Annette remembers her father as a red-faced ogre—loud, hypercritical, and subject to fierce bouts of anger. When he was drunk, he liked to arm-wrestle her, and when she was 18, he threw her out of the house because he found out she was gay. Annette spent years in therapy working on her anger and trying to recover her self-esteem. By the time she was 40, her identity as Daddy's abused child had become the cornerstone of her personal story. She hadn't seen him in years, yet she blamed him for her fear of intimacy, her distrust of men, her relationship patterns, even her difficulties in committing to a career. She often imagined the things she would say to him if she ever got the chance.
Then she got a letter from her father. He was in a nursing home and wanted her to visit. It took Annette several weeks to get up the courage to go. When she finally arrived and saw him in bed—wasted, pale, and partially paralyzed with Parkinson's—she could find no connection between this man and the larger-than-life parent of her youth. Still, she had her agenda. "There are some things I need to say to you," she said, and she began to list her grievances. He lay uncomprehending on the bed. His eyes filled with tears. He tried to speak, but she couldn't understand his words. The villain she had wanted to confront was no longer there. For a while she couldn't stop crying. "I'm never going to get closure," she told me. "He's never going to apologize."
"Maybe you'll just have to forgive him anyway," I said. Silence. Then Annette asked the question, "Why should I do that?"
"Maybe to get your life back," I suggested.
Forgive to Get Free
Annette's refusal to forgive her father had imprisoned her in the role of the victim. She believed her father had ruined her life, and she was still looking for reparation. In just the same way, my friend Jake believes that his spiritual teacher harmed him irreparably—took his money and demanded that he work for the organization for free, all in the service of some promised enlightenment that, according to Jake, never materialized.
Neither Annette nor Jake has grasped the basic fact that forgiveness is not something you do solely for the person who hurt you. It is something you do for yourself, for the sake of your own inner freedom. You forgive so that you can live in the present instead of being stuck in the past. You forgive because your grievances and grudges—even more than hopes and attachments and fears—bind you to old patterns, old identities, and especially to old stories.
Think of a person you don't really want to forgive: a parent, an ex-lover, a teacher, a betraying friend. Maybe you believe, like Annette, that to forgive the person means you're excusing their wrong or that holding on to your anger somehow gives you back the power their offense took away. Or perhaps, as a good spiritual practitioner, you believe you've already forgiven. But if you really look, you might see that the grievance is still part of your story, even part of the meaning of your life.
"I'm this way because s/he did that to me!" you say—he or she being the unloving parent, the unfaithful lover, the guru who didn't deliver. The problem is, when you hold on to the grievance, you also hold on to its shadow belief: "I must be flawed in some way to have attracted that hurt."
For years I carried a grievance against a childhood friend who had turned against me and then badmouthed me to everyone in the seventh grade. I didn't consciously hold on to the incident. But hurt and anger lodged themselves in my system and became a default setting, which then started attracting corroborative experience. The effect of my grievance showed up mainly in a defensive refusal to get close to other women and a belief that friends could turn against me without warning. Not surprisingly, they sometimes did.
Recent studies in neurophysiology describe a particular type of neuron whose function is to pick up and mirror the emotions of others—literally throwing back what someone puts out. In my experience, mirror neurons seem to be particularly adept at picking up and reacting to someone else's unconsciously held stance of victimization. If I have a tendency to distrust you, you pick it up and throw it back to me—maybe by mirroring my distrust, maybe by keeping your distance. Thus, we create a vicious cycle and replicate negative experiences. Starting a more positive feedback loop is reason enough to do some work with forgiveness.
When I began my own personal forgiveness project, the only tools I had were meditation and some basic yogic teachings about how to shift thoughts. I hadn't a clue how to access the actual state of forgiveness, so I concentrated on trying to talk back to my grudges. My model was the instruction from Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2:33: "When obstructive thoughts arise, practice the opposite thought." It became my discipline to notice my grudge-bearing thoughts and try to reverse them, usually by sending kind wishes to the person I was angry at. The practice cleared out underbrush in my mind. But trying to "do" forgiveness is different from experiencing the feeling state. Some of this has to do with the organization of the brain.
From the biological point of view, replacing negative thoughts and making a willed choice to shift out of grievance are both performed in the front brain, the cortex—the seat of rational thought. But reactions to hurt, stress, and trauma are stored in the limbic brain—sometimes called the emotional or "old mammalian" brain—where deeply rooted emotional patterns tend to be lodged.
