The Forgiveness Experiment
"If I cannot forgive myself
For all the blunders
That I have made
Over the years,
Then how can I proceed?
How can I ever
Move, I must, forward.
Fly, I must, upward.
Dive, I must, inward,
To be once more
What I truly am
And shall forever remain."
Forgiveness is a tricky concept. Not only can the act of forgiving someone be challenging, there is also confusion about what forgiveness actually accomplishes (and for whom). Forgiveness is frequently talked about in life coaching, religious/spiritual realms and holistic health circles, but did you know that scientists have also been studying the physiological benefits of forgiveness? One of the things they have discovered is that when you refuse to forgive someone, stress response chemicals are released into your system. These chemicals can have adverse effects on both your professional and personal lives by limiting creativity and problem-solving abilities. When you forgive, you cleanse your body of these stress chemicals, leaving you feeling calmer and more effective in your daily interactions.
You don’t have to be a scientist to conduct your own forgiveness experiment. We can all practice forgiving and letting go in our daily lives as a way to boost our own well-being and satisfaction with our lives.
I like to think of forgiveness as an experiment in the moment. If you are interested in experimenting with forgiveness, there are four things you want to remember:
1. Remember that you are not condoning the behavior; you are releasing the burden of resentment.
This is a confusing idea for many people. Many of us have been taught that forgiveness equals giving our stamp of approval to whatever negative thing someone did. Others think of forgiveness as enabling another person’s bad behavior (instead of interrupting the cycle). This is far from the truth. In fact, forgiveness is much more about the person doing the forgiving than the person being forgiven. The great thing about forgiveness is that it is not dependent on an apology from the person who acted in a negative way towards you. You can forgive someone without them ever knowing you did.
2. When practicing forgiveness, it is best not to choose the most difficult person at first.
If you are interested in trying the forgiveness experiment, first choose a person who brings up some irritation or frustration for you instead of someone who has seriously hurt you. In the beginning, it may work better if this person is not someone who is extremely close to you (like a spouse or child). As you become more comfortable with forgiveness, you can work toward forgiving those who are most challenging in your life.
3. Make use of relaxation techniques to help you with forgiveness.
Using relaxation techniques like intentional breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm your mind and body so that you are in a place to truly forgive. Listening to a loving kindness meditation can help you send positive energy toward the person you are working to forgive, which can also help. Practicing forgiveness meditations is an especially effective way to master the art of forgiveness. I can offer help with this through classes and individual sessions.
4. Forgiveness is a process.
The forgiveness experiment is not an easy, one-time action—it is a process. Taking notice of what parts of the process are difficult for you is an important step to help you achieve total forgiveness. Some people have the most difficulty with forgiving themselves, which is an essential element of forgiveness. Most people need to practice forgiveness before it becomes a natural part of how they move through the world. It’s worth it to do the work in order to reap the benefits forgiveness brings to both your body and mind.
I decided to write about the forgiveness experiment and these guidelines because of clients who were struggling with forgiving others. One client in particular used her delightful sense of humor to work with her discomfort about forgiveness. She would say “O.K. Beth, let’s just stick with loving kindness tonight, because I am in no mood to do a forgiveness meditation. I am not feeling very forgiving tonight, ha ha!” I totally get that feeling of not being ready to forgive, so I researched forgiveness and found this idea of it being an experiment in the moment. So just for this moment, we can experiment with forgiveness with an excerpt from a beautiful forgiveness meditation by Stephen Levine:
"Begin by slowly bringing into your mind, into your heart, the image of someone for whom you have some resentment.
Gently allow a picture, a feeling, a sense of them to gather there.
Gently now invite them into your heart just for this moment.
Notice whatever fear or anger may arise to limit or deny their entrance
and soften gently all about it.
Just an experiment in truth which invites this person in.
And silently in your heart say to this person, “I forgive you.”
Open to a sense of their presence and say, “I forgive you for whatever pain you may have caused me in the past, intentionally or unintentionally, through your words, your thoughts, your actions. However you may have caused me pain in the past, I forgive you.”
Feel for even a moment the spaciousness relating to that person with the possibility of forgiveness.
Let go of those walls, those curtains of resentment, so that your heart may be free.
So that your life may be lighter.
“I forgive you for whatever you may have done that caused me pain, intentionally or unintentionally, through your actions, through your words, even through your thoughts, through whatever you did.
Through whatever you didn’t do.
However the pain came to me through you, I forgive you.
I forgive you.”
It is so painful to put someone out of your heart.
Let go of that pain.
Let them be touched for this moment at least with the warmth of your forgiveness.
“I forgive you, I forgive you.”
— from “A Forgiveness Meditation” by Stephen Levine
If you have any questions or need some help with the forgiveness experiment, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
May we all experience the freedom of forgiveness.