From the time we were little, we’ve heard the moral imperatives from both angles. “Just forget it. It wasn’t so bad, they didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, go play nicely together,” or “That was a bad thing to do, go say sorry to your brother.” These have been repeated so often we’ve taken on the shoulds, musts and ought tos, and often do a good job of beating up on ourselves. Sometimes the person we need to forgive most (or at least first!) is ourselves.
Before I go any further I want to clarify that (the title of this piece notwithstanding!) I’m not saying that there’s no value in considering forgiveness from the moral perspective. But I have a bit of a reaction to the way that morality has been used as a kind of ‘stick’ – an attempt at controlling us through shame. Making us feel like we’re ‘bad’ people who ‘should’ know, and do, better than we’re doing.
Imprisoned – whether by others or ourselves – in hurt and pain …
The problem with this is that when we don’t manage to forgive, we risk entering the downward spiral – feeling bad, guilty, less than, and ending up either zoning out to make the fear and pain go away, using the ‘stick’ of shoulds on ourselves, focusing our attention on others who are ‘worse than’ us, or frozen in a sense of helpless inaction.
On the other side of the equation, it’s not that we as humans don’t hurt and violate each other in egregious ways! We’ve all experienced both being victimized ourselves, and acting (or not acting) in ways that hurt others.
But what does it mean to forgive?
For better or worse, we’re now in an era where organizations and structures that used to hold the power of moral accountability over us no longer hold the same kind of sway. In a way we’re flying by the seat of our pants. The choices that we as individuals make now, and the quality of the people we are becoming have an really significant impact in our world. These are important steps along the path of personal sovereignty.
For me, forgiveness is more like a practical math theorem than a moral imperative. And, getting clear on what it means to forgive, and expanding our capacity to consciously choose to forgive others and ourselves, matters.
So let’s take at least a top level look at where it’s helpful to focus our attention when we feel caught up in the swirl of feeling wronged – whether it happened yesterday, ten days, or ten years ago.
Step 1 – Acknowledging whatever is real now …
The truth is we humans do painful and hurtful things to ourselves and each other. Of course (most times) we’d prefer they not happen, but the first step with forgiveness is acknowledging that that painful action, or hurtful words actually happened. It happened, it sucked, it hurt (and maybe still does).
So it’s definitely not about ignoring, stepping over, or forgetting. What’s important here is noticing how much of our personal power or life force energy is tied up (we still have invested) in the situation.
We can know we’ve forgiven when we’re able to be present to the memory of ‘what happened’ without an inner contraction. As you read the rest of this piece, keep in mind a situation where you do still feel something unfinished. To be clear you may or may not, want to try this practice first with the thorniest most painful issue in your life.
And one last reminder at the beginning – this is an iterative practice! Though I’ve a commitment to having no part of me left behind, what I know is that I can do this work, feel clear, and have more upset parts of me show up later. This doesn’t mean I did it wrong before, it either means that these parts are just now trusting me enough to show up, or I’m now skilled enough to notice that they’re there.
That’s why it’s called acknowledging whatever is real now. So ask yourself “What’s really happening for me now? What am I feeling?” Listen carefully to what you hear in response, and ‘simply’ acknowledge the truth of what’s real now.
Step 2 – Triage – assessing what’s most needed now …
What do I need? We’re human, so if there are any urgent physical needs, they need to be attended to first. It’s pretty obvious that if we’re bleeding out, we need to care for the wound.
But if the ‘bleeding’ we’re experiencing is from an emotional wounding, it’s equally important that we focus our attention there. Most of us have had far less practice, or encouragement to do this.
Our impulse is often to pay more attention to the one who wounded us – focusing our attention ‘out there’, making them wrong “You’re so terrible!”, or making the situation wrong “If they really cared, this wouldn’t have happened.”
And while this is understandable, when we go there, the parts of us in pain are still being ignored. There’ll be time for attending to the ‘out there’ parts later when we’re in a clearer, more stable space.
The now of this triage step is whenever you notice there’s some pain of contraction or wounding showing up.
It may be right when the injury or interaction happened. And it’s possible that in that moment you may be in shock, or frozen, or in a push-back reactive space. There’s no make wrong here.
As soon as you can after you notice what’s happening, assess what’s most needed. Ask those parts that have let you know they’re hurt “What do you need? How can I best serve you here?” And again, listen for the response.
