By Dr. Sheri Rosenthal
We hear so much about forgiveness, in our churches, on Oprah, in new age magazines, but do we truly understand what the big deal about forgiveness is? We read that if we forgive others and ourselves we are doing our spiritual work and becoming better people, but what does that mean to us? You can forgive that guy you dated a while back until you run into him someplace and then you want to wreak revenge on him. You can forgive your parents for your horrible childhood but as soon as you get on the phone with your Dad you are arguing just like you always have. So, what good is forgiveness anyway?
The key to forgiveness is to forgive from the heart, not from the mind. Knowing in your rational mind that your parents did the best they could to raise you is not enough to constitute forgiveness. That is why every time you are with your Dad you still argue. If you really forgave him you would not be reacting that way. You would have compassion for his dream and understand that he is just expressing his point of view. If you truly let go of the pain of your childhood, your self-importance, and your need to be right about your point of view, you would not be taking him personally any more. If you were not taking him personally you would not be angry and it would not be necessary to punish him by behaving like an angry child. It behooves us to look at ourselves with honesty and objectivity. You can say you have forgiven someone in your life, but the proof is in the pudding.
If you have an emotional reaction in the presence of someone, your heart is telling you that you have not resolved your issues with them. In other words, you have not truly forgiven that person. All of this begs the question, how do we forgive? First, cease lying to yourself and stop telling yourself stories about why you behave the way you do. Stop blaming your behavior on other people and take responsibility for your emotional reactions. If you could forgive all the people in your life who have hurt or wounded you it would be possible to be in control of your behavior instead of being in reaction to other people all of the time. Imagine living life without experiencing a constant emotional rollercoaster of pain, anger, and jealousy! That would be bliss!
The important thing is to have awareness of what has transpired and be able to tell yourself the truth about it. Have you truly forgiven or has your rational mind been telling you a story that you have? Once you have determined what is truth and what is a justification, you are ready for the next step. Second, look at your life with clarity. Try to see what happened in your past, not only from your point of view, but also from the other person's point of view. We need to be able to walk in the other persons shoes to understand why things happened the way they did. That doesn't mean you have to agree with what they did or how they did it. Not at all. Your values and beliefs may be very different from theirs. All this means is that you can see the whole truth of what happened and the whole truth encompasses all points of view, not just your own.
Take some time to listen to how you tell the story of your life. Perhaps it would be helpful to journal the story of a particular time in your life that you have been challenged by. Listen to what you have written. Does it sound like you were victimized by your circumstances? Be objective, if someone heard your story would they say someone did you wrong, that you are resentful, vengeful and angry? If so, this is your first clue that you are seeing things from only one point of view. Why? Well, if you felt like someone hurt you then obviously you took the other persons actions personally. You assumed you knew why they did what they did according to your point of view and your beliefs about their words or actions. Chances are that your interpretation of what the other person did or said was not what the other person had in mind when they interacted with you. The key is to imagine what happened from their point of view.
If I say that my husband cheated on me and ruined our marriage and hurt me, I am only telling part of the story. What about my responsibility for my half of the relationship? It is doubtful that I was a vision of loveliness throughout the entire marriage. I had to contribute half of that relationship because all relationships take the contribution of both parties. When I can see both sides clearly, and have compassion for my husband, I can forgive him. But if I am attached to my victim point of view and blame everything on him, forgiveness will never come. Chances are I will bring my anger and resentment into my next relationship as well. This scenario applies to all human interactions in our lives. Rape, physical, emotional and mental abuse, cheating, violence, etc are all included. Yes, even what we judge to be the most heinous of human activities can be forgiven.
Seeing things with the eyes of truth means that you stop judging the activities of others and, instead, take responsibility for your interpretation of those activities. It means being responsible for how you write the story of what happened. I could say yes, my husband cheated on me in our marriage but, gosh, I was not aware of how my actions impacted our situation. We both had a lot to learn from that relationship. I am glad I can see what happened clearly and have gratitude for the opportunity to grow and become a better person. even if it hurt pretty badly for a while. The key word here is gratitude! We judge everything that happens in life as good or bad, right or wrong. The truth is life just happens, and life is exactly as it is. As long as we are always judging others and life situations according to our point of view, we will never be able to have gratitude for the challenges and experiences life sends our way. No matter how enlightened a person you may be, things will always happen in life. People you love will die, relationships will come and go, the stock market will crash and rise, your car may be totaled but, if you have gratitude for life's challenges, you will always be writing a beautiful happy story of your life! Even better, you will never feel victimized by your circumstances.
You may think I am living my life in a fairy tale, but I assure you I'm not. We have been domesticated to process our life in a certain way. If you don't believe me just watch one soap opera on TV. Everyone is stressed out, creating drama, having emotional outbursts, screaming and arguing, defending their points of view, and generally creating a life of misery! Soap operas are popular because they mimic our lives. I am suggesting a different way of perceiving life, one without judgment and with the ability to see the points of view of other people and to see beliefs other than your own. One where you take responsibility for your mind and what it thinks and, as a result of this internal chatter, how you choose to react to any situation. When you can truly see the other person's point of view then you can forgive from the heart. True compassion of the human experience is the place from which forgiveness begins. Compassion is an act of love that is free of attachment. Of course, the kind of love I am talking about is unconditional love.
Once you have seen the truth you must make the decision to let go of the pain, anger, and resentment you have been holding on to. This requires you to take action. If you are attached to your pain, resentment, and self-righteousness, and addicted to your emotional reactions, this will be a difficult step for you. Taking action requires letting go of the very thing you have been holding on to for so many years. There is comfort in what we find familiar, even if we are experiencing pain and suffering. The pain and suffering itself becomes the familiarity we seek. It takes absolute faith in yourself plus courage, will, and discipline to let go. But once you let go, it will as if the weight of the world has been taken off your shoulders. In this process it is important to forgive not just the others in our lives, but also ourselves. For most people, giving ourselves the gift of forgiveness is very challenging.
"Forgive yourself for using people in your life to hurt yourself.
"Forgive yourself for not having clarity, for blaming others, and for not taking responsibility for your actions.
"Forgive yourself for wounding others and for the anger, jealousy, and hate you directed toward others.
"Forgive yourself for participating in situations that went against your integrity.
"Forgive yourself for not respecting yourself.
"Forgive yourself for not trusting yourself and having faith in your abilities.
"Forgive yourself for trying to control the people you love.
"And, of course, forgive yourself for not loving yourself 100% just the way you are!
More than once my teacher, don Miguel Ruiz, said "In order to merge with spirit your heart must be as light as a feather." Well, when you have finally detached from the anger, resentment, and pain of your story your heart will feel as light as a feather. Not only that, but for the first time in your adult life you will be happy, truly happy, and your life will reflect the change back to you in every way. After all what we think in our minds is what manifests in our lives! The bottom line is that we forgive because we love ourselves so much that we want to give ourselves the gift of personal freedom. We forgive not because the other person necessarily deserves it, but because we do not want to carry that load around until we die. Anger, hate, and jealousy will make you old, resentful and ugly, inside and out. The question is, how much do you love and respect yourself? Is it enough to give yourself the gift of forgiveness? I hope so.
About The Author
Dr. Sheri Rosenthal is a master Toltec teacher and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Toltec Wisdom. Having trained with don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, she currently takes students on spiritual journeys, works with personal apprentices and enjoys being extremely happy. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://www.sherirosenthal.com.