I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty compassionate person.
I believed I was capable of forgiveness, despite having a dysfunctional family and living on three different continents before I was 10 years old—translating to an unstable childhood.
Any normal person would have been at least a little traumatized, yet I seemed well-adjusted. Or, so I thought—until I started digging deeper and getting into mindfulness meditation.
I learned this in the course of my meditation studies and practice: when we begin to practice mindfulness and work with “active” practices, such as forgiveness, we may experience backdraft.
In this context, backdraft, which is a fire-fighting term, describes an experience many of us have: bringing more compassion and mindfulness into our lives may re-awaken old wounds and unresolved emotions from the past. This shows up as resistance, such as denial of our true feelings, procrastination, drinking or escaping somehow, shutting down, or closing off from others.
Denial and closing off are exactly what I experienced. So, my path of healing and learning to let go of the past happened slowly, gradually.
When we dig deeper, each of our wounds turns out to be related to a particular person or situation in our life, often from childhood. This is why repeating the process of forgiveness is so helpful—the effects of these wounds and conditioned behaviours can be ingrained. Some of us have felt abandoned by one of our parents, physically hurt, neglected, or pushed too hard.
These three steps organically eased my own suffering, just as I hope they will do for others.
1. Forgiving ourselves releases self-blame so that we may forgive others.
“The pains of our past cannot be released—until we touch them with healing and forgiveness.” ~ Jack Kornfield
A couple of years ago, I attended a 10-day silent insight retreat with Jack Kornfield. It came just when I needed it, during a dark time filled with intense emotions—including doubt about the slow progress of my mindfulness teaching work, while still working in an unfulfilling corporate job, and the shock, fear, and uncertainty at the news that my mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The forgiveness I experienced at this retreat came as a surprise.
First, I recognized a block in my heart—a resistance to loving-kindness and forgiveness that I didn’t realize was there before. There was anger, disappointment, and a sense of betrayal about the way a close friend had behaved recently.
We’ve all been there, perhaps with friends who shared our secrets or with critical or hurtful family members. I knew that I had to let it go in order to move forward. But sitting and trying to meditate, one hour after the next, all I could think about was how hurt and angry I felt.
We are so used to ruminating. We know this isn’t helpful, but we get stuck.
After receiving instructions for a forgiveness practice, I tried to practice this, but it didn’t feel genuine for me, and I had trouble connecting with it.
The steps in this practice include silently repeating phrases to: forgive another, forgive ourselves, and ask for forgiveness.
I went ahead and tried this anyway, going through the motions at first, as many of us do with something brand new.
I finished with the affirmations that were meant to help me forgive myself. Surprisingly, I started to sob quietly while saying, “Just as I have caused suffering or hurt others, I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in my thoughts, words, or actions, knowingly or unknowingly. Out of fear, insecurity, guilt, self-doubt, shame, unworthiness, lack of self-love, or lack of self-respect. For the ways I have harmed myself with actions or by not acting at all, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I forgive myself.”
I suddenly felt a sense of relief and lightness.
As soon as I was able to forgive myself, I felt genuine compassion for myself, and an understanding for why I was angry. I was angry with myself for allowing the situation to happen in the first place.
We sometimes feel guilty and blame ourselves when others have hurt us—without acknowledging or even being aware of it. Actually knowing that this is how we feel, underneath the anger and without resistance or denial, is helpful to begin letting go.
2. Forgiving others allows us to let go.
In the next few moments, I was able to say the forgiveness phrases for the person who had hurt me so intensely: “For the ways that you have hurt or harmed me, through betrayal or abandonment in your thoughts, words, or actions, knowingly or unknowingly, out of fear, insecurity, guilt, self-doubt, unworthiness, lack of self-love, or lack of self-respect, for the ways you have harmed me with your actions or by not acting at all, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I forgive you.”
Another sigh of relief and a greater feeling of lightness followed.
The only way we are able to begin the process of letting go—when guilt and shame are involved—is in forgiving ourselves first, and then forgiving others.
3. Learning to let go is on the path to complete forgiveness.
“The past is over: Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.” ~ Jack Kornfield
After going through these steps, we might still feel remnants of old pain and may need to continue to work with forgiveness for many more days or weeks, repeating the process over and over again.
We are then ready for the practice of letting go. This last practice completed the transformation for me.
Just at the right time, I discovered a book by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Loving-kindness, and Peace. In it, there are precious teachings on letting go on the path to forgiveness.
What I read and practiced allowed me to let go enough to finally forgive and make peace with this relationship. This was not easy, but it was necessary for me to move forward and, eventually, set healthy boundaries in all my relationships.
Below is a recording of a talk, in which I share some readings from this book and a guided practice inspired by these teachings.
Someone in my meditation class recently shared her experience of this practice: “I felt compelled to send you a note to tell you that I enjoyed the video…I just finished it, and ‘letting go’ of some of my past is crucial for my future health and happiness. I came to this realization just in the last year or so; this made the subject of your meditation seem predestined. Maybe right up my alley makes more sense. I intend to listen to it often.”
May these practices help us all to let go of whatever isn’t serving us anymore.
“If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred. If you want to see the brave, look for those who can forgive.” ~ Bhagavad Gita
Author: Rose Mina Munjee
Image: Ariel Quiroz/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
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