- The Power Of Letting Go
Forgiveness helps us emerge whole from our wounded past, and return to the business of our lives with renewed energy, wisdom and peace. it is the bottleneck through which we must pass to reclaim our happiness and health.
by Suma Varughese
"When you hold resentment toward another you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free"
– Catherine Ponder
Let us go on a journey, you and I. The journey begins with a universal reality – a hurt. Someone or something has hurt us. It may be a small hurt or it may be an unbearably grievous one. No matter. The process is the same. We humans are born with tender, fragile psyches and in the course of living, our psyches invariably ends up with cuts, bruises, gashes and other injuries. In the battle of life, we are all wounded soldiers, bleeding internally and often silently.
"As a therapist, I believe that most people's issues can be traced to hurts – starting with parents, siblings, extended families, teachers, friends, colleagues in workplaces, bosses and supervisors, spouses and children. In a culture where so much religious teaching focuses on forgiveness there is no practical training in forgiving people and moving on," observed Anita Anand, a Delhi-based hypnotherapist.
"Two and a half years ago, I put others' needs ahead of mine, because I wanted their approval and love. I was out of touch with my own needs. However, a relative said something that hurt me tremendously and I snapped. Almost involuntarily, I cut off all relations with my family, and went through two years of extreme isolation and loneliness. I did not think I could forgive them in this lifetime," says Ajay Kalra, a Mumbai-based trainer and life coach.
The power of letting go "Some years ago my sister-in-law died and I was left in charge of the two children, the youngest being only a few months old. To top it all, my brother, the childrens' father, left the house and went away, leaving me holding the babies literally. It was a painful time," says 60-year-old Kavita Khanna.
"My hurt and trauma at being subjected to unacceptable behaviour during childhood weighed me down so much I was unable to lead my life," says Jasmine Bharathan, an energy psychologist working with the healing modalities of EFT and TAT.
In my own case, a relationship that had foundered some years ago unexpectedly came back into my life, and brought with it many unresolved feelings of anger and resentment.
What happens when we carry this accumulated baggage of hurt through life? Swami Chidananda Saraswati draws a graphic picture of our plight:
"So many people come to me, their identities determined and lives plagued by wrongs which have been wrought upon them sometime in the past. They may not remember details of the sin itself; but they are vividly aware of how this sin has ruined every day of their lives since. They are stuck, unable to move forward, held prisoner by acts long-ago committed, crying over abuse lashed onto skin cells which have long ago perished."
Sri Bhagavan, the spiritual head of Oneness University in Vardiahpalem, says succinctly, "Accumulated hurt is karma which leads to inner death. With the heart dead you move away from everybody. You lose all joy of life. These hurts also manifest as problems in the external world."
Louise L Hay, the acclaimed author of You Can Heal Your Life, puts it even more clearly.
"Many people come to me and say they cannot enjoy today because of something that happened in the past.
"Because I am no longer married, I cannot live a full life today
"Because I was hurt by a remark once, I will never trust anyone again.
"Because I was poor as a child, I will never get anywhere."
Holding on to hurt
Put like that, our stories can seem absurd even to ourselves. How can we possibly allow our lives to be hijacked by past events? Why cannot we simply shrug them off like so much garbage and walk on?
If only life were so simple; or rather if only we were so simple. Alas, our original simplicity and innate perfection is very quickly overwritten by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity giving rise to many emotional, psychological and physical needs, all of which require another. We become enmeshed in ties of mutual need and dependency. When our needs and expectations are not fulfilled, we experience hurt.
And hurt, once experienced, needs to be healed. It will not go away on its own. To heal our hurts we need to smoothen the grooves they have carved in our consciousness and return to freedom.
So what stops us?
Not forgiving makes us feel righteous and gives us power over the other.
Says Swami Chidananda, "We hold onto our pain because it identifies who we are; it gives us an excuse for behaving the way we do; it has become such a familiar feeling that – regardless of its self-destructive nature – we cannot let it go. Yet let it go we must if we want to move forward."
