Forgiveness, at times, can be rather difficult: Our mind knows that resentment is a cancerous aspect of the ego, but our heart still doesn’t want to let it go.
When I am struggling with it, I remind myself of a few ideas.
Of course, these ideas are not like apps that we can click and make us forgive immediately. As with other precious things in life, forgiveness may take time.
It’s not easy, but it can be done. And the peace that comes with it is worth the effort.
1. Bring awareness to it as early as possible
Our instinct wants us to run away from the pain of thinking about it, to just quietly swear at that person, and then shove that anger into a damp, dark corner of our heart.
But it’s harmful, especially if you are going to interact with that person again. It’s like a virus that takes over a cell to produce more of its kind. The unresolved feeling, particularly a painful one, will create more like it.
It blackens your perception. You will start to see more bad things about that person, regardless whether it’s true or not. Later, your mind will start generalising it to their gender, race, and religion.
So, the first step is to bring your awareness to it. Observe that angry voice in your head, and the stories it tells. Notice you are not that voice, you are not that story. You are the observer behind them.
2. Notice the space of choice
We have patterns. Have you met people who always, somehow, find something wrong with the things you do? Or a joker friend who makes you laugh even when the situation wasn’t funny in the first place?
It’s easier to see it in others, and much trickier in ourselves. But when you hear yourself saying, “Of course I’m mad, they said this and did that!“ you are actually observing your pattern: X situation must lead to my Y reaction.
Part of spiritual maturity is discovering the space between situations and reactions: the space of choice. In Sufism (and other spiritual and martial art traditions), practices like remembrance are meant for, among other things, the expansion of this space. While it is too long to be justly discussed here, that realisation is the key. Use it to start exploring your own pattern.
X does not always need to lead to Y.
3. There is more going on than you see
When you’re upset, your emotion limits your attention. You perceptual filter will only record things that support what you’re feeling. If they do 9 good things and 1 wrong thing, your mind will capture and expand that 1 thing.
To bring you a step closer to forgiveness, remind yourself of a simple truth: “There’s more going on in their life than what I know. They are suffering something that I don’t fully understand.”
It helps you extend your compassion towards that person, despite what they’ve done to you.
This, ironically, is harder when that person is family or someone really close. Because you see them often, and you think you know everything that’s going on in their life.
But you don’t.
Because two people can go through the same external circumstance but have two diametrically different internal experiences; there’s a whole world going on in each of us.
After all, we are with our own self 24 hours a day, and even then we sometimes don’t fully understand our own thoughts and emotions. Do we really think we know more about someone else’s?
4. They are doing their best
This doesn’t mean what they did is acceptable.
If it were, you probably wouldn’t have been upset in the first place. And rectifying the situation might indeed involve harsh justice (punishments, legal actions).
But your respond must arise from compassion, not revenge. It should be closer to “This is my respond to stop it from happening again”, instead of “They deserve it, and it makes me feel better when they suffer.”
Another step to forgiveness is realising that we all are – in our human imperfections – doing our best to be good, even when we fail and make mistakes.
The mistakes come from our limitations:
- Biological limitations. They may do something hurtful to you because they are exhausted, psychologically unbalanced, or biochemically unstable. If they are teenagers or in their early 20’s, their prefrontal cortex might have not fully developed yet, compromising their ability to make sound decisions.
- Educational limitations. Their rules of engagement with the world may be different than yours. They don’t know what you know. They may not have the language skills, or communication skills to express themselves appropriately. Your assumption that “They should know this. It’s common sense” may seem very real to you, but it’s not necessarily true. You need to communicate it with them, even when you think it’s obvious.
- Spiritual limitations. This is more challenging, because this is when they are intentionally hurting you, perhaps out of jealousy, or out of fear. Here, forgiveness demands a more sophisticated awareness from your part. Remind yourself that they are not there yet spiritually. Guide them if you can, or distance yourself from them if you can’t. In any case, forgiving them is an opportunity to deepen your own spirituality.
5. Zoom out your camera
Re-examine your view of the situation. Specifically, think of your perspective as a camera, then zoom-out from the immediacy of the situation.
From that wider angle, you may realise that, in the grand scheme of your life, that thing you’re upset about is not that important. You may decide that your life is meant for greater things, and you want to liberate yourself from such a tiny negative event.
Ask yourself, “If I’m dying, would this be the thing I want to spend my life worrying about?”
Now, that question seems like an exaggeration – but it isn’t. We are, at every second, edging closer to death. Each moment is valuable. Each moment you spend on resentment is the same moment that could have been spent on experiences that bring you peace and happiness.
Practice forgiveness. Not necessarily because they deserve it, but because you deserve peace.