Freedom from pain
Many of us fail to move on in life as we do not know how to forget the past. However, deciding to forgive, whether ourselves or others, is a defining step in our spiritual growth, heralding the beginning of a new life, unfettered by the chains of the past, says Jamuna Rangachaari
In the Bible, the Greek word that’s translated as ‘forgiveness’ is ‘aphesis.’ Its literal meaning is ‘to let go,’ as when we let go of a rope or something else we are holding on to. With forgiveness, the grip we are releasing is a mental one. We are letting go of the judgments and grievances that we are holding against a person or a community, and our beliefs about how they should have behaved.
Unforgiveness is like an unhealed raw wound that keeps hurting and smarting, long after the painful episode is over. Unlike a physical wound which heals after some time, unforgiveness is an emotional wound which festers and grows with time, often coming in the way of our normal living. It haunts our mind, dominates our thoughts, and vitiates our emotions. We become a prisoner of our past, unable to break free from the cage of painful memories. This often results in an inability to move forward to create a new life for ourselves. Furthermore, unforgiveness can also create a host of diseases, including cancer. We become bitter, angry, resentful, and even vengeful, either pitying ourselves for our misfortunes or wishing ill upon our perpetrators. Only when our sense of victimhood becomes overwhelming and we understand that unforgiveness is obstructing us from living fully and is keeping us perpetually unhappy do we realise that we need to do something about it.
Kia Scherr had a horrendous experience in the terror attacks of Mumbai. She lost both her daughter and husband in the firing by terrorists. She shares, “When the 26/11 terrorist attack took place, I was in a state of shock. My heart cracked open and my mind was in an altered state. As my family and I sat on the sofa watching the news and the photo of the lone surviving terrorist came onto the TV screen, I heard the words ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do’ inside my head. These were the words of Christ as he was being crucified. I was brought up in the Catholic faith, so forgiveness was part of my religious education.
“It has taken years to discover the true meaning of forgiveness. It begins with a choice and a willingness to forgive. But it has nothing to do with the terrorist. It has to do with me. What’s done is done. Forgiveness will not change any of that. It will not bring my husband and daughter back. I am the one I have to live with, and I am still here. How do I want to live and what can I bring forth that will be of benefit to myself and others? Love is the greatest contribution we can make. Forgiveness is an act of love. I chose love. Love is what has helped to heal my broken heart. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient to restore wholeness to myself.”
Now she helps others walk the path of forgiveness and is leading a life of peace.
Choosing to forgive can take a moment or it can take years. Forgiveness is not only about drastic events like the ones above. It needs to be done even for small slights which we may be nursing in our hearts.
Mahalakshmi Anand, a holistic healer and psychotherapist from Delhi, says, “Forgiveness is an essential part of healing and growth. Forgiveness helps you heal, helps you let go, helps you move on. You forgive because you don’t wish to carry the baggage of resentment, hurt, and pain any longer, and it has nothing to do with the other person. You may or may not want to continue the relationship and it has nothing to do with your forgiving act. Asking for forgiveness also helps you clear your guilt and remorse; it helps you to reform, change, and grow. So, both the acts are important in healing.”
However, forgiving does not stop at forgiving others for their transgressions. We need to learn to forgive ourselves too for our errors and wrongdoings. Often, the biggest cross that we carry is of our own mistakes which have caused suffering to others as well as ourselves. It is not easy to take cognisance of them as they deal a blow to the picture-perfect image of ourselves that we have created in our eyes.
Mahalakshmi elaborates, “We may be able to forgive others, ask for forgiveness from others, but it gets extremely difficult to forgive ourselves. This is because we cannot ‘accept’ ourselves as having committed the ‘act.’ ”
She shares, “A client of mine was working on her emotional distress which was related to her divorce. Sessions progressed and many of her traumas were worked upon, yet she was unable to experience inner peace. As a response to her query, I helped her recognise that she had not forgiven herself for her actions. This came as a shock to her. As expected, these sessions moved at a snail’s pace. But after many sessions, she finally succeeded in forgiving and accepting herself as a beautiful person with a negative past action that she had forgiven.”
Sometimes, the magnitude of our guilt makes it difficult for us to forgive ourselves. We go on punishing ourselves for our mistakes as we believe that we do not deserve forgiveness. Gazal Raina, a CSR professional from Chennai, went through an acrimonious divorce which led to an estrangement from her son. Her efforts to heal the wounds of her bitter past taught her many aspects of forgiveness. She says, “The most difficult person to forgive was me and myself. For a long time, I held myself responsible for all the events that happened to me, believing they were my mistakes. I punished myself and believed that I had been responsible for the family’s breakdown. We can be so stuck in a web of self-judgement, that being kind towards ourselves eludes us. How can we expect to be forgiven when we aren’t ready to forgive ourselves? There began a discovery of exploring all ways in which I was holding on to hurt, towards myself as well as others.”
