to help us grow and mature as human beings, and that we can become stronger and better through these types of challenge.
How can we know if we need to forgive something?
In general whenever we recall a memory of a person or past event and we feel a sense of contraction (perhaps in the belly or heart) or we have a negative mental response to the memory, we have unfinished business with that past event and will benefit from forgiveness. As mentioned earlier, if we keep on repeating the same hurtful stories and never change our viewpoint, there is a good chance we need to work on forgiveness.
Conversely if we have made headway with forgiveness, then when we recall the memory of a person or event we will feel at peace and in a neutral space and there will be no inner-contraction. If a person has severely wronged us in the past and forgiveness has occurred, we may feel impersonal compassion for them, while also knowing they made a mistake and it was painful, but we won’t relive the pain each time; we will have more distance from it and the pain will be firmly in the past. It will be something that happened to us but we have moved on and become stronger for it.
How can we achieve true authentic forgiveness?
There are several stages in the forgiveness process:
Step 1: Recapitulation and Emotional Processing
The first step toward forgiveness starts when we are willing to recall the events that hurt us, and instead of pushing the feelings away, begin to allow emotions to surface more fully. As emotions occur we track them back to their source. For example, the first emotion we may feel might be anger, and then we ask ourselves ‘why am I angry?’, and we may then realise that we’re angry because we feel rejected. We then try to track back again and ask the question ‘why is it painful to feel rejected?’, and the answer might be because we feel humiliated. Then we continue tracking backward until we sense we have reached the source pattern of the pain.
This kind of emotional excavation takes practise, and if this is new to you, it will take time, and just achieving one track-back might be enough for you emotionally at one moment in time. Tracking emotions in this way initiates emotional processing, because when we become aware of something new in ourselves we need to allow our psyche to adjust to the new insight before continuing.
The aim with this ‘uncovering’ process is to gain sufficient understanding about the incident and our emotions. This part of the process is about investigating oneself, not the others involved. Its about reviewing what we did and didn’t do, and letting the emotions complete themselves without repressing them.
Step 2 - Choosing to forgive or not
At some stage new awareness will naturally lead to a desire to forgive the situation, because it becomes clear in some way that holding on to an old painful story no longer serves us. I don’t believe we can effectively choose forgiveness from the level of ego, but the ego-personality can become aware that the choice has been made from a deeper level of self.
Forgiveness doesn't require the participation of anyone else; we can undertake a forgiveness process on our own terms and with our own resources. The main reason for this is because forgiveness is a personal psycho-spiritual change that we make within. Forgiving someone may positively affect the energy dynamic between two people, but that someone certainly doesn't need to be present for it to work.
It's worth considering however that we can simulate forgiveness, which isn't the same. We will often do this because we think forgiveness is a good thing, usually because other people think so and there is social pressure to conform to expectation. This is especially true for religious communities that value forgiveness such as Christianity. In spiritual mentoring sessions, when I raise the issue of forgiveness, a person may well think they have forgiven someone, when they have only simulated forgiveness. This becomes evident when they realise that there is still too much inner-contraction and negative emotion over the past. Sometimes we've taken steps toward forgiveness but stopped before the process is complete. Simulated forgiveness is just the appearance of forgiveness, but the energy dynamics remain the same.
Step 3 - Working with the memory
Having laid the proper foundation with emotional processing and new self awareness, we can now begin to engage actively evolving the memory. In this step we are not trying to erase a painful past and purge from our minds what happened. We want to do the opposite; we want to integrate energy we have locked away because it was painful, and effectively heal our memory by forging a new way to remember. As the old way of perceiving what happened changes, and our corresponding judgements soften, trapped energy begins to flow and we can usually feel this when it happens; energy seems to come back to us, and we feel more complete as if we’ve been missing a part of ourselves.
Part of this process is to put ourselves into the shoes of those who we think have offended us, and to try and gain understanding about what was happening for them, in order to become more objective. Quite often we realise the actions of the other had much less to do with us than we previously assumed, and it is possible to develop a degree of sympathy, empathy or compassion that we may have found impossible while we were living through the pattern of our personal wounding.
As we become more self-aware through objectivity, we will find it easier to acknowledge inner pain as a part of life, and that it isn’t a simple black and white situation, where one person is the good guy and the other person is the bad guy. Life is much more nuanced than that, and through this understanding we can then begin to let go of the fixed emotions, accepting that we survived the situation ok, were tested and prevailed, and can reach for leniency and mercy in the way we judge ourselves, others and our life challenges. Through the cultivation of forgiveness we realise that the perpetrator is the most unfortunate of all, and ultimately deserving of compassion, for when we become compassionate there is a cessation of negative and self-limiting thoughts.
Step 4 - Deepening integration
In this final stage, we get to feel the shift as we release emotional energy, and as this happens we typically gain a new level of insight. With more emotional distance, we get to understand the event in a meaningful way; the sense that it served a purpose; we get to understand the deeper meaning behind suffering, and how through the experience now forgiven, we have evolved and been able to liberate a part of ourselves - somehow we have grown in heart, mind and spirit.
The forgiveness process imbues life events with purpose and meaning, and it makes us more resilient and courageous than before. Painful and traumatic life events inevitably change us; we are never the same afterward and in my view shouldn’t aim to be, we are here to grow and evolve spiritually and this is as it should be. Irrevocable change, although the death of an old way, also opens up entirely new possibilities and developmental pathways.
Dr. Robert Enright writes “When we overcome suffering, we gain a more mature understanding of what it means to be humble, courageous, and loving in the world.”
The philosophy of forgiveness offers all of us a means to heal, empower and grow. Forgiveness is the nature and essence of Divinity; the Divine doesn’t hold attachments and is ever flowing with unconditional love. And yet forgiveness isn't always a light-switch moment; more often than not we need to cultivate forgiveness, and become better at it over time with practise. Old stories may occasionally try to reassert themselves, so even when we have forgiven someone we may have to reaffirm the forgiveness from time to time. All of us are different, and how forgiveness shows up depends on what it is we are attending to; some experiences are easier to forgive than others.
© 2022 Aquila Idha - all rights reserved
No written part of this article may be used without written consent of the author, unless credit and reference to this website are provided.