Practice Circle: Forgiveness

| August 7, 2014 | 14 Comments

forgiveness“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

(Dhp 3-5, Fronsdal)

 

I discovered something interesting as I was researching this article, essentially searching the Pali canon for “forgiveness.”   What I found was that the term is almost never used in the canon, and I was unable to find, say, a sutta in which Gotama discusses the importance of forgiveness (if you know of one, let me know!).  And yet, as we can tell by this excerpt from the first chapter of the Dhammapada,  importance is given to the notion of relinquishing attachment to the sense of having been wronged.

Perhaps the reason for my surprise at the lack of discussion of forgiveness in the canon has to do with a disconnect between the way we in the contemporary West view the concept and the way Gotama understood the human condition.  If I forgive you, I think I’m giving you a kind of free pass.  You have done me an injustice — abused me, defeated me, robbed me — but I will be magnanimous and let you get away with it.   This is why we often have such a hard time forgiving others — it feels as if we are aiding and abetting the injustice that was done to us.  Does the person who wronged us deserve such a break?  Are we not being weak push-overs if we forgive?  If we do forgive, we might say “I forgive you, but I won’t forget,”  as if to make it clearly known that we have not dropped our guard.   Especially if the abuse we suffered was traumatic, forgiveness may seem wrong, or even dangerous.

This is also why the person we often have the most difficulty forgiving is ourself.  If my sense of moral shame is engaged, I may feel I’m the last person on Earth who is empowered to cut myself slack for my failures and shortcomings.  Even when the person I’ve wronged appears to have let me off the hook, I may still carry my sense of shame around with me — and if that person is no longer here to forgive me, I may carry that shame to my deathbed.

In the background, of course, is the context of the notion of sin and forgiveness in Christianity, in which transgression can only be forgiven by an all-powerful deity, if it is ever forgiven at all. Christian doctrine teaches that humans are born unworthy of forgiveness, which is only granted by divine grace. Given the deep imprint of Christianity on Western culture, it’s little wonder that many of us have such a hard time with forgiveness.

A very different conception of transgression seems to be represented in the Dhammapada passage. If we examine the lines, we notice that the “carrying on” of non-forgiveness involves a narrative, a story about self and other.  I am the victim; he or she is the perpetrator, and what was done is some kind of outrage.  In this story, the self has defined itself in terms of the abuse it received from the other.  Immediately, many questions arise.  Is the story true? Did the act even truly occur?  If so, was it really an outrage?  Might the “perpetrator” have simply been pursuing his or her own legitimate self interests?  Were they in control of their actions?  Are they even aware of the “crime” they committed?  Has the victim never been a perpetrator, and the perpetrator never a victim?  And we notice that, as long as we are telling ourselves this story, we are trapped in our victimhood, incapable of freeing ourselves from the suffering it imposes on us.

The resolution to these questions is suggested by the very next verse of the Dhammapada:

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

The key to the non-hate called for in verse 5 is just this:  the recognition that we are all temporary, fallible mortals who want security, love and happiness and are confused about how to obtain them. That our time here is brief, and that soon our disputes will be over and forgotten.  If I cling to my egoic identity as “victim”, then even an act of forgiveness will reinforce that sense of separateness and vulnerability.  To truly forgive, I have to somehow see beyond my self-constructed victim/perpetrator roles and recognize that the fundamental facts of our common humanity bind us on a level far deeper than the accidental details of our impermanent interactions. Then I can release my grip on woundedness and alienation, and accept what has happened without generating additional suffering for myself.  And, with mindfulness, my acts to make amends or prevent future injustices will be motivated by intentions of kindness and compassion instead of  reactivity to the grasping, fear and delusion of the egoic self.

Just as forgiving others requires me to recognize that they share my humanity, forgiving myself requires me to accept myself in my humanity: my propensity to be driven by grasping and aversion, the limits of my knowledge and awareness, and the fact that, just like everyone else,  I’m trying my best to be happy and not suffer.

