Forgiving Yourself: A Four-Point Plan

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A student recently asked, “I really struggle with forgiving myself and I assume other meditators do as well. I’d love to hear the Vedic view on forgiveness and self-compassion…”

So let’s start by examining the concept of forgiveness… what does it really mean to forgive? What do we expect to happen when we’ve forgiven?

Forgiveness involves two elements:

Compassion. Communicating to the other party, “I acknowledge that your past action, however harmful it was, does not define you.”  This is a compassionate recognition that the truth of each of us extends beyond, and is much greater than, the specific action that led to harm, and an understanding that the action was a result of the universal human condition to make mistakes (more on this later) and the person’s state of consciousness at the time the offense occurred.

Release. Forgiveness also means making a conscious choice to move forward, free from the restriction caused by the emotional impact of the action.

We say “forgive you,” as if it’s an act meant to relieve the other party — and it can be, if the other party feels remorse for his actions and is seeking absolution. But it is possible to forgive someone who isn’t seeking absolution, or who happens to be dead, which shows that the true power of forgiveness is in giving yourself permission to move forward, no longer burdened by the emotional impact of the past action.

So why is it so hard to forgive ourselves sometimes? For a few reasons…

1) Most people are in the habit of defining themselves solely via their actions, thoughts, or emotions.

Here’s where meditation is key: through a consistent daily meditation practice, we develop an understanding of Self that is transcendent of this day-to-day experience of life. We begin to build an identity that includes, but extends beyond — and is not defined solely by — our actions, thoughts, or emotions.

From this broader perspective, the expression of compassion toward oneself and the past actions we may regret (a.k.a. mistakes) is increased. Speaking of mistakes,

2) We need to re-frame our perspective and view mistakes for what they are: necessary opportunities for learning and growth.

None of us is born knowing how to live life. That’s the purpose of life — to teach us how to live life.

Life is lived in first draft, and first drafts are full of mistakes. That’s the purpose of first drafts — to try things out and see what works.

You know what’s really boring? Not making mistakes.

If everything went perfectly all day every day… you said and did all the right things, and never messed up, or put your foot in your mouth, and life went on like this for 80 or so years, life would actually be pretty dull and pointless.

What does the Universe/Nature/God/your highest self want for you? To live and to learn and to evolve. So get out there and live your life, knowing that learning and evolving will involve a lot of trial and error. But rest assured that we don’t live in a punitive universe waiting to discipline you for those errors — we live in a supportive playground that’s just hoping we’ll figure things out this time around.

So cut yourself a little slack — you’re figuring it out as you go (we all are!), and you’re going to make mistakes. And that’s an intentional and necessary part of the process of being alive.

3) We often forget that we have a choice about how to respond to the challenges we face.

As discussed above, the true power of forgiveness is in giving yourself permission to move forward, no longer burdened by the emotional impact of the past action. Inherent in that concept is the idea that you have control over your reactions to the inevitable and necessary struggles of life.

You get to choose to move forward no longer burdened.

How great, and liberating, and empowering is that? What greater gift can you give yourself than the unburdening of the emotional freight of your past mistakes? Especially with our new perspective on mistakes.

Can you shift your perspective enough that you even begin to feel grateful for your mistakes? If mistakes are a necessary part of your evolutionary journey, causing you to learn and grow, then what other response can we have to them? And what value is there in allowing yourself to be burdened by all that self-directed negativity?

I’ll admit that shifting your perspective is easier said than done, which leads me to my final point:

4) Most of us have a well-established (and culturally-supported) habit of suffering.

Our society places a pretty high value on suffering, and a lifetime of cultural indoctrination has drilled into our heads that suffering is a necessary, even admirable, part of life. But this is a misunderstanding that has led to the creation of an unhappy world.

So work to break the habit of suffering — it’s not serving you or the world. It’s gonna take some effort, but it’s worth it.

In sum, here’s my four-point plan for self forgiveness:

  1. Establish a sense of self that’s not based solely on your actions, thoughts, or emotions.

  2. Re-frame your perspectives on mistakes and cut yourself some slack.

  3. Remember that you get to decide how you respond to the world around you.

  4. Break the habit of suffering.

Meditation is my recommended tool for addressing all of these points, and I’d love to show you how. So drop me a line, or stop by an intro talk or group meditation at The Spring and we can discuss in person.