Forgiving Is a Process

I love learning about words—their meanings, where they come from, how we use them. But sometimes I wonder if I missed a pivotal week in school where the vocabulary list included words like love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

I’d heard these words held aloft as aspirational signposts since my first Sunday school teacher explained the Golden Rule. I’d even, on more than one occasion, had the experience being described by each of these words.

But the concepts themselves remained abstract and intangible to me most of the time. I knew they were real, but often it felt like I sometimes feel when passing through business class on the way back to coach. Someone else got to sit in love and compassion while I grudgingly wedged myself into acceptance and tolerance, wondering how exactly one gets access to those roomier seats.

Because these words are, well, words… I had assumed they had clear definitions. And if something could be defined, then it could be gift wrapped with a bow and neatly filed on my shelves of understanding, ready to be taken out when needed.

However, when I found myself in need of compassion, I’d take the box off the shelf and it would be empty. I’d think to myself that I know kindness would be useful in this situation, but I seem to be fresh out and don’t know where to get more.

I felt locked within an intellectual fortress, forbidden entry into the garden of good feelings and betrayed by my reliance on reasoning.

Then Zen teacher Cheri Huber introduced me to the idea that the concepts these words refer to are not discrete, static things. You can’t put them on a shelf. You can’t point to them and say, “There, that’s love. And over here we have joy.” Instead, they are states that can be cultivated—experiences of being that can be wooed into existence through repeated effort.

It turns out love, kindness, and the lot are more like a process. More like verbs than nouns. And there are things we can do (and things we can avoid doing) to create the conditions for these states to flourish and fill our lives with goodness.

Frederic Luskin, a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University, explained to me in an interview that forgiveness is “making peace when you didn’t get what you want.”

That’s great. Except peace is another one of those words. How does one actually “make peace?”

It turns out making peace—or forgiving—is a somewhat quantifiable process that has 3 steps:

  1. Become more grateful. Practice gratitude all the time and learn to recognize when your heart is open.
  2. Relax. Calm your nervous system. Stress chemicals narrow your thinking and block your capacity to forgive, so actively practice relaxing.
  3. Change your story. When you talk about what happened, change the language to give yourself a little perspective. For example, instead of saying “I had a terrible childhood, my parents were the worst,” you could say, “My childhood wasn’t great, and I imagine my parents did the best they could.”

Thankfully each of these steps is an action that can be practiced. We can commit (and recommit when we forget) to regularly being more grateful, relaxing, and changing our narrative.

And when we do, Luskin explained, we create and experience forgiveness.

Well, almost. It turns out that not every part of the process is measurable, which I imagine is why there is this thing we call faith.

“These simple skills are trainable, but I would have to say that I still don’t know actually how to teach forgiveness. I can teach these skills and they tend to make people more available to forgiveness, but there’s still something ethereal or consciousness or spiritual or grace or something that still has to fill that human space beyond those skills, and I don’t know what that is,” says Luskin.

Spiritual teacher Caroline Myss says, “Genuine forgiveness is a self-initiated mystical act that requires the assistance of grace.”

Much like forgiveness is process that results in a resolution of our objection to something that happened in the past, perhaps love is a process that resolves hate, compassion a process that resolves indifference, and kindness a process that resolves animosity or selfishness.

And if forgiveness isn’t filed away somewhere on a shelf between envy and goodness, and is instead there for the having if we attune ourselves to it, then love, compassion, kindness, joy, awe, wonder, and all those other yummy things must be hiding in plain sight too.

Maybe they’re right there available to us when we actively create the proper conditions for them and then let go and let the magic happen.

When we are in love with love rather than with an object, in love with the process of love rather than the content, we can feel that we are always in love, a love without conditions. How can we practice that? We can practice turning our attention away from the conversation in the head aimed at reducing the unconditional to conditional, be with the breath of being, and recognize that as love. —Cheri Huber



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