As I write this, member of my tribe are fasting, remembering the dead, and practicing forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, Jews will put the finishing touches on the new year — and forgiveness is key: like Buddhism, which sees forgiveness as a practice of cleansing, Jews use the time of the new year to encourage themselves to give up grudges and background discontent which keeps us away from the delight present.
I entered 2018 much the same way, facilitating a number of workshops that combined Yin Yoga with reflecting on forgiveness through writing. Mostly, we know what it feels like when you don’t practice forgiveness: that vise grip of resentment or indignation you feel when a person merely comes to mind. Or the flatline effect that accompanies avoidance: not thinking about what happened, or who did what to you, or perhaps more convoluted and complicated still, what you did to yourself, intentionally or by default. As I offered students what I had distilled from the latest research, I found an odd pleasure in gems such as: non-forgiveness as an offense that keeps happening. In other words, holding back on forgiveness causes our brains to short-circuit. That obsessive inner narrative plays on repeat even though the external environment might be downright pleasant. Forgiveness can therefore be seen as a neuro-spiritual process to put endless mental dissections to a rest.
Of course, there’s no straight line in nature — or the human heart. You can’t actually skip to the “all is forgiven part” without processing the shit out of the anger — or fighting for justice on a parallel track. All of which is probably best done once you have some skills in stress management (for when you find yourself flooding or freezing) and the capacity to look at a situation from various viewpoints or, at the least, a broader perspective. Spiritual bypassing might seem attractive, but it’s ineffectual at best.
“While we teach, we learn,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca, centuries before many studies showed just that. When we teach (or even just prepare to), we cull ideas into a more coherent structure, and wind up recalling more.
Teaching forgiveness mobilized fragments of my own unconscious to surface. My internal musings on walks would reveal precise and previously exiled memories from 20 years before, impelling me to realize that my so-called maturity remains in question. For instance, of all the things I could have remembered about a particular friendship, why did the sole (or at least strongest) recollection circle around how often we would get together under the pretense of hanging out, only to learn that she had a “a small” writing project with an imminent deadline she needed my help on. Or though I no longer could recall the exact offense (or even, the project or the circumstances) when I thought about a certain former colleague, I could feel my body growing agitated around an amorphous “he didn’t do his fair share” thought. (Actually I can tell you something about that: it’s called “implicit memory” and occurs when our brain-bodies-senses remember much more than the rational mind can, especially when trauma or intense emotions, such as shame, are involved.)
Eula Biss, who writes incisively and creatively about race, which arguably requires more intentional forgiveness than most issues, suggested in a recent interview “if you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something.”
That blew me away. If you can’t think about something, how can you reconcile yourself with it? How can your life move forward in any real way if there are chasms of undigested memories?
This is where the lines between forgiveness and acceptance blurs for me. Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project defines forgiveness as “the act of being at peace no matter what happened” five minutes or five years or five decades ago. He believes that a willingness to expose our shadow side might be key to the process, since the same quality of vulnerability that allows us to be hurt, allows us to be loved and feel connected with others. Evolutionary, this helps us tap in to the newest part of our nervous system, known as the “social engagement system.”
In yoga philosophy, there are said to be three granthis, or knots, which prevent energy from flowing freely up the body’s central channel (sushumna). The knot between the energy vortices of the heart and solar plexus is called “Vishu Granthi” and deals with our personal sense of power and self-worth. To loosen this knot, we have to give up the façade of perfection, of having it all together — you could say allow our vulnerability and fragility to be shown. Forgiveness is the main practice here.
So maybe learning to tell our stories — especially the bad and the ugly — is the important pre-cursor to forgiveness work, at any time you celebrate a new year or new season in your life.
I’d love to hear which forgiveness practices have been most useful to you, especially with all that feels unforgivable in this day and age, and if sharing your story has been a part of this work.
(p.s. If you want to dive deep into this work, consider coming with me to on a six-day inner and outer adventure Belize in December, where we’ll work on remembering — and accepting — our true nature.)