Of the myriad teachings in all major world religions, one of the few common denominators is the teaching of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a universal spiritual practice. So let’s unpack this term.
Forgiveness can be understood in either (or both) of two ways. One way of seeing it is as a deliberate choice—a conscious decision that one makes. Another view of forgiveness is that it is a healing process which is not totally under our conscious control. Both perspectives are equally important.
Forgiveness must begin with decision to forgive; but it rarely ends there. It usually takes time, patience and the willingness to feel some pain—specifically, the pain of grief.
To make the choice to forgive means that we are willing to let go of blame, condemnation and the desire for revenge or punishment. This does not necessarily mean that we forget what happened or that we don’t hold someone accountable for their actions.
Accountability means that every action one takes has consequences. If someone harms another person then he is morally (and perhaps legally) accountable for those actions. Making amends—and possibly restitution—is often appropriate. This, however, is not the same thing as blame or condemnation which sees the perpetrator as evil, bad and deserving punishment.
Sometimes the decision to forgive is the end of it; but most often it’s only beginning--the beginning of the process of healing. Frequently the decision to forgive must be made over and over again; once is not always enough. The reason for this is that all sense of non-forgiveness (i.e. blame, condemnation, etc.) arises from our feeling of pain. When we are projecting blame and condemnation we are focused outwardly upon the deeds of another--and upon the past. When we let this go we become aware of the pain that we are feeling right now. If this pain seems too intense to bear then we may revert back to the outwardly focused blame or condemnation.
Our decision to forgive may need to be made over and over again. As we are able to refrain from blame we see that forgiveness is essentially a grief process—a process that can include anger, guilt, bargaining, sadness and finally, acceptance.
If our pain is deep then forgiveness can take a long time. Once the process is complete then no desire to blame arises and we become open to the spiritual growth and learning that may be available from this experience.
Everything said here applies equally to self-forgiveness.
Ultimately, we see that forgiveness is ongoing. It is wise to make it a regular part of our daily spiritual practice. I like to think of this as the spiritual equivalent to brushing our teeth or taking a shower.
Never underestimate the power of forgiveness. It is the greatest gift that we can give to anyone—especially to oneself!