When you have lost a loved one through a terrorist act, a drunken driver or an act of violence, how do you forgive the unforgivable? Does forgiveness mean we just accept what has happened and we surrender to defeat? No, forgiveness is not about helplessly accepting, giving up, surrendering to defeat, being weak or avoiding justice. It is about how you respond to the terrible wrong and how you can let go of the past and move forward with your life.
You practice forgiveness for your own sake, so you are not locked in bitterness, sadness and resentment. These just harden your emotions, narrow your options in responding to life, cloud your judgment and shift your attention from those who matter to you to those whom you dislike. Why would you choose to live like this? You are just playing into the hands of the people who have harmed you. You spend all your waking hours consumed by hatred. This will eventually destroy you both mentally and physically.
It is extremely difficult to achieve forgiveness, because our mind has been clouded by heartbreak and pain. Our natural response is to try and stop the pain, but we get consumed by destructive emotions, such as anger, revenge and hatred, which piles on more pain. This stops us from healing and prevents us from moving forward. We fall into the ‘eye for eye’ mindset. Buddha stated, ‘Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.’ And Gandhi ji said, ‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.’
We have all seen in the news, or maybe you have been unfortunate enough to have first-hand experience of, acts of terrorism, murder, rape, war and genocide, acts that are so barbaric it is difficult to think about forgiveness. Often these experiences not only shape our thinking, but also our way of acting towards certain groups of people. We find it hard to let the mental images go and we are eaten up by hatred for the perpetrators. However, if we continue with such ways of thinking we will never be free of the traumatic experience. So, if we want to be free, we must forgive. The alternative to forgiveness, is walking around with rage in your heart, because life has not been fair and just.
But life isn’t always going to be fair and just, and that is something we need to face up to. All experiences, good and bad, arise out of causes and conditions that are interdependent. Just as good things happen in life, so bad things happen too. Life is impersonal and therefore not to be identified with in such a way that you are imprisoned by the actions of others, no matter how awful they may seem.
When a life has been lost or great physical or mental damage done, there is no going back; there is only going forward. When you suffer a great loss, you are entitled to feelings of sadness and to ask for justice. But there is no entitlement for revenge and no right to hate. You may seek revenge and be filled with hate, but these are mind states that lack compassion and wisdom. Forgiveness is a way to loosen the grip of these destructive mind states.
Forgiveness is inclusive. It includes forgiving yourself for being driven by revenge, forgiving those who cannot let go of their anger and it even means forgiving those who commit misguided acts of violence against you and others. To replace hatred and loss with love and compassion is the most difficult practice imaginable, but it is not impossible. It takes courage and a willingness to see that both good and bad are different sides of the same coin – a coin called life.
It is possible to cultivate forgiveness through meditation. Find somewhere quiet to sit, close your eyes and bring your focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. Do this for a minute or two, then try this three-part forgiveness practice:
Firstly, you ask forgiveness of all those you may have harmed, through your actions of body, speech and mind.
Secondly, you then offer forgiveness for any harm others have caused you through their actions of body, speech
Finally, you offer forgiveness to yourself for any harm you have done to yourself.
Mentally recited these phrases as many times as you can. This practice will help you clarify and purify the intention to be a forgiving person, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Remember, when you are carrying revenge and resentment around in your heart you are hurting yourself. If someone has hurt us, why would we hurt ourselves even more? That makes no sense. Revenge is only going to inflict more pain and suffering on ourselves. Holding onto feelings of revenge is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
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