What is crucial, then, is not simply making or receiving an expression of forgiveness, nor just making amends to those we have hurt, as important as those gestures can be.  Forgiveness on a deep level requires that we see beyond the illusory divide between self and other, to see ourselves in others, and them in us.   So, just as with the cultivation of equanimity, kindness and compassion, cultivating real forgiveness takes lots of practice.   Just as with those other skillful states, we can use meditative practices that engage the imagination to help us generate the intention to forgive and strengthen our ability to recognize that the same life flows through all of us,  that we share our desire for happiness and our capacity for love with everyone we meet, including those who have wronged us.

Tara Brach writes:

As the Buddha taught, our habitual perception of self is a mental construct–the idea of an entity who causes things to happen, who is victimized, who controls the show.  When we say “I accept myself as I am,” we are not accepting a story about a good or bad self.  Rather, we are accepting the immediate mental and sensory experiences we interpret as self.  We are seing the familiar wants and fears, the judging and planning thoughts as part of the flow of life. Accepting them in this way actually enables us to recongnize that experience is impersonal and frees us from the trap of identifying ourselves as a deficient and limited self. (Radical Acceptance, pp. 41).

This Sunday, August 10, 2014, at 8 p.m. CDST, Practice Circle will be working with guided meditations to help cultivate the freedom of forgiveness.  To learn how you can join us, please visit the Practice Circle Page and follow the links at the bottom.  I hope to see you there!

 

 

 

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Category: Articles, Practice Circle

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

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  1. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    Hi. I know I mention this a lot, but I took A. Desmond Tutu’s Forgiveness Challenge (http://forgivenesschallenge.com/) and it really changed my life. (I don’t think I could fully express it here) Anyways, I can’t recommend it enough, so I”m going to go ahead and post some of the more meaningful things that are posted in the Challenge for anyone who wants to really get into the topic of Forgiveness:

    Day 1:
    For the next 30 days we will journey together along the Fourfold Path of forgiveness. This path is broken down into four steps—Telling the Story; Naming the Hurt; Granting Forgiveness; and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. We will be exploring each of these steps throughout the challenge.

    Invitation to Heal

    When you have been hurt, one of the most powerful ways to experience healing is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain, imprisoned by our experiences, and locked out of the possibility of healing. When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and of our feelings. We invite you on this journey to heal.

    Invitation to Freedom

    When you forgive, you are free to grow, to move on in life, and to no longer be a victim. We invite you to know the freedom that comes from walking the Fourfold Path.

    Invitation to Peace

    Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person. We all want peace, for ourselves and for our world. We invite you to welcome a new peace in your life.

    Day 2:
    1) Think of a time when you were unforgiving of someone close to you. What is it like when you see that person? What did it feel like in your body? Did your heart pound? Was your stomach upset? Did your body feel heavy? Did you feel depressed? Write about it here or in your journal.

    2) Now think of a time when you forgave someone close to you. What did that feel like? Did you feel lighter? Did you feel happier? Less depressed or angry? Write about your experience here.

    3) Is there someone in your life that you’d like to forgive but haven’t? How is this affecting you physically and emotionally? What is the cost to your emotional, mental, and physical health of not being able to forgive?

    Day 3:
    None of us are saints. We all have times when we are unforgiving and not at our most compassionate. When this is the case, we often pay the price, physically and mentally. It is not, however, we alone who suffer. Our whole community suffers, and ultimately our whole world suffers.

    We Are All Family

    We are made to exist in a delicate network of interdependence, and we are all cousins really. To treat anyone as if they were less than human, less than a member of the family, no matter what they have done, is to violate the very laws of our humanity. When we can truly recognize our shared humanity, we have no choice but to forgive.

    We Are All Flawed

    Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again. It is always easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.

    Choosing to forgive does not erase the reality of an injury nor does it ask us to pretend that what happened did not happen. It is quite the opposite. Real forgiveness and real healing require us to be honest about what has happened.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/prayer-before-the-prayer-stanza-one

    Day 4:
    For today, know that you do not need an apology to forgive. You forgive to set yourself free, not the other person.

    Consider the person you have chosen to forgive during this challenge. Please write down what has held you back from forgiving him or her. Perhaps it has been a lack of apology. Perhaps it has been the idea that this would “let them off the hook” in some way. Or perhaps you believed that to forgive them would be a sign of weakness, or they have shown no remorse or willingness to acknowledge the harm they have caused you or someone else. Write down whatever barriers to forgiving them that you have felt up until this point.

