If You can't forgive,you can't dance
Think of a person who’s wronged you—maybe it’s even yourself. The mere mention of the person’s name makes your skin crawl and your stomach churn. Holding all of this anger inside of you doesn’t just keep you living in the past—it keeps you from experiencing true happiness now. Ed and Deb Shapiro show you how to let go of the pain and start living again.
We were teaching a forgiveness workshop when John, one of the participants, told us his brother had continually abused and even molested him as a child. He said quite emphatically that he would never forgive him. After John had spoken, there were a few minutes of shocked silence, and then another participant gently said, “If you can’t forgive, then you can’t dance, you can’t sing and you can’t smile.”
Those few words exactly describe the emotional blocking that takes place when there is no forgiveness. Your ability to dance—to move emotionally, to give, to love, to feel alive and free—gets stuck. All the pain, grief and hurt get held in this immovable place. You cannot move forward when a part of you is locked in the past.
The evidence of a lack of forgiveness is all around you: broken families, self-hate, guilt and shame leading to depression, huge amounts of anger, bitterness and closed-heartedness. You learn to live by ignoring this dark place without realizing how deeply limiting it is, how it holds back your joy and laughter. You point the finger and see the other person as the cause of the suffering, but you don’t see how—by holding onto hurt feelings—you’re simply creating more grief for yourself.
Deb used to work with the elderly. As she recalls: “I worked in a nursing home where I saw numerous residents clinging to incidents from the past: words said in anger, distorted memories of how they had been wronged by children who had disagreed with them and left in anger. So much bitterness. They could not let go—even now, so near to dying. Over the years, the hurt and anger had become solid, fixed and immovable, as if they were surrounded by prison bars.”
How many times have you rerun the tape, gone over the details of who said what to whom, of how it all happened, of the injustice and blame or the guilt and shame? How many times have you done this—and did it ever help you feel healed, more joyful or happier? How often do you have to repeat this before you see that all of it is going nowhere other than prolonging your unhappiness?
We are not trying to be simplistic. From a rational point of view, it can seem impossible to forgive: You are hurt and want revenge and it is the other person’s fault—so why should you forgive? But if you want to reach closure, then you have to confront this desire to hold onto the story, because it simply causes further suffering. You are the one feeling the pain, and the longer you hold on, the more suffering you cause yourself.
To forgive includes fully acknowledging your feelings: how angry, upset, betrayed, bitter or indignant you are; how unfair life is; how let down and sad you feel…and that it’s absolutely okay to be this way. You know and feel the pain, but the desire to no longer continue the suffering is stronger; you care enough about yourself to not want to carry the anger or sadness any longer.
If you don’t forgive, it’s like carrying heavy baggage that weighs you down so you can’t go forward, but you can’t go without it, because it contains your history, your identity. Or it is like holding onto hot coals, but you’re the one getting burned. Letting go of the past—of the story and the details—enables you to open to the present, to who you are now. You don’t need to live in the drama, to keep the story alive, to maintain suffering. You can come back to sanity and goodness and bring that sanity into your life.
As Gangaji says in our book, Be The Change: “We have all experienced being hurt by someone, such as our parents, lover, or friend. But it is not about denying the hurt; it’s actually about opening and meeting the hurt, and then the hurt itself becomes a deepening of our heart. In that moment, it is natural for forgiveness to occur.”
Sitting in meditation, you can come to forgiveness and bring yourself compassion, making friends with who you are, knowing you can’t change the past, but you can change your attitude toward it. As you do this, a remarkable thing begins to happen: the boundaries that normally keep you isolated from intimacy, boundaries that have been maintained over the years to protect you from being hurt, begin to come down, like old walls crumbling and falling.
In this way, forgiveness is truly revolutionary. It releases the pain of the past so you are free to live in the present. It changes fear and hate into love and acceptance, just as an oyster uses the irritation from a grain of sand to produce the beauty of a pearl. It enables you to live with kindness and care.
You can develop forgiveness for yourself or another. You may want to meditate on just one of these areas when you do this practice. Find a comfortable place to sit and settle your attention on your breathing.
* Focus on memories, feelings or issues you have not forgiven yourself for. Simply observe—without attachment. Hold yourself with care and tenderness, inviting forgiveness. Silently keep repeating: “I forgive myself, for my words and actions, intentional or unintentional, I forgive myself. May I be peaceful and filled with loving kindness.” Keep breathing, letting the breath open and soften your heart.
* Now focus on one person you wish to forgive. Breathe out any resistance or anger, and breathe in forgiveness and gentleness. Silently keep repeating: “I forgive you, for your words and actions, intentional or unintentional, I forgive you. May you be peaceful and filled with loving kindness.” Be gentle with yourself. Do not get sidetracked by the details of what happened. Let go of the story and breathe in forgiveness.
Feel the joy of forgiveness throughout your whole being. When you are ready, take a deep breath and slowly let it go.