A little over a week ago, I attended an all-day meditation retreat led by Tara Brach. I'd signed up it months ago and it seemed like a fun idea, a great way to really see how mindful I could be, but as the day grew near, I started to worry. Would I be able to sit still all day? Would I be able to survive without looking at my phone? Would I be able to handle my own thoughts for hours and hours at a time? Though I strive to be positive and present in my daily life, meditation is an entirely different level of presence — and one I wasn't entirely sure I was ready to tackle for an entire day.
I was uneasy about the experience (as I often am when I try new things), but I tried to go into it with an open heart and mind. And I'm glad I did. The day-long experience ended up being wonderful for me. It was a challenge, for sure, but one that left me feeling inspired and introspective. I took countless pages of notes, sat still for long periods at a time (something I really couldn't have imagined doing before the retreat), and looked at my phone very little. The meditation leader, Tara, touched on so many thought-provoking topics that I knew I'd have a hard time writing this post. It was such an enlightening experience that I want to share every little bit of it.
Since this probably won't be the last post I write about the experience (and it probably won't be the last time I attend a session hosted by Tara), I've decided to focus on one of the topics that resonated with me the most: forgiveness. This particular meditation session focused on emotional healing so it's no suprise that this topic came up. It's a concept I'm obviously familiar with (who isn't?), but I learned some very important lessons about forgiveness while listening to Tara speak, including...
FORGIVING IS UNNATURAL.
When Tara spoke of forgiveness, she reminded us that it's not necessarily a natural thing. To paraphrase what she said, "In some way, we all feel separate from other people. We've all be hurt; we've all been wronged. In an effort to protect ourselves from pain, we put down those who have hurt us. It is a survival instinct. It's natural to want not to forgive, to aim to protect ourselves, but blaming others causes us pain and holds us back from love." It's natural to avoid things that have caused us pain, which makes it feel unnatural to forgive. But when we forgive (even if we don't forget), we open up space in our hearts and minds for love. This might sound cheesy, but it's the truth. The more you forgive, the more you love. And the more you love, the more you create a more positive, present life for yourself. To forgive you might have to resist the human instinct for protection. I like to think of it like this: when you forgive, you're choosing connection over protection. The more you can connect with others (even those who have wronged you), the more you can create a more peaceful and loving environment for yourself. (Keep in mind that the connection has to be healthy for you. If forgiving will bring you pain or put you in unhealthy situations, take a look at the next point.)
FORGIVING IS NOT ALWAYS POSSIBLE.
Tara said something along the lines of: "You can't will forgiveness, but you can be willing. The intention to forgive can open your heart. When you forgive, you are free." Forgiveness doesn't always come easily. Some things feel as if they are unforgivable. A great many of those things feel unforgivable because we don't even open ourselves up to the possibility of forgiving. We shut it down quickly, making it not even an option. If we at least try to be open to the notion of forgiving someone who has wronged us, we might find that forgiveness is, in fact possible. However, Tara raised a great point when she mentioned that sometimes we aren't ready for forgiveness. Sometimes, particularly in highly traumatic situations, we're not in a place where forgiveness in a healthy option for us. I like to think that, even in the most traumatic situations, forgiveness will come in time because true forgiveness is the best path to freedom from pain. However, I think it's important to be okay with not being ready for forgiveness, to know that forgiveness isn't always possible in the present moment.
FORGIVING IS OPENING UP TO FEELING.
One of my favorite things that Tara said while talking about forgiveness was this: "What would you have to feel if you let go of the idea that the other person is wrong?" She asked the audience to shout out answers to this question and some of them were: powerlessness, anxiety, blame, loneliness, guilt, regret. As I sat in my chair listening to these answers, I could really relate to them. But then I also started to realize how negative these were. Yes, the idea of removing blame and then having to experience these emotions is incredibly difficult to imagine, but what about some of the more positive emotions that we might have to feel, like love and empathy? Wouldn't those be particularly difficult to feel toward someone we'd been unable to forgive? As I thought about it, I realized that, as difficult as it would be to experience these emotions, both the good and the bad, it's perhaps even more difficult to avoid experiencing them. Forgiveness is about feeling, which is maybe why it's so hard to do sometimes. But the more we feel (negative and positive), the more we learn about others and about ourselves and with that knowledge we can do so much.
FORGIVING DOES NOT MEAN CONDONING.
Toward the end of her talk on forgiveness, Tara said (to paraphrase): "We often feel as though, if we let go of blame, something bad will happen. Forgiveness is not about condoning bad behavior. Forgiveness frees your heart, but it doesn't mean you can't still protect yourself. When you forgive, you become bigger than the victimization." One of the things, I think, that holds us back from forgiving others is believing that if we forgive them, we are admitting that what they have done to us is okay. But that's not what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is to stop feeling hurt about something that was done to you. It doesn't mean that what was done was right. It doesn't mean that you will ever have the same relationship you had. Forgiveness is much more about changing how you feel inside you than it is about changing what's happening outside with others. As Tara put it, "When you forgive, you are free." Forgiveness is often mistaken for something that sets someone else free, but it's actually about setting yourself free, which is one of the most positive things you can do for yourself when you've been hurt.
Forgiveness can be a complex topic because the acts and people you might need to forgive can vary so widely. However, the underlying notion of freeing yourself through forgiveness — no matter how you've been wronged — is the same. As I sat meditating on forgiveness after Tara's talk, thinking about those I wanted to forgive and those I wanted to forgive me, I reached a deep and clear understanding about how important forgiving others is and how truly amazing it feels to simply forgive. It is a release unlike anything, filled only with the possibility for love and peace.
Tara encouraged us to imagining forgiving those who have hurt us and asking for forgiveness from those we'd hurt. It was quite therapeutic to do this, to simply think the words "I forgive you," even if I knew I would never say them aloud. Give it a try if you can. Think of those you need to forgive (perhaps even yourself) and say to yourself: "I forgive you, __________ for __________." It's a simple sentence but it can bring you a sense of peace and understanding that you might not have experienced before. This isn't to say that forgiveness will remove all pain, but I personally found attempting it to be incredibly freeing, lifting just a little bit of weight from the heaviness of the human heart.
Less than a month until my new book, The Positively Present Guide to Life, debuts and I'm SO excited! The book is all about how to stay positive and present in various areas of life including: at home, at work, in love, in relationships, and during change. I've turned back to it often this year as I've gone through major changes and it's been tremendously helpful. The book is filled with inspiring images that make it even easier to stay positive and present. You can learn more about the book and find out where to buy a copy here. (You can also get a sneak peek at the book, access a free download, and watch the book trailer!)