    Day 5:

    The Myths of Forgiveness

    The idea that forgiving means forgetting is a myth. The idea that forgiving let’s someone off the hook, or prevents justice is a myth. The idea that forgiving someone shows weakness is also a myth.

    Most of us aspire to be forgiving people. We admire and esteem those who find it in their hearts to forgive, even when they are betrayed, cheated, stolen from, lied to, or worse. The parents who forgive the person who murdered their child inspire in us something like awe. The woman who can forgive her rapist seems possessed of a special kind of courage. A man forgives the people who tortured him brutally, and we think he is a hero.

    Do we think these people are weak?

    We do not.

    Forgiveness is not weak. It is not passive. It is not for the faint of heart.

    Forgiving does not mean being spineless, nor does it mean one doesn’t get angry.

    We have known people who have been able to be compassionate and forgiving, even under the most strenuous circumstances while undergoing the most horrific treatment.

    It is a remarkable feat to be able to see past the inhumanity of someone’s behavior and recognize the humanity of the person committing the atrocity. This is not weakness. This is heroic strength, the noblest strength of the human spirit.

    Meditation Recording:
    https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/i-will-forgive-you

    Day 6:

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/opening-to-the-light

    Now, please write down the best outcome you can imagine if you were to forgive this person or situation. Would your health improve? Would you feel freer to move on in your life in some way? Would there be an end to some sadness or grief you are feeling? Would you no longer be angry? How would your life be different? How would your relationships be different—both your relationship to the one who harmed you and your relationship with others?

    Day 7:

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/junction

    Think about a time when you have been hurt and have hurt back (or wanted to hurt back). How did you feel when you retaliated? Write down any thoughts.

    Now think about a time when you chose not to hurt back when you were hurt. How did this feel? Write down your thoughts?

    What about the person you hope to forgive during this challenge? Have you retaliated in some way up until this point? Have you withheld your love or your friendship? Have you sought to cause pain because you are in pain? How did this make you feel?

    Day 8:

    Back to The Journey

    Day 8: Our Stories Heal Us

    Dear Friend,

    What is it you need to forgive? What happened to cause your pain? How have you been hurt?

    Telling the story is how we get our dignity back. It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting.

    Begin In Truth

    How we begin to tell our story is by first letting the truth be heard in all its rawness, in all its ugliness, and in all its messiness. The truth prevents us from pretending that the things that happened did not happen.

    We begin by telling the facts of our story. When you tell your story, it is as if you are putting the puzzle pieces back together again, one hesitant memory at a time. Yes, there is more than just facts to any story, but we must get the facts out first. Even the small details are important. They are the threads by which we make sense of what has happened.

    Now it is time to write your story. Write what happened to you below or in your journal. Write the facts as you remember them. What happened to you? Write in as much detail as you wish. Fill as many pages or lines as you need. Writing is a powerful way to tell your story. Later you may choose to read or send what you have written to the person who hurt you, but we encourage you to first continue along the Fourfold Path. The story is only the beginning.

    Day 9:

    Find a Surrogate

    Even if you are planning to speak directly to the one you want to forgive, it is best to share your story with others first, whether that is a close family member or a friend or a trusted counselor.

    Make sure that they know how to listen well. Their job is not to question the facts or to cross-examine you. They are not there to take away your pain just to empathize with it. They are there to acknowledge what happened. Here’s a quick guide that you may wish to share with the person you have chosen.

    How to Listen:
    Do Not Question the Facts
    Do Not Cross-Examine
    Create a Safe Space
    Acknowledge what Happened
    Empathize with the Pain

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/to-whom-shall-i-tell-my-story

    Today we would like you to tell your story to a friend, loved one, or other trusted person (you can read to them what you wrote on Day 8 which we have included below). If that is not possible or you are not yet ready to share your story to another person, read your story out loud to yourself, to the Universe, or to the God of your understanding.

    Write in your journal how it felt to speak your story out loud. What feelings came up? What was hard? What surprised you? What was easier than you expected? How do you feel now having shared the story with a trusted listener or out loud to yourself?

