Healing Your Heart: The Practice of Forgiveness
BY DAVID SIMON, M.D.
When we experience pain from someone else’s actions, it’s natural to engage in an inner conversation of resentment, and replay the story of the offense over and over. This behavior disturbs our peace and makes it impossible to be fully present in our lives. As long as we choose to hold on to grievance, anger or regret, part of our emotional and physical energy will be tied up in the past.
Forgiveness is a prerequisite for inner peace, and we each have to consciously decide if we are willing to relinquish blame in the service of harmony, love, and happiness. While it’s important not to force ourselves to forgive prematurely, we ultimately need to let go of our grievances and allow peace to replace hostility. This is a gradual process, but once we set our intention to forgive, we will be able to release the constriction in our heart that inhibits our ability to love.
We can navigate the path to emotional freedom through forgiveness. The first step is identifying and loosening the toxic emotions we’ve been carrying. In the second step, emotions are released, and finally we can fill the newly opened space in our hearts with love. During the Chopra Center’s Free to Love/Healing the Heart workshops, I have seen participants use this process to heal emotional wounds and forgive recent to long-term painful incidents. On the first evening of the workshop, the energy in the room is usually fairly heavy and somber, but by the final day, there is a noticeable shift to lightness and freedom. Our participants have learned to let go, finding forgiveness for others, and often for themselves.
Getting to Forgiveness
In most situations, it’s useful to remember that everyone is doing the best they can give their current level of awareness. Most people who hurt others are not intentionally trying to cause pain. Instead they are pursuing their own needs and, as a result of limited emotional resources, they trample on the needs of others. Even when someone has intentionally been abusive or cruel, continuing to carry animosity and hostility causes more damage to your heart than theirs. The best payback for a broken heart is to get on with your life and choose to be happy.
Understanding how other people came to be who they are can help open the way to forgiveness. Consider a person in your life who has caused you pain. It might be an ex-spouse, a boss, a parent, or someone who betrayed your trust. On a piece of paper, write down what you know about this individual’s life, with the goal of understanding how his or her behavior hurt you. Write down biographical details, and then fill in the blanks using your imagination. Here are some questions that can help you through this process:
• What do you know or imagine about the emotional and physical health of the person’s parents or caregivers?
• How was this person treated as a baby and a young child?
• Recall or imagine the messages this person received about relationships, communication, and love from the people who raised him/her.
As you craft a story of understanding, you will experience the seeds of compassion sprouting in your heart. The life-damaging actions that create suffering are unacceptable. Yet recognizing that people are doing their best, given the resources available to them at the time, can help you free yourself from emotional turmoil.
The next step is to take some time to get centered, perhaps closing your eyes and meditating for a few minutes, and ask yourself, “What can I do to forgive this person for the pain I’ve experienced?” Focus on what YOU can do – not on what you want or expect in return. You have no control over other people’s choices, and therefore your heart’s freedom can’t depend upon what they do or say. Instead, consider what action will help you let go.
Possibilities include journaling, burying a memento in the ground, burning a token object that you associate with the person, or starting or participating in an organization that helps others avoid or recover from similar trespasses. The size of the action isn’t as important as the ability to transform the negative to the positive, in the form of forgiveness.
If the person you’re trying to forgive is yourself, the process is the same. Take the time to compose your own autobiography to understand what led you to take actions that caused someone else pain. Ask yourself what you are prepared to do to forgive yourself and then fulfill that commitment.
It’s not uncommon for people to be more willing to forgive others than themselves. Once you have done all you can to make amends with the person you have hurt, there is nothing more you can do but learn from the experience and make better choices in the future. The poet Maya Angelou has said, “We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.”
Forgiving another person and asking for forgiveness from someone you hurt are equally essential acts of healing. It takes tremendous courage to see someone in a new light, with new understanding, but the risk has unbounded potential for expanding your freedom to love.
If you are carrying pain from the past, I encourage you to find a way to release the emotional toxicity and experience the healing balm of forgiveness–whether working through the process explained in my book “Free to Love, Free to Heal,” attending the Free to Love/Healing the Heart workshop at the Chopra Center, or finding some other path that serves you. No matter what has happened in your life, you have an infinite capacity for love. Please use it, for your own sake and the sake of this precious world.