We’re constantly inundated with the buzzwords of happiness—gratitude, compassion, mindfulness—yet inner peace can still seem so elusive. There is one practice, though, that can truly lift the burdens off our hearts: forgiveness. It’s indisputable in raising our happiness level. The only problem is forgiveness is really challenging. Harder than hitting the gym three times a week, harder than avoiding delicious processed carbs.
Jack Kornfield, renowned psychologist and teacher of Buddhist mindfulness refers to forgiveness as “the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love.” Kornfield eloquently expounds, “with forgiveness we are unwilling to attack or wish harm on anyone, including ourselves. It’s hard to imagine a world without forgiveness, because we would be chained to the suffering of the past and have only to repeat it over and over again. There would be no release.”
Robert Applegate, Spiritual Director Centre for Spiritual Living in Shanghai includes the practice in his 10-week course on spiritual principles. “You don’t have to force forgiveness, you only have to start with a simple willingness,” he says. In his own experience, “when I get really upset at someone or a situation, I can no longer use my rational mind. It gets hijacked by my judgments and my unwillingness to let go of my story.”
When he gets stuck that way, Applegate says he uses his “emergency forgiveness tool box” outlined in Colin Tipping’s book Radical Forgiveness (find on www.radicalforgiveness.com for free). Tipping’s forgiveness exercises help you see your victim standpoint is an old story that can be released by accepting (rather than judging) your own feelings. They guide you to connect with the truth of who you are, and feel gratitude for the opportunity for spiritual growth.
When we cannot forgive, we are defined by the actions of others in our past.
Christine Forte, psychological counselor at Balanced Heart Counseling in Shanghai, says that when we can’t let go of past hurts, “Our anger and resentment towards others can begin to take up a lot of our energy and ultimately impair our other relationships as well as our outlook on the world as a whole.”
Many people have difficulty even considering forgiving because they mistakenly believe it means absolving people of their acts. However, Forte says that “while it may seem we are giving the other person a gift by forgiving them, actually forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, for our own peace of mind. There can be times where we forgive someone and it isn’t appropriate or possible to tell the other person about this. And in this case we’re really doing it for our own healing and moving forward.”
Forte also emphasizes that it can be a long process, “Especially in situations where we have been hurt on a really large scale, it may take time and effort to work through and truly get to a point of being ready to let go.” Despite the challenges, it is worth it. When we cannot forgive, we are defined by the actions of others in our past. When we can, we decide who we are and come fully into the present.
We don’t have to do this alone; working with a therapist, coach or mentor can help. Kornfield frequently refers to a quote from the Bhaghavad Gita, “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.” Let us be brave, let us be heroes, let us forgive.
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