    Day 10:
    As we said yesterday, we do not recommend you tell your story directly to the person who has harmed you until you have learned more about the Fourfold Path. Most people have very little understanding of forgiveness and there are few rituals for forgiving in modern society. It is easy for people to feel attacked or to become defensive when confronted.

    The power of the human mind to justify its actions is truly endless. No villain has ever thought he was a villain. Every person has a reason why his or her actions were justified. The purse-snatcher who clobbers the old lady over the head could not move his arm if he did not think—at least in that moment—that what he was doing was the right thing.

    Begin By Affirming

    There is no guarantee that the person who harmed you will acknowledge that what they did was wrong, yet there are ways to increase the likelihood that telling the story will lead to resolution rather than more conflict.

    If possible, begin by affirming your relationship with this person and its importance to you. What has this person meant to you? How have they helped you, not just harmed you? Our relationships are rarely one-dimensional, especially with intimates.

    If you can show the person that you see their goodness, then they don’t have to work so hard to defend it.

    Interconnected

    If you can, have empathy for why the perpetrator may have done what they did. Empathy is a social contagion. If you have empathy for the one who victimized you, it is much more likely that they will have empathy for you as you tell your story.

    The truth is, we are interdependent and embedded in social webs that affect our choices and our behavior. No person is an island, and if we see the ways we are connected, we can understand another’s actions with much more compassion.

    Tell Your Story

    Whether it’s to a friend, or to your pillow—what’s most important to healing is that you simply tell your story. Your story will change as you move through the forgiving process, and it will change as you come to a deeper understanding of the hurt you experience and of those who hurt you. Tell it quietly. Tell it publicly. Tell the story and take the first step in your own ritual of forgiving.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/sitting-in-the-safe-space

    Write a letter in your journal to the person who hurt you. It is often helpful to practice how you will talk to them, how you will describe your relationship, how you will honor their humanity, and how you will show your empathy for them. If it is hard to see their humanity or their goodness, we understand, and we will explore this further in the Challenge. Do not worry about reading or sending your letter to the person who hurt you. That will be your choice to do or not to do at a later date.

    Day 11:

    Back to The Journey

    Day 11: Naming the Hurt
    Dear Friend,

    Once we are done telling our stories—the details of who, when, where, and what—we must go beyond the facts and name the hurt. Naming the emotions we experienced is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us.

    We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it.

    This is the second step of the Fourfold Path—Naming the Hurt.

    Facing the Truth of Our Feelings

    Healing memory requires the careful assembly of the puzzle pieces of experience, but once we know what has happened, we must move beyond the bare facts to the raw feelings. While we may be reluctant to face the truth of our feelings or the depth of our pain, it is the only way to heal and move forward.

    Remember that no feeling is wrong, bad, or invalid. Our feelings are human. They are the natural response to hurt and loss and grief. By acknowledging your feelings, you acknowledge your humanity.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/meet-me-here

    n your journal, reread the story you wrote on Day 8 Challenge 1 and begin to identify the feelings within the facts. (If you are using the text boxes and saving your work your story will appear in the first box below.) In the second box below (Day 11 Challenge 1) write down the feelings that came up as you read through your letter. What emotions did you feel at the time? What emotions have you felt since? In your journal name the hurts you feel. Write them down. You may choose to write single words or retell the facts of your story again and this time include the feelings within these facts. I felt ashamed. I felt angry. I felt sad. I felt lost. I felt afraid. I felt diminished. I felt betrayed. I felt angry. I felt alone. Remember that no feeling is wrong.

    Day 12:

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/box-of-sorrows

    Day 13:
    When we experience any type of loss that causes us pain or suffering, there is always grief. While much has been written about grief, it is mostly directed at those who have lost a loved one. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. Grief happens whenever we lose something that is precious to us, even our trust, our faith, or our innocence. Grief plays a large role in the forgiveness process, and especially within this step of Naming the Hurt.

    Grief is how we cope with and release the pain we feel. Grief has many well-documented stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance.