Says Jasmine Bharathan, "For the longest time, I held on to my hurt because I thought I was right in doing so. The behaviour was completely unacceptable. I thought forgiving the perpetrator would mean endorsing the behaviour."
In her work with clients she observes that they too feel justified in their anger and hurt. Another thing that comes in the way is the conditioning most of us internalise that we must forgive. That compulsion weighs us down and prevents us from acknowledging that perhaps we are not ready to forgive.
For forgiveness is a process. Its opening movement is most often an unwillingness or inability to do so. Jasmine says, "I used to read all those lofty books written by spiritual greats urging forgiveness and I used to think it's easy for them to say so."
Ajay Kalra feels, "My fears held me back from communicating with my family. I was unsure of being able to balance their needs with my own."
At this stage, we need to have patience with ourselves. It takes time to forgive and it is okay not to forgive. It may be that others around you will urge you to forgive. Ignore their counsel, well meant though it may be. The time will come when you will want to. Until then, the more you try, the less you are actually able to. And the guilt will further cripple your progress.
How then do we move towards forgiveness? There comes a time when we are no longer willing to pay the price of unhappiness; when we tire of having our minds and hearts clogged with the toxin of anger, hate and hurt. We recognise that unforgiveness actually gives enormous power to the offenders. They take possession of our minds and other spaces. We think of them obsessively. Anything we see or do reminds us of them or the hurt they did us. When we see their name on a truck or auto, our mind pauses for a minute.
In my case, although the friendship was ostensibly on, it was poisoned by low trust levels, a hyper sensitivity about being taken for granted, and a constant resentment. I went so far as deciding to have little to do with people belonging to her star sign. I also found myself being petty when it came to her, and denying her many opportunities simply because I had felt used in our earlier interaction. Worst of all, the person established herself in my head, a constant and not very pleasant companion.
The cost we pay
Prolonged lack of forgiveness can have many repercussions for us at the mental and physical level. Our freedom is infringed and our very nature tainted by its existence. It can ruin our lives. A friend's mother had a grudge against the behaviour of her relatives at a time when she needed them. I have seen this happy, cheerful-hearted old lady descend into an angry and alienated person because of her inability to forgive.
At the physical level, lack of forgiveness can lead to grave consequences. Says Louise L Hay in her book, You Can Heal Your Life, "I believe we create every so-called illness in our body." She adds, "Cancer is a dis-ease caused by deep resentment held for a long time until it literally eats away at the body." Even conservative allopaths maintain that almost 80 per cent of our illnesses have a psycho-somatic basis.
Observes artist Rekha Krishnan, "By not forgiving we close our heart chakras, thereby closing the flow of love. When we forgive, we can actually feel a lightness in the heart chakra, and even the flow of love within us quickens." Spiritually too, the inability to forgive will debar us from further growth. We have no option but to flush out every last smidgeon of conditioning lurking in our system if we want to attain freedom, joy and peace.
It is when we see and deeply experience the harm that our anger, hurt and resentment cause us, that we begin the movement to forgive. Says Swami Suryadevananda of the Divine Life Society, "Forgiveness is not something that we do for others, it is something done for our own selves, for our own inner peace – for our own higher good."
A movement toward forgiveness is also facilitated through a growth in consciousness. Albert Einstein once said memorably that we cannot solve a problem at the same level of consciousness as gave rise to the problem. This is especially true of forgiveness. Life and we are always in a process, and the outcome often is a place where we are willing to enter into a dialogue with forgiveness.
Says Jasmine, "I started off with small innocuous issues like healing a migraine, but whatever problem I took, it invariably came back to the issue of forgiveness. At one point, I felt ready to look at it. Two incidents helped. I read somewhere, `Forgiveness does not mean the behaviour is right. It has nothing to do with the other. It has to do with you."
For those who are unable to progress beyond this stage, here are some useful observations. Says Roger Walsch, in his book, Essential Spirituality, "It is important to remember that forgiveness does not mean condoning harmful behaviour. Forgiveness is a relinquishment of one's resentment, not a relinquishment of one's ethics. Mature spiritual practitioners may be able to forgive, even love, someone who has hurt them while simultaneously insisting that the person cease doing any further harm."