Having taken many learnings from her experience, she says, “The first and most powerful lesson is that we can become more powerful than our circumstances and pain when we find a purpose in our life.” She has started two support groups which help people rise above personal pain. One of them is Bodhi, a support group in Bangalore for separated and divorced people, and another is Milaap, a support group for non-custodial families that champions co-parenting.
Essentially, she has stopped analysing the whys and wherefores, and focusses on just BEING.
Forgiving sexual abuse
Another area of Mahalakshmi’s work involves adults who have not healed from the trauma of child sexual abuse. They find it very difficult to forgive the perpetrator, which is understandable. But this part of the therapy is essential for their healing.
“A young client working on such an issue had difficulty forgiving her mother. Somewhere, she had begun to believe that her mother, being her caregiver, had failed to protect her from the abuse. This belief caused her to hold resentment against her mother, and she required therapeutic sessions to clear this belief and finally forgive her mother.” After immense counselling, she could understand that the abuse had happened in her mother’s absence.
Forgiveness helps people bring in a shift in their beliefs, which also helps in healing the strain in different aspects of their relationships.
Choosing to forgive
When we feel attacked or hurt, we feel that the only way to relieve our pain is to attack back in some way. We want others to know how much we are hurting. In such times, the thought of forgiving them may be far from our minds.
However, we realise the significance of forgiveness when we come to the understanding that our wrongdoer may never admit that they have hurt us, let alone seek forgiveness from us. When we understand that even if our perpetrator gets some divine retribution, it is not going to erase the pain lodged in our hearts, only then does the importance of forgiveness dawn upon us.
Choosing to forgive can take a moment or it can take years. Self-forgiveness can take a lifetime. Forgiveness is a tender, private process that is unique for each of us. True forgiveness is not a mental decision, but we can begin with a willingness to explore what forgiveness means and how we can transform our experience when we put it into practice in our lives.
Forgiving someone can also feel like we are backing down or letting them off, implying, “I know you did wrong, but I’m not going to punish you this time.” But true spiritual forgiveness is far from just saying “I’m letting you off.” It can actually be a profound healing, especially for the person who is feeling hurt.
Understanding our aggressor
When someone doesn’t behave as per our expectations, we tend to feel angry. In such situations, it’s easy to think that the other person has made us angry. We hold them responsible for our feelings. But when we look closely, we usually find that our discomfort is coming not from their behaviour but from how we have interpreted it—the story we are telling ourselves about what they’ve done, what we are accusing them of, and how they could have behaved better.
One technique which can help is putting ourselves in the other person’s position. If we could truly understand their motives—what they were thinking and feeling, their fears and pains, their background and conditioning, all the influences in their life that led them to this point—then we might begin to understand why they did what they did. We can begin to see them through the eyes of compassion rather than judgment. We can begin to recognise that although they may not have behaved as we expected them to, they were in a sense behaving exactly as they should have, given all the past situations and influences they have been under.
True forgiveness comes when we recognise that deep down, the other person wanted the same things which we want. In their own way, they were seeking to be more at peace to ease their own suffering. But the way they set about doing this was in conflict with our own idea of how to be at peace. This is not to imply that we should accept their behaviour or even condone it. There is of course a legal system through which rapists and murderers will be brought to justice, but as far as spiritual laws are concerned, we are responsible only for our own actions, so our moral compass must remain that of love and forgiveness. We must always remember that we all are mere mortals, and each one of us has the power to make the right choice regardless of the other’s actions. We all have a story to live and a story to create. Let us accept our circumstances and do the best we can, given the cards we have been dealt with and learn to love others as well as ourselves.
Forgiveness is a bridge to peace and love. We bring peace to the world by being at peace with ourselves. We cannot be at peace if we are holding onto anger, hatred, desire for revenge, or violence. We create a possibility for peace, mutual understanding, and respect for differences when we choose forgiveness. We don’t pardon or condone a violent despicable act. We forgive the one who lost their connection to love, who forgot their own light, who chose fear and hatred over love and respect for others. This is true for forgiving others as well as our own selves. The more we forgive, the closer we move towards love.
Tools for forgiveness
We could apply these simple tips to make forgiveness a part of our lives.
Forgiveness is not a panacea. It won’t make things the way they were, but it can make the days ahead better. The points below will help us forgive:
Forgiveness is a healthy choice. Holding on to hate is toxic, and the distress it causes can make you physically and emotionally ill. Letting it go can free you to enjoy your relationship and your life.
Forgiving and forgetting are different. We won’t create amnesia by forgiving, but just because we can’t rewrite history doesn’t mean we can’t create a wonderful future. There will be flashbacks, but once we have forgiven, we will realise that memories do not carry the same emotional charge as they used to in the past and do not obstruct the happy flow of our lives.