    There is no fixed time and no fixed order for experiencing the grief associated with any loss. And while there is no right way to grieve, grieving itself is essential. Grief is how we come to terms not only with the hardship we have endured, but also with what could have been if life had taken a different course.

    We grieve as much for what might have been as for what was.

    Shared Grief

    Naming our hurts helps us move out of the stage of denial. We cannot honestly name our feelings and be in denial at the same time. Prolonged denial of pain leads us to all sorts of trouble, and even self-destruction. Many have said that at the root of almost every addict’s or alcoholic’s tragic struggle is the denial of pain.

    In the final stage of the grieving process we find acceptance. Acceptance does not mean it was okay to be hurt. Acceptance is simply the recognition that things have changed and will never be what they were before. This is how we find the strength to journey on. We accept the truth of what happened. We accept our hurt, our anguish, our sadness, our anger, our shame, and in doing so we accept our own vulnerability.

    The truth is, we are harmed together and we heal together. It is in this fragile web of relationship that we rediscover our purpose, meaning, and joy after pain and loss. This is why we share our grief and name our hurts. Only in restoring the web of connection can we find peace.

    Within your journal, please write about your grief. Write down all the things you have lost as a result of what happened. Did you lose your trust? Did you lose your safety? Did you lose your dignity? Did you lose someone whom you loved? Did you lose something that you cherished? Did you lose a relationship that mattered to you?

    Day 14:

    Back to The Journey

    Day 14: Our Shared Humanity
    Dear Friend,

    We are moving on to the next step of the Fourfold Path—Granting Forgiveness.

    When we have the capacity to recognize our shared humanity we are able to grant forgiveness. It is as simple and complex as that. In our ways, each of us is fragile, vulnerable, and flawed. We are all capable of thoughtlessness and cruelty. A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love, and so much more. We recognize our shared humanity when we realize that no one is born evil, and we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives.

    Seeing Our Connection

    If we look at any hurt, it helps lead us toward forgiveness if we can see a larger context in which the hurt happened. If we look at any perpetrator, we can discover a story that tells us something about what led up to that person causing harm. It doesn’t justify the actions, but it does provide some context. We discover our shared humanity by seeing our connection rather than our separation.

    Growing Through Forgiveness

    When we are hurt, when we are in pain, when we are angry—the only way to end these feelings is to accept them. The only way out of these feelings is to go through them. We get into all sorts of trouble when we try to find a way to circumvent this natural process.

    Growth happens through obstacles and only with resistance. A tree must push up against the dirt, the solid resistance of the ground, in order to grow. Muscles grow when we apply a counterforce of resistance against them, but first they tear apart and break down, only to become stronger in the rebuilding. A butterfly struggles against the cocoon that surrounds it, and it is this very struggling that makes it resilient enough to survive when it breaks free.

    You also must struggle through your anger, grief, and sadness. You must push against the pain and suffering on your way to forgive, because when we don’t forgive, there is a part of us that doesn’t grow as it should.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/i-can-draw-you-cypher

    Now think about the person who you want to forgive. What are three qualities of the person you want to forgive that you value or appreciate? If you do not know them well, what can you imagine? Write those down in your journal.

    Begin by writing down a story of the person who harmed you. What do you know about this person? Again, if you do not know this person well, what can you find out? What do you have in common? In what ways are you similar?

    Day 15:

    Sometimes the choice to grant forgiveness happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly, but inevitably it is the only way we can move forward along the Fourfold Path. We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts.

    It is how we move from victim to hero.

    A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others. Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future. A victim has nothing to give and no choices to make. A hero has the strength and the ability to be generous and forgiving, and the power and freedom that comes from being able to make the choice to grant forgiveness.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/loving-kindness

    Write the name of the person you want to forgive. Now ask yourself if you can wish this person well. Write down your thoughts. If you can’t wish them well, explore this and ask yourself what you need in order to forgive. Do you need more time? Do you need more answers? Do you need to tell your story and name your hurts directly to this person? Write down whatever it is you still need in order to forgive.