Step 3 – Treatment – attending to what’s happening in you now …
This is primarily an internal process that starts with acknowledging and legitimizing the parts of you that are having the strong reaction. This is the affirm that’s the first part of nurturing in the Attentional Living Cycle.
Ignoring and soldiering on, or minimizing the importance and impact of an emotional assault is a recipe for disaster. The wound will fester, become more inflamed and manifest itself either in an internal physical illness, or an external explosion – an acting out of some sort.
Experiencing something that violates a value or quality that’s at the core of your being will precipitate a reaction.
Even in situations where you can’t directly impact what’s happening, when you experience one of these violations, there’s a part of you that has always known that something feels ‘off’, or missing here. And we often feel pain when this value or quality is absent.
When we notice and take ourselves seriously here, accepting what is and allowing it to be, we’ve a much better chance at responding to what’s happening in a more powerfully creative way than lashing out at the trigger or cause of our upset.
The freedom and aliveness of retrieving our personal power …
Instead we can literally en-courage and nurture ourselves and retrieve more of our personal power. We can focus the energy of our upset into anchoring even more deeply in our bodies, our commitment to stand for this way of being, value or quality that’s so important to us.
This powerful practice reintegrates and begins to strengthen parts of you that have been frozen, invisible, or caught up in the swirl of reactionary upset. There’s literally more life energy available to you for creativity in the now. And while we’re on the topic of forgiveness, one of the valuable ways to focus that creativity is to prepare for future now moments …
Of course it’s lovely if any others involved are able and willing to participate in co-creating this process of forgiveness, but it’s in no way necessary. This is about you retrieving and reconnecting with your personal power and sovereignty. It’s about each one of us expanding our capacity to stand for and create more of what our hearts long for – the things we can feel in your bones are possible.
And again, this starts here at home with ourselves. As you reflect on the situation that was upsetting, take some time to wonder about what it might mean for you to make amends. And I’m speaking of amends not so much as fixing or repaying (although that might be an important thing to consider), but growing or changing for the better – particularly when you notice a pattern of the hurt and upset you’ve been experiencing.
Without going to shame or blame, can you be curious about how you might have contributed to the situation? Is there a way that you might have stepped over yourself – perhaps not noticing early cues and taking action then? Or were you overinvesting your energy because you really wanted something (or someone)? Maybe you weren’t paying close enough attention to other things that are important for you and not speaking up until the consequences became painfully obvious?
Once we’ve come back home to us, are anchored in what’s true for us, and our hearts are really open, there’s another place for curiosity. We might wonder about and (as appropriate) explore directly with the other(s) involved what’s actually going on in their inner world that results in their speaking and/or acting in the way they have.
This exploration will give you more information as to the degree of intimacy appropriate in the relationship. If there are not enough shared values and desires, making amends to yourself going forward might take the form of adjusting the degree of intimacy in the relationship. And you’ll be in a place to do that without burning bridges or making the other wrong.
Something else you might recognize is that there are skills or capacities you need to develop that would create more ease and/or freedom in the kinds of situations you meet in life.
Perhaps there are ways that paying attention to nurturing yourself in one of the Six Environments might support you in creating different patterns in the future.
The choices we make in our individual lives make a difference in our world. How we choose to respond to differences in perspectives, or ways of expressing those perspectives can often feel challenging and trigger us into painful old patterns of hurt.
Life is inviting each one of us to expand our capacity to meet these kinds of experiences without being held hostage by them, instead becoming clearer, more powerful, potent and purposeful agents of change in our world.
Today, forgiveness has moved beyond the realm of simply being a moral imperative. This freedom to make a difference, to offer our unique contribution to life, is a very practical and pragmatic reason for being able to navigate these kinds of challenges. As I said at the beginning, for me forgiveness is more like a practical math theorem than a mystical experience.
My intention in writing was to point to some of the places where it’s helpful to focus our attention and free ourselves when we notice we’re caught up in the swirl of feeling wronged. I remember as a kid in school over 50 years ago the satisfaction of writing at the end of proving a math theorem, Q.E.D. – quod erat demonstrandum. Roughly translated from the Latin, “I’ve done what I set out to do”! I trust that’s true.
There’s of course the practice of all this, and that’s where community becomes really important. As pioneers in this kind of cultural shift, we need to nurture the support of kindred spirited community. If there’s resonance here for you, or things that aren’t clear, do reach out. I’d love to hear your experience.