Another good article from yogajournal.com wisdom newsletter. It includes some things I’m trying to remember and practice in my life.
Forgiveness is not something you do solely for the person who hurt you. It is something you do for yourself, for the sake of your own inner freedom. You forgive so that you can live in the present instead of being stuck in the past. You forgive because your grievances and grudges—even more than hopes and attachments and fears—bind you to old patterns, old identities, and especially to old stories.
“I’m this way because s/he did that to me!” you say—he or she being the unloving parent, the unfaithful lover, the guru who didn’t deliver. The problem is, when you hold on to the grievance, you also hold on to its shadow belief: “I must be flawed in some way to have attracted that hurt.”
When I began my own personal forgiveness project, the only tools I had were meditation and some basic yogic teachings about how to shift thoughts. I hadn’t a clue how to access the actual state of forgiveness, so I concentrated on trying to talk back to my grudges. My model was the instruction from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:33: “When obstructive thoughts arise, practice the opposite thought.” It became my discipline to notice my grudge-bearing thoughts and try to reverse them, usually by sending kind wishes to the person I was angry at. The practice cleared out underbrush in my mind. But trying to “do” forgiveness is different from experiencing the feeling state. Some of this has to do with the organization of the brain.
Many of these patterns play out automatically in the body, regardless of your intentions or rational decisions. That’s why my friend Lisa gets a knot in her stomach whenever she hears someone speaking in a certain angry tone of voice—even when the person isn’t speaking to her. It’s the same tone her mother used when she was displeased with Lisa as a child. This made Lisa anxious, and her stomach would knot up. Now she can’t keep her stomach from knotting at the sound of an angry voice overheard in a supermarket. In the same way, each of us holds countless ancient grudges in our cells, ready to be triggered by a chance word or careless glance.
Shifting those patterns requires more than practice and choice. It requires intervention from your own depths, from the awareness-presence that you cultivate in meditation. Brain-wave researchers mapping the brain states accessed during meditation say that meditation slows the patterns called delta waves. These patterns, similar to those activated in deep sleep, are associated with healing the body. Meditators learn to access this deep state consciously—with full alertness.
I recently read the testimony of a mother who experienced a spontaneous movement of forgiveness in a most unlikely circumstance. Her 20-year-old son had been beaten to death in a street fight. His assailant was tried and sentenced to a long prison term. The mother asked to meet with him after his sentencing because she wanted the satisfaction of telling him to his face how much she hated him for what he had done. When she was ushered into the holding room where she was to meet the boy, he was standing in a corner, shackled and crying. The woman said later, “As I watched that boy, so forlorn—no parents, no friends, and no support—all I saw was another mother’s son.”
Without thinking, she heard herself saying, “Can I give you a hug?” She says that when she felt his body against hers, her anger literally melted away. What arose instead was a natural feeling of tender connection with this suffering human being. That amazing story speaks to what forgiveness really is—a spontaneous and natural uprush of peaceful letting go, even of tenderness. This woman has no idea where her ability to forgive her son’s killer came from; she says she couldn’t have imagined ever coming close to having such a feeling. She treasures the peace it gave her.
She called it a gift from God. I’d call it an opening of the soul. The point is, heartfelt forgiveness—the natural, spontaneous opening to someone who has hurt you—is not something that the ego can make happen. The separatist, culturally conditioned ego-self, formed by thousands of years of judgment and vengeance, demands punishment as the price of forgiveness. When your heart forgives, it has stepped beyond the ego to grasp your innate kinship—even your identity—with another person.