    Now write a brief apology letter to yourself as if you were this person. Write down what you would need to hear from them in order to forgive.

    it is appropriate, you feel ready, and you are safely able to contact this person, consider calling them on the telephone. Let them know you are taking the Forgiveness Challenge and are working on forgiving them. If possible, remember to begin by affirming your relationship with this person and its importance to you. What has this person meant to you? How have they helped you, not just harmed you? Our relationships are rarely one-dimensional, especially with intimates. If you can show the person that you see their goodness, then they don’t have to work so hard to defend it. You may get an apology or you may not. As we have said, an apology can be powerful, but is not necessary to forgive.

    Day 16:

    The ability to tell a new story is a sign of healing and wholeness, so let’s explore what exactly it means to tell a new story. A new story is one that is no longer just about the facts of what happened, or about the pain and hurt you suffered. It is a story that recognizes the story of the one who hurt you, however misguided that person was. It is a story that recognizes our shared humanity.

    It is good to remember that no one is born full of hatred or violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or I. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured, or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.

    Ennobled Rather Than Embittered

    When we hear people tell a new story of the harm they have suffered, we hear them as hero rather than victim. What has always amazed us is how when people recount their stories they are able to retell them in a way that is filled with courage and compassion. They are able to explain what happened to them in a way that reveals how it has ennobled rather than embittered them.

    The guarantee in life is that we will suffer. What is not guaranteed is how we will respond, whether we will let this suffering embitter us or ennoble us. This is our choice. How do we allow our suffering to ennoble us? We make meaning out of it and make it matter. We use our experiences to make ourselves into richer, deeper, more empathic people and to try to prevent others from suffering as we have.

    Only you can decide how to tell a new story. You are the author of your life, and only you can write your book of forgiving.

    Consider how your experience of being hurt by this person has actually made you stronger? How has it helped you grow and have empathy for others? How has it ennobled you?

    Finally, write your story again but this time not as the victim but as the hero. How did you deal with the situation, how have you grown, and how will you prevent such harm from happening to others? If you played a part in the relationship and the hurting, can you claim your role and your responsibility?

    Day 17:

    Back to The Journey

    Day 17: Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
    Dear Friend,

    Forgiveness is not the end of the Fourfold Path, because the granting of forgiveness is not the end of the process of healing. We all live in a delicate web of community, visible and invisible, and time and again the connecting threads get damaged and must be repaired.

    Once you have been able to forgive, the final step is either to renew or release the relationship you have with the one who has harmed you. Indeed, even if you never speak to the person again, even if you never see them again, even if they are dead, they live on in ways that affect your life profoundly.

    To finish the forgiveness journey and create the wholeness and peace you crave, you must choose whether to renew or release the relationship. Only then can you have a future unfettered by the past.

    What Does It Mean?

    You may think you are not in a relationship with the stranger who assaulted you or the person in prison who killed your loved one or the cheating spouse you divorced so many years ago, but a relationship is created by the very act of harm that stands between you. This relationship, like every relationship that calls for forgiveness, must be either renewed or released.

    When your spouse says, “I’m sorry for yelling at you,” you may forgive and continue on in the marriage, renewing the relationship. When a partner says, “I’m sorry for betraying your trust,” you may forgive but choose to release the relationship.

    The decision to renew or release is a personal choice that only you can make.

    Day 18:
    bviously it is easier to choose to renew a relationship when it is a close connection, such as a spouse, parent, sibling or dear friend. With these intimates it is much harder to release the relationship completely as the threads of memory and intimacy that bind you are strong.

    It is easier to release a relationship with an acquaintance, neighbor, or stranger because these people often do not hold as much of your heart. The decision to release a relationship is a valid choice. Even so, the preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue. When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our heart and a piece of our history.

    The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment.

    Renewing

    Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.

    Renewing a relationship is a creative act.

    Releasing

    There are times when renewing is not possible. Renewing the relationship might harm you further, or you do not know who harmed you, or the person has died. These are all times when the only option is releasing the relationship, and this too is essential for the completion of your healing journey.

    Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/we-cannot-begin-again

    What will your relationship look like if you choose to renew? How will you feel if you choose to release? Write down any fears you have about either choice. For example, “I fear if I forgive and renew the relationship they will hurt me again.” Or, “I fear if I release the relationship I will miss them someday or regret my decision.”

