Sunday, May 3, 2009

Seven Steps of Forgiveness


Let’s face it - most people probably think of forgiveness as the last resort of losers. It’s what you’re left with after you’ve been victimized and can’t figure out a way to inflict revenge. If there’s no way to even the score, then you might as well settle for feeling a little better about yourself by becoming noble. And if you forgive what happened to you, maybe someday you can forget all about it. Or, maybe whoever hurt you will eventually feel guilty about what they did, and come begging for your forgiveness. Then you get to decide whether they deserve it. (Probably not!)

However much lip service is paid to the religious ideal of forgiveness, my guess is that this is how the majority of people think about it. And that’s a shame, because real forgiveness is the key not only to healing victimization, but to actually preventing attacks while reducing anxiety, increasing intelligence, and maximizing creativity. In a time when our politics is obsessed with the fear of terrorists, real forgiveness is the best tool we have for fighting terror where it actually starts: in our own minds.

I keep saying “real” forgiveness because I am not referring to the occasional, reactive response of resignation that I described above. What I’m talking about is a daily, ongoing discipline of releasing one’s fears and resentments despite all the temptations to hold onto them. This is a spiritual discipline that can be practiced without any religious affiliation or even a belief in God.

I know this because I used to be an anxious, seriously confused cynic who actually believed the stuff I wrote in the first paragraph. But I got over it. I had to suffer through seven years of serious illness and self-confrontation to change the way I thought and felt, but when I came out on the other side I had begun to tap the potential of forgiveness, and I remain amazed at the changes it has wrought in my life. Besides overcoming my illness, I went from being a frustrated writer to widely published and productive author; I went from someone incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship to a happily married man; and I went from someone who believed vengeance was sometimes a good idea to someone who knows that forgiveness always works.

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One doesn’t have to be an acute observer of the political scene since September 11, 2001 to understand that fear makes people stupid. What’s less obvious is that forgiveness makes people smarter -- and thus better able to deal with whatever misfortune, attack, or outright evil they may encounter. That’s because forgiveness teaches you how fear, resentment, and terror work by progressively revealing these states of mind within yourself. When you successfully release a little grudge or fear (and guess what: fears and grudges are the same thing), you’ll see the next, bigger fear that was hiding behind the little guy. When you comprehend that bigger fear, you’ll begin to perceive the generalized anxiety behind it; as you begin to pierce the cloudy veils of anxiety and resentment in your mind, you may begin to see how you’ve been subtly terrorizing yourself for years. And you can rest assured that if you’ve ever terrorized yourself, you’ve intimidated someone else whether you meant to or not.

What we think of as terrorism for political purposes arises from exactly the same roots deep within the human mind; the symptoms are more violent, but the sickness is the same. When you personally understand how terror arises, grows, and feeds on itself within you, then you will understand how it works in other people, and you will be better able to spot where it’s taking root and help undo it without creating victims in the process. That’s why I don’t think we need a Patriot Act so much as we need a Forgiveness Act, but I’m no fool: that kind of legislation ain’t gonna get pushed through Congress anytime soon. That’s all right because forgiveness is ultimately democratic: it’s up to each of us to transform our hearts and minds, and then forgiveness will spread on its own.

Now I’m a provocateur at heart, so I wouldn’t leave you without a plan of action. Although you will soon discover that daily, ongoing forgiveness is an incredibly complicated process of unexpected revelation and personal revolution, the way into it is relatively simple. Over the years I have condensed my own discipline into seven steps that can be adapted to your own use, and they go like this:

    1. Select a bitter sorrow, a serious grievance against someone, or a punishing charge against yourself, and review it in complete detail.

    2. Hold in your mind the image of whatever is to be forgiven -­ yourself, another person, a past event ­- and say, “I release you from the grip of my sadness, disapproval, or condemnation.” Concentrate quietly on this intention.

    3. Imagine for a while what your life will be like without the sorrow or grievance that has been haunting you.

    4. Make amends with someone you’ve hurt or someone who has hurt you; tell a friend about your self-forgiveness; or otherwise bring your inner work to your relationships.

    5. Ask for God’s help to overcome fear or resistance at any step. If you do not believe in God, ask for help from nature, humanity, and the mysteries of your own mind. These are the channels through which aid is sent -­ and aid is always sent.

    6. Have patience. Forgiveness induces healing which follows its own order and timing. Whether you think you have accomplished anything thus far is less important than the fact that you have attempted a radical act that will call forth change likely to exceed your expectations. Go about your daily business, but stay alert to unexpected shifts in your thinking, feeling, and relationships.

    7. Repeat steps 1 through 6 as often as necessary, for life.


That’s it! You can fight terror today by forgiving the next little thing that bugs you ­- and then forgive whatever comes next. Rest assured that on your way to greater peace, sharper intelligence, and a true fearlessness, you’ll always find plenty of opportunities to forgive.

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