Forgiveness as a Spiritual Practice
If you were to choose only one practice to engage in for the rest of your life, you would do well to consider the practice of forgiveness as a life path. For many reasons, Forgiveness allows us to see ourselves as a part of a Greater Purpose.
Probably the most important thing to remember when it comes to forgiveness is that we do not forgive for the benefit of whomever we are forgiving. Forgiveness is absolutely for our own well being. The person we are forgiving may not even know, or care, if we have forgiven them. The practice of forgiveness is not something that we do with the hope of “getting” anything. Forgiveness is about our own personal expression of God’s love. Love is who we are. It is a verb, an action, and if we believe that love is something we receive in return for anything we have done we will certainly find ourselves disappointed.
We can find proof of this by looking at our relationships. Some years ago I worked with children who had been severely abused and neglected, usually by their parents. What I noticed is that regardless of how horribly these children had been mistreated, they all, without exception, loved their parents and wanted to return to them. They had never come to believe that love was something they should receive before they gave it, love was who they are.
While I am not saying that we should go out of our way to remain in relationship with those people who are abusive towards us, even in forgiving we still must take measures to keep ourselves safe and healthy. But believing that our forgiveness, or our loving, is dependent upon how others treat us separates us from our own true nature.
A man I know told me the story of how he came to forgive the man who murdered his brother. It took him a number of years before he was able to bring himself to this, but eventually he made an appointment to visit the man in prison. When he arrived, and came face to face with his brothers’ killer, he asked the man if he had anything to say. The man told of how he had come to cross paths with the brother and what had happened from his perspective. He shared his experience since then, how the event had changed his life, and that he was sorry for his choices the night of the murder.
My friend told of how this had affected him, how he could feel his heart breaking all over again by hearing the story, and how difficult it was to contain his sorrow. As he allowed himself to feel this pain again, he felt something new, a deep compassion for the man sitting in front of him. He could feel how this series of events had impacted another family and that now his heart was hurting for them as well.
After he left, and in the days and weeks that followed, he found that his entire life had softened and that his heart was lighter, less tender. In forgiving his brothers killer, he found that his own heartache softened and he felt the return of a quality of peace that he hadn’t had since before his brother’s death.
He didn’t go back to see the killer again and has no idea how, or if, being forgiven has had any impact on him at all. What he realized was that it didn’t matter; the weight had been lifted from his own shoulders. What he did realize is that we each have our own piece of the story. His piece is just a snapshot from the movie, it isn’t the entire plot.
Years later, after the murder of my son, I had the opportunity to apply myself to this practice as well. The three young men who participated in the death of my son have been teachers for me in this regard. I don’t believe that my forgiveness is important to any of them. I also know that if my heart stays hard and unforgiving I am only limiting myself and my ability to love deeply. I have found that I can forgive, yet still wish that it had never happened. I can forgive, and I can see my forgiveness as an opportunity to express my own loving nature.
To forgive doesn’t mean that I regard their behavior as acceptable, or to say that what they did was okay. Forgiving means that I am ready to lean into the sorrows and joys of life, and that I realize my life isn’t about what I receive, it is about what I give.
We are instruments of each other’s karma. Who knows why anything happens the way it does? Living in a body limits our understanding of the bigger picture of existence. This is where faith comes in. When we have faith that there is more to life than what we can possibly understand that knowledge frees us from the need to understand and control what happens.
This is what the practice of forgiveness does for us. When we continue to hold onto the past hurts we have experienced we are the ones who are impacted; no one else. If we decide to remain angry, or seek retribution in some way, inevitably that choice will hold us prisoner until we are able to release it. Forgiveness is your life raft to peace and compassion.