    What are your hopes for either renewing or releasing the relationship? Write these down. “My hope is that I will no longer carry resentment and anger.” Or, “I hope we can create an even stronger relationship because of what we have been through.”

    Day 19:
    A very important but difficult piece of renewing relationships is accepting responsibility for our part in any conflict. If we have a relationship in need of repair, we must remember that the wrong is not usually all on one side, and we are more easily able to restore relations when we look at our contribution to the conflict.

    There are times when we truly did nothing, as when a stranger robs us, but even then we have a role in participating in a society where such desperation exists. We do not say this to inspire guilt or apportion blame, since no one person creates a society. But each of us does have a role in the society we have created.

    We can take responsibility for our part in a way that frees us from being a victim and allows us to open our hearts. We are always at our best when compassion enables us to recognize the unique pressures and singular stories of the people on the other side of our conflicts. This is true for any conflict, from a personal spat to an international dispute.

    A Hidden Gift

    Ubuntu says that we all have a part in creating a society that creates a perpetrator; therefore, we all can say, “I have a part not only in every conflict I may find myself in personally, but every conflict happening right now in my family, in my community, in my nation, and around the globe.”

    This thought may seem overwhelming. A little radical, even.

    The gift hidden in the challenge of Ubuntu is that we don’t need to walk the corridors of power to build peace. Each of us can create a more peaceful world from wherever we each stand.

    We do this by completely walking the Fourfold Path of forgiving—however long it takes, however many times it takes, and for each and every injury that cries out for us to tell our story, name our hurt, grant forgiveness, and renew or release our relationship. Each of these steps is a gift we give to ourselves and our relationships.

    Meditation Recording: https://soundcloud.com/forgiveness-challenge/releasing-or-renewing

    And then the rest of the days focus in on how to ask for forgiveness and then on how to forgive yourself.

    • Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

      Anyways, I know I posted this wall of text, but I feel it’s so important to share the reality of forgiveness. I was so far gone… I had almost died. I had lost my family. I had lost my career. And I just couldn’t face life anymore. When I thought about the people who had caused all of that suffering, for the first time in my life I was ready to actually hurt them. If I could have wished to have them and their entire extended families locked in a building and then to have that building burn to the ground, I honest to goodness would have. But I just couldn’t take that path and I didn’t have a way to get legal justice, so I found the way of forgiveness. I found a way to talk about everything that happened and to recognize the feelings that it caused me (instead of avoiding them or thinking that “they were wrong” – I just accepted that I had those feelings). Then, I used metta meditation to be able to be ok with the idea of those people who had hurt me being ok – having their families, jobs, and lives. By the end of the Challenge, I was able to send them letters, to get closure, to hear the truth.

      I didn’t let them off the hook for what they’d done. I’d finally found a way to sit with what had happened and what it had done to me. I accepted it and let it go (instead of clinging to memories and feelings). I freed myself and convinced them to change their ways so that others would not suffer. I could be alone with my own mind and not fear those memories and feelings. I could feel less anxious and depressed and I could be ok trying to do some of the things I did before. Forgiveness saved me from being consumed by my own thoughts and feelings. It stopped me from exacting some kind of “Game of Thrones” level revenge. It even helped me to renew some relationships. It changed how I interacted with other people from then on – I was more forgiving and less “clinging” than before.

      I don’t know – a lot of people think they are in situations where they just can’t forgive. I know pain cannot be compared (what one person can shrug off destroys another person), but I think that if forgiveness could bring me back from that dark place, then it really could save just about anyone.

      So yes, if you’re in some kind of pain – whether you need to forgive or be forgiven or to forgive yourself – I really can’t recommend enough that you give it a try. Try the Forgiveness Challenge or work through it on your own. It can change your life. It’s worth the effort to try.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Jennifer –

    This may be the first time a comment was longer than the article! But there is so much beautiful and useful stuff there, and I was surprised to see so much that resonates with the mindfulness approach. It certainly looks like a good program for someone who needs to bring forgiveness into their life, and I’m glad to hear it has had a transformative influence on you. I hope you’ll join us on Sunday so you can share more with us!

