I read a true story recently.
A middle-school boy is in a broken home, no father-figure, no one cares for him. He joins a gang. His initiation: kill someone. The boy picks another boy he barely knows from school.
The next day, after school, the new gang-member walks up to the innocent boy and shoots and kills him.
The police catch the murderer. The mother of the dead, innocent boy is outraged.
At the murderer’s trial, right after he is sentenced to spend a few years in juvenile prison, the mother stands up, points to the convicted murder and shouts “I will kill you!”
The mother, her heart filled with hatred and unanswered questions, occasionally visits the murderer in juvenile prison.
Years later, the murderer is freed.
The mother asks him “do you have food to eat?”
“Do you have a job?”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
The mother tells the boy: “I will cook for you, get a job for you, and I have a spare bedroom you can sleep in.”
The freed murderer accepts.
Years later, the mother sits in the living room and asks the boy to come in.
“Do you remember, at your trial, I told you ‘I will kill you’?”
“Yes ma’am, I’ve thought about it every single day.”
“Me too,” replies the mother, “and I have already killed you. You are not the boy you once were.”
“I want to adopt you,” the mother says, “I want you to be my son.”
The boy accepts.
[The above story is from Jack Kornfield’s audiobook Awakening is Real. Minor details may have been changed because I wrote this from memory]
There are three kinds of forgiveness (all of which you can do):
1. Of yourself from others (your thoughts or feelings you have that you think caused or should cause others to hold on to bitterness/hatred against you)
2. Of yourself (your own bitterness/hatred against yourself)
3. Of others from yourself (your feelings or thoughts of bitterness/hatred against others)
How to Forgive
Try the following meditation from Jack Kornfield:
To practice forgiveness meditation, let yourself sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to close and your breath to be natural and easy. Let your body and mind relax. Breathing gently into the area of your heart, let yourself feel all the barriers you have erected and the emotions that you have carried because you have not forgiven – not forgiven yourself, not forgiven others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. Then, breathing softly, begin asking and extending forgiveness, reciting the following words, letting the images and feelings that come up grow deeper as you repeat them.
FORGIVENESS OF OTHERS: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, have betrayed or abandoned them, cause them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my pain, fear, anger and confusion. Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others. See and feel the pain you have caused out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your own sorrow and regret. Sense that finally you can release this burden and ask for forgiveness. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then to each person in your mind repeat: I ask for your forgiveness, I ask for your forgiveness.
FORGIVENESS FOR YOURSELF: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times through thought, word, or deed, knowingly or unknowingly. Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each of them, one by one. Repeat to yourself: For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain and confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself, I forgive myself.
FORGIVENESS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE HURT OR HARMED YOU: There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed. Let yourself picture and remember these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness when your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.
Let yourself gently repeat these three directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving kindness.
Here’s a guided, audio version of the meditation.
And here’s another version.
You will discover that forgiveness is a choice that you make.
And it’s self-soothing.
Forgiveness starts with you, on the inside.
It’s freeing yourself from your own prison of bitterness, hatred, and other negative thoughts and emotions.
(since you built the prison and put yourself in a cell, you can walk out anytime you want — you’re the prisoner and the warden)
If you’re having a tough time forgiving or you want to learn more about the psychology of forgiveness, start with the REACH model for forgiving.
Forgiveness = Freedom.