To err is human. We all make mistakes, sometimes really big ones. Understanding this will help us keep our balance when someone unintentionally hurts us.
We must forgive ourselves first. Some people cannot forgive themselves for their transgressions. If one is truly on the path of becoming a better person and understands that their pain is part of the journey, forgiving oneself does take place.
Let bygones be bygones. Don’t continue to bring up the past when we think we need an advantage in a disagreement. This behaviour will not allow us to really forgive, and it will also make the foundation of our relationship unstable. This again is equally true for our relationship with others as well as our own selves.
Teaching Story: Releasing anger to forgive
Once Sri Krishna and the five Pandava brothers went hunting in the forest. By the time they had finished the hunt, the sun had gone down and night was about to fall. They realised that they couldn’t return to the kingdom that day and decided to spend the night in the forest. A cave was found, and it was agreed that each person would stand guard for two hours while the others slept.
The youngest brother, Sahadeva, was given the first watch. He sat down vigilantly at the entrance of the cave with all his weapons, and the others went to sleep inside. After an hour and a half, Sahadeva suddenly noticed a dwarf coming towards him from the forest. “Stop!” said Sahadeva. “Who are you? Where are you going?” The dwarf replied, “You can see that I am a tiny dwarf. I want to fight you.” Sahadeva thought, “Here is a foot-and-a-half tall dwarf, and here I am, a six-footer. I will win with no difficulty at all.” Therefore, for the sake of entertainment, he agreed to fight the dwarf. However, this was no ordinary dwarf. He defeated Sahadeva, tied him up with a rope, left him on the ground, and went away.
A little later, Nakula woke up. He went out and found Sahadeva missing. He called out to him and a faint voice replied, “I am here.” Nakula found him in the state in which the dwarf had left him. “Who did this to you?” he asked. Sahadeva could not bring himself to say that he had lost to a small dwarf, so he replied, “I just felt like tying myself up and resting on the ground.” Nakula said, “Okay, go and sleep inside now, I will keep watch.” Towards the end of Nakula’s two hours, again the dwarf appeared and the same sequence was repeated. Next was Arjuna’s turn. He also found Nakula lying on the ground tied up with a rope. All the brothers faced the same situation, including Bhima and Yudhishthira.
Finally, Krishna came out and found Yudhishthira on the ground. Now, Yudhishthira was one who always spoke the truth. He told Krishna the whole story.
“I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “When my watch was just about to finish, this tiny dwarf appeared from nowhere and said ‘I want to wrestle you.’ When we started wrestling, something strange happened. The more I fought, the bigger the dwarf became until he was a huge giant and I was like a child before him. He easily caught hold of me, threw me on the ground, and tied me up. I am unable to understand what kind of a dwarf he was.’’ Krishna smiled and said, “Never mind. Go and rest. Now that I am awake, I will see to him.”
Just as dawn was about to break, Krishna saw the dwarf walking towards him. When the fellow was right before him, Krishna asked, “What brings you here?” The dwarf replied, “The same desire with which I came to your five friends and defeated them. I want to wrestle and fight you.”
Krishna prepared himself and the two started wrestling. Soon, the dwarf began to increase in size. Krishna understood the matter. He threw down his weapons, sat down quietly on the ground, and said to the dwarf, “You can hit me.” At this, the dwarf began to reduce in size. Krishna simply watched him. Finally, when he became tiny, Krishna tied him up in his peetambari (Krishna’s customary yellow wrap) and sat down.
Soon after, all the brothers woke up and came out of the cave. Seeing Krishna, they asked him, “Did someone come to see you while you stood guard?” Krishna replied, “Ah yes, a tiny dwarf came.” The brothers asked, “So what did you do with him?” Krishna replied, “I did nothing. Here he is, tied up in my peetambari.” Surprised, the Pandavas asked, “What is the meaning of this? When we fought him, he continued to become bigger and you have him tied up in your wrap!” Krishna now told them who the dwarf was. It was anger. He said, “Anger assumed the form of a dwarf and fought you. The more you fought the anger before you, the anger within you also rose. This made the anger confronting you bigger and bigger until it became so huge that it completely overpowered you and tied you to the ground.” Yudhishthira said, “The matter has become clear now. You were the only one who recognised him. When you did not express anger in turn, he became so small that he became insignificant.”
The above story is usually told in the context of anger. However, it is equally, if not more relevant, in the context of forgiveness as well. For not forgiving gnaws at our own soul; however, true forgiveness heals us in all dimensions.
This story signifies that negative qualities will always exist. If you try to remove them from your life, you will end up in a fight which you are bound to lose, as the more you struggle with negativities, the stronger they become. Therefore, simply ignore them and focus on adopting positive qualities, tendencies, actions, and behaviours in your life. The negativities will then go away on their own; they will become mute.
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