  3. Amy Amy says:

    That’s really helpful to have such a detailed and systematic approach to forgiveness. Your experience with it was a compelling case for its usefulness. I’m glad to hear it brought healing to you.

  4. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    I’ve been looking for a simple word to express “non-hate” as opposed to love. I’ve seen in the writings of a few western teachers of Tibetan Buddhism the idea that we should love everyone, even that we should love Hitler!(read that from 2 different teachers) The only way this makes any sense is to distort the meaning of the word love from anything recognizable in the English language.

    On the other hand, I think it is reasonable to “not-hate” everyone, including Hitler, including people in the Middle East today who are bombing or beheading others. And even to forgive them for what they have done (and are about to do), if forgiveness is seen as the elimination of emotional reactivity. But love, in its normal meaning, is an approach emotion in which you want to get closer to the object of love, and that would be insane for a Yazidi in the case of ISIS, for instance.

    Even in the case of someone who is trying to kill you in the present moment, you will probably make more intelligent evasive actions if you limit your emotional reactivity, because then you can think more logically and analytically about the situation.

    I’m in the camp of “forgive but don’t forget” meaning to let go of the emotional reactivity, but to retain the cognitive knowledge that a person may be harmful, and that one shold take reasonable measures to avoid future harm to oneself and others.

    • Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

      “I’m in the camp of “forgive but don’t forget” meaning to let go of the emotional reactivity, but to retain the cognitive knowledge that a person may be harmful, and that one shold take reasonable measures to avoid future harm to oneself and others.”

      That sounds like “releasing the relationship” (to use Tutu terminology), and I can agree with that. I’ve had to release many myself.

      As for love… yeah, terminology between Pali and English can be tricky. I’d say in this context, it’d be the ability to genuinely not want harm to come to the people you are forgiving (i.e. letting go of desire for revenge) – to instead want them to come to a realization or a place where they are acting/thinking/feeling in a less harmful way and for them to be able to change their lives as a result – to want good things for them, to not rejoice when they suffer.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      The problem I think comes from the connotation of the English word “love” which involves intimate, positive regard for someone — an intimacy we couldn’t share with everyone if we wanted to. Maybe we could just adopt the word “metta” to describe a mind state that arises from a felt sense of common humanity, which I think is what the “non-hate” of the Dhammapada is pointing toward.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      The problem I think comes from the connotation of the English word “love” which involves intimate, positive regard for someone — an intimacy we couldn’t share with everyone if we wanted to. Maybe we could just adopt the word “metta” to describe a mind state that arises from a felt sense of common humanity, which I think is what the “non-hate” of the Dhammapada is pointing toward.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      The problem I think comes from the connotation of the English word “love” which involves intimate, positive regard for someone — an intimacy we couldn’t share with everyone if we wanted to. Maybe we could just adopt the word “metta” to describe a mind state that arises from a felt sense of common humanity, which I think is what the “non-hate” of the Dhammapada is pointing toward.

      • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

        Mark, “metta” (loving kindness) has that word love in it. What about using “boundless friendliness”. To me, mindfulness practice naturally leads into an expression of
        friendliness and compassion.

        • Mark Knickelbine says:

          Ron, that’s why we should use the word “metta” itself, like we use karma, nirvana, Zen, and other Buddhist words of foreign origin rather than translate them. I know John Peacock uses “boundless friendliness” but just like “love” is too hot, “friendliness” is too cool. In my experience, metta is a unique psychological/physical response that deserves its own word.

          • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

            To me, that works fine for anyone familiar with the Buddhist world. It’s the same for anyone familiar with a lawful contract full of terms I can’t understand. I would have to be a lawyer to understand the jargon.

            What if I’m talking to someone, say in an MBSR course, and I mention the word metta. It doesn’t compute. However, as you know, loving kindness practice is taught in MBSR so there you have the same word “loving” being too hot. That hotness has, in the past, turned me off to metta practice and I’ve talked to other fellow Buddhist friends where it had the same effect.

            So for some of us, at least, “boundless friendliness” helps us do metta practice. I hope this explains my previous comment.

  5. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    Thank you for sharing a personal story. As I read through the instructions, three words came to mind: break, the, cycle.

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