I’d like to say I am a champion of forgiveness. That I forgive, and forget, and no residue of resentment hangs around in my body, psyche or spirit. It’s true that I can slowly get to the point where I no longer care about a hurt, or an injustice. But to say that I then move on to wishing that person a beautiful life is an exaggeration.
I once had a colleague intent on sabotaging me on a professional and personal front. I had been given the job that she had wanted and, indeed, been promised although not by someone in authority.Needless to say the events that ensued left a permanent scar on my heart but I hope not my reputation. I only coped, for a long time, by imagining her meeting an untimely end. Terrible but true.
Right now, at the end of a less than satisfactory romance, I am still struggling with forgiveness, not just for him but for myself. I think I have it conquered, with meditation and affirmations and then I awake at 4am with thoughts of self-recrimination.
“While it’s only natural to go through times of challenging emotions such as anger or regret, holding on to those keeps you stuck in a less than optimum state,” says Gestalt therapist Shirley Hughes.
Not only is anger like the sticky glue that makes it almost impossible to function at a happy level, but there is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed, according to Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones.
Those changes increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.
It seems that when someone has hurt, or angered you, your sympathetic nervous system unloads toxic stress chemicals that hang around as long as you don’t actively seek to negate them.
“Regardless of whether the person you need to forgive is someone else, or yourself, it is about you,” says psychologist and director of not-for-profit The Yoga Foundation Michael de Manicor.“You are the primary beneficiary.
“By enabling yourself to let go of anger, resentment, or guilt, trapped in your mind and your heart, you not only benefit physically but spiritually and emotionally.
“If you cannot do so, inevitably that anger will cause you problems.”
And here’s the even tougher part – once we move past thoughts of justice, or revenge, depending on how you want to label it, we must move to a place where we are able not only to let go but to have compassion for our aggressors – and ourselves.
It may be an old platitude but acknowledge a fundamental truth: we are not perfect. Nor are they.
“It may also help to remember that we are all doing the best we can at certain points in time,” says Hughes.Forgiving is also very different from condoning an action, she says.“You may still be able to see that something that affected you was wrong behaviour.”
Making that judgement from a sane or reasonable place, you may also decide that the person you need to forgive is not someone you wish to allow back into your life.
However, even when it is, without doubt, another’s fault, hanging onto that anger or resentment doesn’t help us move forward.Of course it’s not easy to forgive, agrees de Manicor, especially when you feel the issue is an important one.
“But yoga practice and teachings can help us with forgiveness because they bring us to a state of inner peace,” he says.“It is very difficult to be at peace and hold resentment at the same time.
“Yoga sutras talk about whole process of what is necessary in order to be able to bring about a state of inner peace. Allow forgiveness to be the theme of change you’re looking for through your practice. “
In order to forgive completely, we must commit all our energy to the process (tapas), engage in self-reflection and introspection (svadhyaya), and cultivate a mind that sees the divine essence in all sentient beings (Ishvara pranidhana).
Ahimsa (non-violence) means more than promising not to beat up your oppressor, no matter how aggrieved you feel. It also means not hurting yourself.In the documentary Forgiving Dr Mengele, concentration camp survivor Eva Mozes Kor talks about how she forgave her tormentors. “I felt as though an incredibly heavy weight of suffering had been lifted,” she says. “I never thought I could be so strong.”Kor adds that because she was able to forgive her worst enemies, she was finally able to free herself from her victim status.
“What the victims do does not change what happened,” she says. “But every victim has the right to heal themselves as well as they can. And the best thing about the remedy of forgiveness,” she says, “is that there are no side effects. And everybody can afford it.”
Says Angy Keates, of Balance Wellness: “Ultimately solving any issue that is causing us pain is about sitting in it and working through the emotions.”When something is hurting you, or others, she says, you have to set an intention of letting go.
Keates suggests sweating it out, twisting it out and releasing it. “You need to go through the discomfort to get stronger and more resilient.”
Once you make the choice to forgive, seal it with an action. If you don’t feel you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life you trust.
If it’s yourself who needs forgiveness, think about how you might be kinder to your physical or spiritual self in every day life – by preparing more nutritious food, getting more sleep, reading materials that feed your heart or soul, or saying no to requests that make you feel pressured or uncomfortable. Meditation, of course, is also a very useful tool.
Suggests Keates: “Try repeating I forgive, I release this anger and resentment, and make a strong intention to do that.” Poses that may work to release stuck anger include hip openers such as Warrior II, Lizard Pose or Cow Pose, she says.
However, de Manicor says that what is really required rather than just a pose is a conscious effort to cultivate non-attachment.“Letting go is not something that happens by itself.”
Helen Hawkes is a qualified counsellor and happiness coach. You can find her at The Feelgood Factor at www.thecalmzone.com.au
Science and Forgiveness: did you know…
- People who can only forgive if others say sorry first may be more likely to die earlier, compared with people who are less likely to practice conditional forgiveness, according to a 2011 study published in Journal of Behavioural Medicine.
- Forgiveness gets you out of angry mode that affects your blood pressure, heart rate and risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the John Hopkins Medicine.
- When you are the one who needs forgiveness, making amends with the person you wronged can better help you to forgive yourself, say researchers at Baylor University in Texas.
- Being a forgiving person could protect against longterm stress. Having the trait of forgiveness independently predicts positive mental and physical health, according to a study conducted by researchers from Luther College, the University of California, Davis and the University of California, Los Angeles.
- Letting go can help you across a range of health measures including sleep quality and fatigue, found University of Tennessee researchers. They believe that forgiveness may also help protect you against the negative effect that stress has on your mental health.
- Respect for others and yourself is part of not only yoga practice but of a healthy emotional and spiritual life.
- When people wrong us, or we wrong ourselves, it is a good time to take a look at our boundaries.
- Are we clear about what behaviours we will accept from other people – or ourselves?
- Do we express our needs, or our values, clearly?
- Do we need more clarity in how we express ourselves?
- What is important to us and what are we able to de-prioritise or let go?
- If we were looking at ourselves from a friend’s perspective, what advice would we give ourselves about treating ourselves more kindly?
- Set aside time, at the beginning to end of your yoga or meditation practice, to examine these questions, and write your responses in a journal if you need to.
- Identify key areas where you can invest more thought or energy.