Many of these patterns play out automatically in the body, regardless of your intentions or rational decisions. That's why my friend Lisa gets a knot in her stomach whenever she hears someone speaking in a certain angry tone of voice—even when the person isn't speaking to her. It's the same tone her mother used when she was displeased with Lisa as a child. This made Lisa anxious, and her stomach would knot up. Now she can't keep her stomach from knotting at the sound of an angry voice overheard in a supermarket. In the same way, each of us holds countless ancient grudges in our cells, ready to be triggered by a chance word or careless glance.
Shifting those patterns requires more than practice and choice. It requires intervention from your own depths, from the awareness-presence that you cultivate in meditation. Brain-wave researchers mapping the brain states accessed during meditation say that meditation slows the patterns called delta waves. These patterns, similar to those activated in deep sleep, are associated with healing the body. Meditators learn to access this deep state consciously—with full alertness.
In my years of meditating, I learned to drop my attention into the heart, then to imagine an opening through the back of the heart. There, I found I could often access a spaciousness that seemed to have no limits. If I could let myself fully experience the feeling of my grievance or my sense of being flawed and open up the spaciousness behind the heart, then the hard, sharp, painful sensations of long-held anger and hurt would melt into the space. The more I got in touch with that sense of aware presence in the heart, the more the grievances seemed to let go. What made them let go? Not my desire or my will. Something else, something that felt like grace—the powerful healing presence that you access through meditation and prayer.
I recently read the testimony of a mother who experienced a spontaneous movement of forgiveness in a most unlikely circumstance. Her 20-year-old son had been beaten to death in a street fight. His assailant was tried and sentenced to a long prison term. The mother asked to meet with him after his sentencing because she wanted the satisfaction of telling him to his face how much she hated him for what he had done. When she was ushered into the holding room where she was to meet the boy, he was standing in a corner, shackled and crying. The woman said later, "As I watched that boy, so forlorn—no parents, no friends, and no support—all I saw was another mother's son."
Without thinking, she heard herself saying, "Can I give you a hug?" She says that when she felt his body against hers, her anger literally melted away. What arose instead was a natural feeling of tender connection with this suffering human being. That amazing story speaks to what forgiveness really is—a spontaneous and natural uprush of peaceful letting go, even of tenderness. This woman has no idea where her ability to forgive her son's killer came from; she says she couldn't have imagined ever coming close to having such a feeling. She treasures the peace it gave her.
She called it a gift from God. I'd call it an opening of the soul. The point is, heartfelt forgiveness—the natural, spontaneous opening to someone who has hurt you—is not something that the ego can make happen. The separatist, culturally conditioned ego-self, formed by thousands of years of judgment and vengeance, demands punishment as the price of forgiveness. When your heart forgives, it has stepped beyond the ego to grasp your innate kinship—even your identity—with another person.
Level 1: Formal Forgiveness
When reading about forgiveness in the writings of psychologists and the stories of saints, I discern at least three levels of forgiving. Level 1 forgiveness is formal and is nearly always given in response to an apology. In Jewish law, it is said that before a wrong can be forgiven, the offender needs to recognize his wrongdoing, feel genuine remorse, and then ask for pardon. (If he asks three times, the Torah says, you are obligated to forgive him, even if you'd rather not.) The Catholic ritual of confession and penance operates the same way, though with the added understanding that your atonement will clean the slate not only with the other person but also with yourself and God. The fifth step in 12-step programs is based on the same basic premise.
Level 2: Psychological Forgiveness
Level 2 forgiveness is the kind you can access through inner work and the cultivation of empathy. It's way more demanding than formal forgiveness, because it requires compassion and a degree of inner processing. Most of the "work" you do on forgiving begins at this level. You might start this process by looking beyond your own reactivity to ask yourself whether the other person actually meant to hurt you.
Often when I feel angry at something that's been "done" to me, I've been operating on some unconscious assumption or an unspoken contract that the other person never signed off on. For instance, I might have made an assumption that if I help Bill carry through a project, he'll help me the next time I need help, or he'll defend me when the boss gets on my case. In my mind, that's an agreement. But Bill never agreed to the deal; as far as he's concerned, I helped him out of the goodness of my heart. When my friend Jake looked into his assumed contract, he realized that he had expected that, in exchange for his service and loyalty, his teacher would inject enlightenment into him. It never occurred to him to wonder whether it is even possible for another person to enlighten anyone else.