Adds Swami Chidananda Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan, "Every wrong act and every evil deed will be punished by the law of karma… Whatever pain we cause to another, we will experience ourselves.
No one is free from the law of karma. It is crucial to understand that forgiveness does not mean we absolve someone of their karma. That is God's role and it is not one that we have the power to play even if we wanted to."
Doing the work
For Jasmine, another incident helped the path to recovery. She was watching two small children at play. A third came along and roughhoused the boy. Jasmine heard the little girl say to the boy who had been bullied, "Let go, no. He is a nice boy." She says, "It occurred to me then that I didn't need to hold the resentment against anyone."
That was the turning point for her. She says, "That realisation healed me halfway. The rest was about healing specific incidents." Her healing technologies included EFT and TAT and about two hours of meditation every day.
Another incident that supported her was the sight of a dying plant in a park during one of her morning walks. She persuaded the gardener to replant it in a sunnier spot and nurture it, and soon the plant perked up and grew. "I realised that if you give it what is required, life will flourish. Forgiving somebody is nurturing yourself."
In Ajay's case, the turning point began one day before his birthday when he was laid off from work. He says, "It simply launched me into a transformational whirlpool. A significant step was doing the Landmark Forum. I saw how unfounded my fears were; that I was the hero of my story and others were the villains. It taught me to take responsibility for my life. I also found that sharing my story in public with about 300 other people was very therapeutic. I reached out and regained my family."
Kavita's belief in the basic goodness of human nature healed her of her animosity towards her brother. "Sometimes people can't help doing what they do," she observes.
Swami Chidananda endorses this, "We must see the perpetrator as a fallible human being and allow the love in our heart to flow towards him/her."
As for me, I revived the relationship because I felt that I was ready to engage with it and resolve it.
The one thing I was sure of and that enabled me to move toward healing is that all hurt is an internal affair, caused by our life experiences and the belief systems formed through them.
When we blame others for it, we tend to externalise the problem, which drains us of energy to handle it.
I organised this insight into the following statement: What other people think, say or do is their stuff and my reaction to their thoughts, words or deeds is my stuff.
No matter what people said or did, I had to grant them the right to do so. It was their territory, not mine. And what I felt about their words or actions was my business, an internal affair, not to be vented on them. This learning has taken many years to internalise but now I am reaching a stage where I can process my reactions within instead of at the world. By freeing the other of responsibility for my reactions, I am actually freeing myself of any power they may have held over me.
This insight is beautifully conveyed by Swami Suryadevananda, "Feeling is something that is experienced internally and the wrongdoing was something that happened externally – how is it that some action happening externally has had an impact on me internally?"
Taking responsibility for our feelings is a crucial step in the management of all hurt, small or big. As long as we blame another for our problem we will linger in victimisation, unable to move forward.
Says Indu Kohli, a Mumbai-based behavioural scientist and corporate trainer, "I don't think my hurts have anything to do with the other. It has to do with me. I have to release myself from being angry with you."
This ability to manage her hurt enabled her to fashion an amicable divorce. "I wanted nothing from him, no money nor possessions. Most people are invested in teaching the other person a lesson. I had nothing to forgive. He didn't do anything. We were just incompatible people. It's not a sin."
A swami belonging to the Divine Life Society at Rishikesh found inspiration in the unconditional love he had received from his guru Swami Chidananda which enabled him to transcend the anger he had experienced in the course of the day. He writes, "Swamiji Maharaj never, ever judged us or found us lacking; never, ever withheld His love from us. He simply radiated blessings towards all, all the time, everywhere, in all conditions." He adds, "I was then able to look at the anger I had been feeling earlier in the day: It was my anger, I had created it. Was I waiting for someone to ask forgiveness from me? Had I even asked myself if there was somebody whose forgiveness I should be asking for instead? What matters is that I have a divine destiny to fulfil, and everything in life is a lesson on this journey to destiny. As Swamiji Maharaj says, 'Only God matters. Other matters do not matter.'"
