In our last meeting, we did some forgiveness practice and began discussing what stands in the way of forgiving. Let’s continue with the theme of forgiveness to give us some more points for discussion.
Joan Borysenko, author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, writes that forgiveness is both a sign of healing and a key to it. So often we are triggered by actions that remind us of our own unhealed relationships. When we are offended or angered, the deeper cause is often not the action that just prompted that response, but some older, more primal wound.
I’ll give you an example from my own experience:
A while ago, I became infuriated with a fellow music therapist when he rudely contradicted me at the dinner table in front of our students in Spain. At the time, he was drinking wine and seemed to enjoy provoking me.
I was so angry that I left the room abruptly. Back in my hotel room, I sat in meditation next to a small figure of the Buddha that accompanies me on my travels. Inwardly I asked to understand why this incident upset me so much that I lost the equanimity that I have been practicing for so many years.
A memory surfaced from my 13th year, when I was sitting at the dining table with my parents and three younger siblings. In an inebriated state, my father started taunting me. Despite my protests, he continued. Enraged, I threw my dessert plate at him. He ducked, and the plate crashed against the wall.
There was a stunned silence, and I ran out of the room with my dad in hot pursuit. Part of my punishment was to stay in my bedroom until I apologized. During my confinement, I realized that I could have seriously injured my father, and I wrote him a long letter of apology.
Once I saw the connection between the two dining room scenes, I asked the music therapist for forgiveness, explaining that I had relived a traumatic childhood event. In turn, he apologized for his rudeness, and since then we’ve become friends.
That interaction motivated me to direct forgiveness practice towards my father for provoking me and towards myself for my angry reaction. I realized that my father’s critical comments stem from his own insecurities after being raised by emotionally distant parents. Instead of being hurt and angry each time he acts belligerently, I feel less triggered and have more compassion for his pain. I can appreciate moments of loving connection when we’re taking a walk or canoeing together.
Each time I consciously clear feelings left over from the past, I can respond with more equanimity during unpleasant interactions that arise. Forgiveness releases us from the hold that other people’s attitudes and actions have over us and reawakens us to the truth of our own goodness and lovability. We can learn to make choices that are informed by our deep sense of what’s true, rather than by fears and doubts inherited from childhood. Forgiveness involves an authentic acceptance of our own worthiness as human beings and comprehension that our mistakes are opportunities for growth.
Some of you may have seen a movie called The Silver Linings Playbook.
It tells the story of a man with bipolar illness, who, soon after his release from a mental hospital, meets a recently widowed, depressed young woman. In spite of the many times that they misunderstand, insult, and betray each other, they learn to forgive themselves and to love one another. Their outwardly successful siblings are less able to admit their foibles honestly and seem more superficial in their interactions. The film depicts the hard inner work it takes to be authentic and to cultivate compassion for oneself and others.
In her book Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, Robin Casarjian recalls being raped when she was a 21-year-old college student.
During her process of forgiving the rapist, she does not condone his cruel or destructive behaviors. But she lets go of layers of fear and anger, softening her heart and freeing herself from the burden of remaining a victim, so that now she can enjoy life in the present moment.
Robin points out that forgiveness does not entail pretending everything is just fine when you feel it isn’t. Many of us have been taught to repress any genuine expression of anger because it isn’t compatible with the image of a good, nice person. Unexpressed anger can turn into resentment, which has been likened to hurting oneself by holding onto burning embers with the intention of throwing them at someone else.
The word resentment comes from the French ressentir, which means to “feel again,” experiencing repeatedly the pain of the past. Resentment often takes a toll on emotional and physical wellbeing. My first job as a music therapist was with children who had autism. One of the school directors punished an unruly boy by placing him in an isolation booth for a long period of time.
In frustration, he banged his head on the walls. I felt outraged by his treatment, but, afraid that I’d be fired if I criticized her decision, I kept silent. Soon afterwards, I developed a case of colitis. While I was recovering, I decided to speak up in the next staff meeting about the importance of treating the students with kindness. I spoke my truth, and when the director showed no inclination to change her punitive methods, I resigned from my position. My digestive system improved as soon as I let go of resentment and communicated my true values.
Once we can admit and express heated emotions, we are more ready to forgive any unskillful behavior that evoked them. When I visualized how unhappy the school director was in her personal life, I saw that she treated herself just as punitively as she treated her students. Through the eyes of compassion, I recognized that her own misery spread unhappiness around her.
As we practice with a guided meditation, try to note any judgments that arise about how long it takes to integrate forgiveness into your life. If you experience self-judgment, fear or doubt, breathe fully into your belly, and be gentle with yourself. It may be necessary to forgive yourself for not feeling ready to forgive.
If there is someone you have not forgiven, consider if the way you perceive this person is limited to how he or she has been in the past. Have you already made up your mind that the person is a certain way without any hope of changing?
Can you imagine that person as a small child? Visualize that child wanting loving attention and not knowing how to ask for it. Remember that a vulnerable inner child is a part of even the most mature adults. Notice if your heart softens towards the inner child within this person who has been difficult for you to forgive.
Repeat, “I forgive you, I forgive you.”