Psychologist Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project calls such contracts "unenforceable rules." If you can step outside your assumptions and implicit unenforceable rules, you have a chance of seeing the situation from a broader perspective, and immediately your view is more forgiving.
The classic method for opening up to level 2 forgiveness is to imagine what it would be like to be the other person. When Annette began trying to forgive her father, she started by imagining him as a child. She asked herself what kind of upbringing he'd had, what difficulties he'd faced in his life, what disappointments had come his way. In the process, it occurred to her that the reason her father couldn't love her was that he had never really been loved himself. Asking for love from him was probably as pointless as asking for money from the guy looking for handouts on the street. That insight into her father's story let her see, for the first time, that he wasn't a monster, and she began to feel compassion for him.
Doing some inquiry can also help you recognize how often the qualities you find unforgivable in others are qualities you reject in yourself. When I started trying to clear my anger at my seventh-grade friend L, I saw that before I'd ever been a victim of her rejection, I'd foisted the same rejection upon other people. Usually they were people whom I saw as nerdy or unattractive, and behind my rejection was the fear of being considered nerdy myself. L, I realized, had probably been trying to distance herself from me for a similar reason: She saw in me something she wanted to avoid identifying in herself.
There's a powerful boon in recognizing how "unforgivable" traits in others mirror the qualities you find "unforgivable" in yourself. Forgiving someone else can lead you to forgive the grudges you've held against yourself. It works the other way also: Once you begin owning and even accepting your inner mean girl or manipulative boss or charlatan yogi, you may find that the grudges you hold against the mean girls and manipulative bosses in your life dissolve on their own.
Level 3: Soul Forgiveness
Sometimes, as you engage in these processes, you start moving into a deeper level. At this level forgiveness is not something you "do" but something that opens up within you. Like the woman who was unexpectedly overwhelmed with tenderness for her son's killer, you experience the emergence of a powerful and essentially spiritual emotion that comes not from the personality but from that deeper level of being that's sometimes called the "soul." You could call it soul-based forgiveness, since it is on the level of the soul that we as individuals connect most deeply with other individuals. At this level your heart is moved by the sheer humanness of the other person.
The third level of forgiveness comes from the recognition that no human being, however terrible or hurtful their actions, is without basic goodness. In some cases, this recognition requires an extraordinary act of loving imagination, or a heroic change of heart.
For some people, level 3 forgiveness morphs into an even deeper level of forgiving: the recognition that you and the person who has offended you are both part of a greater whole. One of my teachers once had a dream in which she saw someone she thought of as an arch villain, a truly evil person. A voice nearby said, "He's really bad." In the dream, she was nodding in agreement, when she suddenly saw rays of light emanating from the man's head. Looking more closely, she realized his entire body was blazing with light. She woke realizing that she had seen his divine core.
At this level, you begin to recognize not only that everyone has a unique story and a desire for happiness but also that the same consciousness, the same awareness, that is in you is also in the person who hurt you. This is true depth forgiveness—the understanding that lies behind the Dalai Lama's refusal to hate the Chinese for occupying his country. His great insight is that on the level of our true nature, which is pure awareness and presence, there is never anything to forgive. Once you've intuited this, your heart can never permanently harden to another person. Even while you recognize a rupture, even while you speak out to express your outrage at the violation, you can still know that, on the level of pure awareness, you and the person who injured you are both part of a single fabric of consciousness.
The truth is that radical forgiveness always includes the recognition of your universal connection to others. Yes, you have an individual self, which means that at times you will need to set boundaries to protect yourself. Your individual self has the capacity to be hurt, to be angry, and to forgive. But you are also a part of the larger whole, or what yoga philosophy identifies as the "Self," of which each individual self is a spark. Every time you empty yourself of personal grievance, even for a moment, it opens the possibility of recognizing wholeness. As my small Self, I find certain wrongs almost unforgivable. As my great Self, I accept that I am part of both the wrongdoer and the one wronged. When I look at the world through that lens of nonduality, I can see that, when I forgive someone else, I forgive another part of myself. When that happens, I have no need to let go of grievance. Grievance just isn't there anymore.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.