As I engaged with my own disturbance, I went through several processes. Among the most profound was a midnight experience after a day of severe disturbance brought about by the fear that the past would replay itself. When I woke up, I was bathed in deep peace. In that peace I was able to get in touch with the love my Higher Self had for me, as well as the love of God. Through that love, I was able to pacify my wounded self and heal it.
The love of self has a great part to play in our forgiveness journey. For it is only when we truly love ourselves that we can find an inner sanctuary that gives us the strength and stability to engage with the world without being affected by it. Only when we love ourselves can we free ourselves of the emotional, physical and psychological needs that tie us to others. Once free of the other, it is much easier to come to terms with their past behaviour.
However, I was not yet free of my friend's power to hurt and disturb me.
As I worked on it, it became more and more clear that her actions had nothing to do with me, and my hurt had nothing to do with her. My poor boundaries and self-esteem had given her an ascendency over me. I became more and more aware of the inordinate mindspace she was occupying, and longed for freedom. I could also see that because of my anger I was not being my best self with her. I asked myself the question, "Why should anyone have the power to make me less than I am, or decide my actions?"
Finally, I reached a stage when I was able to surrender. If God had wanted me to go through that experience and wanted my friend to have acted in that way, then that is what I wanted. I could finally accept the past, and my friend. It was all okay.
In the freeing communication that followed this experience, I mentioned what I had earlier found difficult: how I perceived her. When I did that I could feel that the invader in my head had finally been evicted. I was free.
The zone of forgiveness
Once the healing is done, most agree that forgiveness is a happening; there is no portentous sense of forgiving another with all its implications of self-righteousness. Says Jasmine, "Once you let go, only love remains."
Says Lathaji, a guide from Oneness Univercity, which engages in many courses for the express purpose of helping people heal from the hurts life administers to them, "Forgiveness cannot be practised as a policy. It is an experience of peace when you fully overcome hurt. Forgiveness cannot be mentally contrived through philosophy such as life is not a bed of roses, or suffering is a blessing in disguise. This only leads to temporary suppression of pain. When fully experienced pain turns into joy. That is forgiveness. "
What happens when we forgive? We blossom. Says Jasmine, "From having no friends, today I cannot keep pace with the number I have. From being unable to travel in a lift because I could not bear to be with people, today I am comfortable with most people. My circumstances remain the same, but I have undergone a total transformation. "
For me, the whole journey has put me very close to the goal I set for myself several years ago, of being able to focus on the happiness of the other, and to live in a zone of surrender.
I sense that it will not be long before I can crest the whole zone of forgiveness to a domain where it will not be needed because hurt will not register. How does that happen?
J Krishnamurti once told a follower that as long as she was capable of being hurt she was not free of the mind. How true this is. As long as others hold our strings and can jerk us about, our freedom is only conditional. Eckhart Tolle echoes this statement when he says, "Forgiveness is to offer no resistance to life – to allow life to live through you. The alternatives are pain and suffering… The moment you truly forgive, you have reclaimed your power from the mind. Non-forgiveness is the very nature of the mind."
It is possible through patient inner work to reach a stage when the mind is under our control, and therefore incapable of reactive thinking. Then, no matter what the circumstances or situation, we will maintain our peace, equanimity and balance. No one and nothing has the power to disturb us. We are free, unconditionally free.
Says Swami Suryadevananda, "If we can be very vigilant during each situation, seeing things as they are unfolding without predisposition of any sort, we will also be able to see the mind's predispositions rise… this `seeing' the rise of thought or conditioning does not allow a mental footprint to register…. What is absolutely necessary is a state of awakening to the horrors of a mind not continually observed. If we see that not being alert results in getting hurt and in hurting others – we will be very alert, as hurt felt or caused is hurt experienced. Real forgiveness is not remembering hurt."
We have come a long way, you and I. We have travelled from hurt, to experiencing hurt, to forgiving, and finally to transcending the mind that conceives hurt. This is the journey all souls must take in order to fulfil our ultimate purpose of life – to reach the abode of love, peace and joy where nothing and no one can disturb us, and where hurt will not impose its smudgy footprint.