Photo by Noah Holm on Unsplash
Don’t be an ass. Put down your burden.
The act of forgiving is a gift, not to the forgiven but to the one who forgives.
That’s right. Forgiving presents a precious gift of freedom to yourself. Imagine the power in your hands, the self-care at your disposal! Whenever you choose to, you can treat yourself by forgiving someone a past wrong. The ‘someone’ could even be yourself.
Your partner was tired. He had promised to take you out for a candlelit dinner to celebrate your promotion. You worked hard for the new title, and you’d put in long, stressful hours all week. Your anticipation of that evening’s date had helped keep you going. It had meant so much to you. But then, exhausted by his own crisis at work, he cancelled. How could he? So selfish! So uncaring!
That was three weeks ago. Since then, things haven’t been the same, at home or the office. You are more distant with your partner, less warm. Wakeful spells disrupt your nights, as your mind replays the episode. At work, you are grumpy and slow. The wound from the aborted celebration has become infected.
Resentment and judgement are reactions to injury or injustice. We’ve felt them aimed at us and learned to aim them at others we hold responsible for pain or unfair treatment. In our busy minds, the original events acquire layers of narrative and commentary, prolonging and often exacerbating our suffering. We await an adequate apology or restitution payment. Once the accused earns our forgiveness, we tell ourselves, we will give it. Until then, they don’t deserve it.
I’m not saying they deserve forgiveness or that they’ve atoned for their sins. My point has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. Resentment and judgement are dense loads to carry. We shoulder them because we think they even the score with someone who has done us wrong. But the only scales they register on are the ones measuring the physical, psychic and emotional burden we bear through our days and restless nights. And the energy spent on them is lost to us, unavailable to meet the opportunities and challenges of our one shot at life.
There, wasn’t that easy?
What? It’s anything but easy? You try to forgive the one who injured you, but it doesn’t work? Doesn’t stick? When you recall the episode, even as you tell yourself that you forgive them, you still feel resentment rise? Maybe giving yourself this gift of forgiveness is harder than I first suggested.
Right. It turns out those injuries and the infections to them aren’t at the direct call of our will and intellect. We might think of them less as recent injuries and more like someone poking old, infected ones we don’t remember. At heart, this painful reaction you can’t shake is not about the person who did the poking but is tied to the old injury itself.
But this could be psycho-babble, couldn’t it? So let’s get concrete. Let’s work right here, right now. All you need is at your disposal. You needn’t take anyone’s word. Try this for yourself, and see if it works.
Think back on the episode of your recent injury, the one you want to forgive. As you revisit it, be alert to the onset of any strong tension or physical discomfort, perhaps a knot in your gut or a tightness in your chest. Once you notice that, concentrate; zero in on it.
We don’t want you to pay attention to the replay of the event and its narrative any more, because it might take you too deep. So focus on two things only: 1) The physical sensation you’ve just noticed arising as you recalled the injury and 2) keeping still, with your eyes fixed on a single point somewhere two to six feet from you. (The second may sound weird, but this intentional stillness serves to crowd out the narrative layered on the injury.)
Stay with this physical sensation. Examine it. Bring your curiosity to it. Give it your attention. What are its characteristics? How long does it linger? Stay with it while it remains. Notice that you are doing fine. You are under no mortal threat. Nothing terrible is happening to you. You are just being still and attending to this sensation that arose alongside your revisiting the memory of the injurious event.
Your mind and body associate the recent event with this physical sensation. The thing is, they also associate the physical sensation with the original injury. When you incurred the initial wound, you lacked your current size, strength and emotional and psychological capacities. Back then, the injury seemed life-threatening, and this gave the physical sensation its immense power. Now, although there is no existential threat, the pokes at the infected site of the original injury trigger the same sensation with its life-threatening feeling.
The above exercise uses your body is an empirical lab in which you verify and then patiently teach your mind and body that the physical sensation does not relate to any current existential threat. You could sit with it forever, and it would do you no harm. But you needn’t stay with that sensation very long, only until it dissolves of its own accord.
You should repeat this exercise as many times as you need to, triggering the sensation by recalling the recent event and sitting with it until it subsides. When revisiting the memory of the recent injury no longer brings on the strong physical sensation, you have forgiven.
Having forgiven, you shrug off a weight, unshoulder a burden. You are lighter, free of a load that has sapped your energy, stolen from your life. By teaching your mind and body that the strong sensation within your resentment is no threat, you give yourself a most beautiful gift.
When you let resentment get the better of you, disappointment arises as a new layer. While you get the hang of this technique, you might lose patience with yourself because you are not forgiving as quickly as you’d like. You may go so far as to harbour resentment against yourself.
Aha! You’ve gone and poked an old injury yourself! No worry. Now just apply the same forgiveness to yourself as you’ve learned to do with others. Stick with it, when you forgive yourself, you give and receive the greatest gift of all.