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Why and how to forgive with compassion (and self-compassion!).

The Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa in the 5th century wrote about holding on to anger and resentment. He said, “By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.”

In my last blog I talked about 8 compassionate steps to let go of resentment. Step 7 was “practice forgiveness”. Um…ok, but how on earth do I do that? Let’s have a look at forgiveness and I’ll share with you a little mantra or meditation you can use to begin to forgive.

Forgiveness can be a powerful act of compassion and self-compassion. But it’s difficult. When someone hurts us, we can feel anxious and sad, but we can also feel very angry, enraged, and resentful towards them. We can feel a burning desire to retaliate or seek revenge. And these feelings and desires can burn on and on, very painfully.

When we ruminate on anger and resentment, and hold onto a desire for revenge, then we are only further hurting ourselves. We are hurting twice now. Once when the other person hurt us, and then through our own resentful loops in the mind.

This is why we try to practice forgiveness: letting go of anger and rage, and the desire for retaliation and vengeance, is in our own best interests. Forgiving someone who has hurt us is an act of self-compassion, as much as it might be compassionate towards the other.

Nelson Mandela wrote about his release from prison after 27 years: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.” Such is the power of forgiveness.

Three steps to begin to forgive

The first step with forgiveness is to connect with what it is to be human and have a complex human brain, and all the chaos and craziness that comes along with it. We know people do bad things. We can be careless, callous or cruel. We have evolved to be fearful, angry, jealous, competitive, self-serving, tribal.

So we try to understand how a person’s tricky brain may have driven their hurtful behaviour. Maybe their threat system was activated and they were all caught up in fight/flight responses. Maybe they were drive system activated and all caught up in competitive motivations. It’s not about giving them an excuse for bad behaviour! But recognizing that our tricky brains have a darkside is a first step towards forgiveness.

The second step is to understand that forgiveness is not actually something we do for others, or at least only for others. Forgiveness is really an act of self-compassion, something we do for ourselves. By forgiving others we can soften the anger and resentment, and let go of the burning desire for revenge, all for the sake of our own wellbeing.

Some quick clarifications here! Forgiveness does not mean we condone the hurtful or harmful behaviour of the other person, nor are we accepting any more of this unwanted behaviour or giving permission for poor behaviour to occur again.

Forgiveness also does not mean that you have to reunite with the person who hurt you. You may wish to reconcile, or you may not, but you may decide that it’s safer to stay away. Sometimes the person who hurt you or whom you wish to forgive has died or left your life, and yet we still want to be able to forgive them.

And forgiveness is not forgetting what the other person did, nor pretending it didn’t happen. We can forgive others while remembering what they did and endeavouring to prevent them from harming us again. We learn from the experience and can put in place mechanisms and boundaries that reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

And by the way, forgiveness may or may not involve an apology from the other person. If we hold on too tightly to the notion that the person who harmed us should apologize first, then we will continue to be trapped in resentment. Learning to forgive without an apology can be liberating!

The third step is to activate our Compassionate Self. Forgiveness is a unique combination of compassion for others and compassion for yourself. We are focused particularly on those two flows. We want to be helpful, rather than harmful, to all involved. If you notice some resistance here, that’s quite natural. We have tricky brains and it’s not easy to let go of the anger and the desire for retaliation or revenge.

But we try to connect with the wisdom that we all have complex brains, and we understand that we all get caught in loops of the mind. It is not our fault, but we need to take responsibility to manage all this.

We cultivate a compassionate stance towards the other person, the one that hurt us, knowing that they too are a human being with a tricky brain. And though it is very difficult to forgive them, and there absolutely needs to be changes, consequences or boundaries set, wherever possible, we begin to let go of anger, resentment and vengeance, and we begin to forgive.

And forgiveness is about self-compassion too—may I be helpful, rather than harmful, to myself. Forgiveness is a wonderful example of how self-compassion is not necessarily the easy option. It can be difficult, painful, abhorrent to us at first: Why on earth would I forgive this person who has hurt me so much?

But a self-compassionate motivation understands that forgiveness is still the best way to be helpful, rather than harmful, to ourselves, and truly is in service of our own wellbeing.

So, how to we do the actual forgiving?

Forgiveness often requires concerted efforts and repeated attempts; we can’t forgive people in one go. We have to be gentle with ourselves, not expect too much too quickly, and give the experience a chance to settle in.

So we bring it back to the body and settle ourselves into a compassionate posture. A calm mind thinks differently, so slow down the breath to create a soothing rhythm, and to slow down the body and the mind.

Connect with that part of you that has wisdom and understanding, strength and courage, dignity and authority, and a commitment to be helpful. Set an intention to set yourself free, to let go, and to soften the anger and rage that may get in the way of you truly flourishing. And see if you can set a benevolent intention towards others, that they will live peaceful, safe, and happy lives, free of suffering, and with compassion in their own hearts.

Now bring to mind a person who has hurt you, and whom you are willing to begin to forgive. Imagine the presence of that person in this moment and consider, as best you can, that person’s perspective: their thoughts, feelings, needs and intentions. And consider their problematic human brain with all its tradeoffs, and its inherent suffering.

Recall the moment you felt hurt by them. And if you are comfortable to begin the process of moving towards forgiving that person, and say to yourself the following:

May I begin to forgive this person for what they did,

intentionally or unintentionally,

To hurt me in some way.

May I acknowledge the pain that this person has caused me,

Soften and soothe my anger,

To set myself free and move on.

May I commit, wherever possible, to not being hurt like this again,

By this person or anybody else,

To the best of my abilities.

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