Changing our habit of holding on to our anger (and replacing it with a new habit of seeking to forgive others) is going to take a lot of effort. It’s not just learning a new pattern but understanding and unlearning old patterns.


By David Jones

Has someone ever hurt you?

I’ve hurt others and been hurt by others, and since we focus on the pain, we may not recognize how to start healing. A primary component in healing from the hurt others cause is forgiveness.

Before we start, a few points:

Abuse: Forgiving abusers is healing, but may be a bridge too far for some.

Get help: Please get help if you need it. Screw what other people might think.

Your decision: Only you get to decide who you’re willing to forgive. It is not anyone else’s call to make, period.

While my base tradition explains a lot about the “why” of forgiveness, Buddhism is better suited to explain the “how,” which starts with understanding the hurt others cause and how we react to it.

To be criminally brief, Buddhism is about cycles: recognizing them, sometimes creating them and other times escaping them. When folks are hurt by someone else, it can create a cycle of suffering for them. Then each time they remember the event *and react* – feeling the tears or rage all over again, lashing out at the perpetrator, ruminating on the experience, telling others their story for some temporary gain (relief, sympathy, validation) – they’re reborn back into that cycle of suffering.

Buddha figured that if there was a cycle of rebirth to suffering, there must also be some way out of it. But folks don’t always find that way out because they’re too attached to all the stuff that leads to the suffering.

Think of it as a boat attached to an anchor chain. If someone hurts us we can paddle our boat all day long, trying to move on, making no progress because that chain attaching us to the hurt keeps us there, going in circles. Long after the event we still cling to it, replaying the event in our mind and renewing its pain. The way out of that cycle is forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t erase the anchoring event, it just frees us from the chain that ties us to it. We can move on, which means heal.

In the book From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: Transforming Self and Society With Compassion, author Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu writes about what we do when we forgive. “We stop constantly investing parts of ourselves in the event… and we cease feeding anger about the wrong.”

But we can be so attached to the wrong that it becomes a part of us, an identity of the Harmed Self. As the author explains, “Change becomes impossible if our indignation supports our whole personality; we fear that we will lose our identity if we forgive.”

So let’s say someone hurt me and I’m trapped in the cycle. If forgiveness truly is the way out, let’s see how we can adapt the Noble Eightfold Path as a process to escape the Cycle of the Harmed Self and forgive.

1. Right View

We must see the injury honestly, which means looking at what was done separately from how we feel about it. Not easy. Also we need to see forgiveness for what it really is – not condoning what was done, not letting someone off the hook for their responsibility. This is “I forgive them,” not “I’m okay now with what happened.” It’s an act of healing for you, not necessarily them.

2. Right Resolve

Forgiveness and healing can only happen if we really, honestly want it. Set the intent to forgive, maybe even say it out loud a few times. Forgive intentionally, and follow it through despite conflicting feelings and difficulties.

3. Right Speech

Bashing the one who hurt us – to their face, to others, or just in our own thoughts – has to stop before forgiveness can really work. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever bring it up; recounting the event and bashing someone for it are two different things.

4. Right Action

Yeah they hurt us and they need to face the consequences. That does not give us permission to retaliate or get revenge. Hurting them because they hurt me just doubles the number of people hurting other people.

5. Right Livelihood

Or, profiting from things that hurt others. If we gain benefit from some harm that has come upon the one who hurt us (including a sense of satisfaction or happiness that now they’re hurting too), achieving forgiveness may be a lot harder..

6. Right Effort

Changing our habit of holding on to our anger (and replacing it with a new habit of seeking to forgive others) is going to take a lot of effort. It’s not just learning a new pattern but understanding and unlearning old patterns.

7. Right Mindfulness

This is Buddhism’s secret weapon: real awareness. Imagine if I trained my mind and emotions to respond differently to the things that hurt me. Mindfully understanding how our sadness or anger are triggered can help us move from ‘forgiving after the fact’ to ‘becoming less hurt or offended in the first place.’ A bit of detachment goes a long way.

8. Right Concentration

Meditate on everything together—our reactive pain and anger, our suffering because of it, the steps taken to change, and the beneficial results of learning to forgive—and let it all help give the mind a new habit, a healthier cycle.

I’d like to finish up with the phrase Forgive and Forget. Sadly this concept has been abused in an effort to get victims to drop their grievances by saying “move on,” “get over it,” or “just let it go already!”

But the word “forget” is more than just putting something out of your mind. The Online Etymology Dictionary says its roots come closer to “let go of, stop grasping or gripping.” If attachment is all about keeping a tight grip on an offense, then letting go of it is how you “forget.”

Again, we’re not forgetting what happened but we’re letting go of our attachment to the event and the connected emotions which keep us trapped in the cycle of rebirth to that whole scene. In Buddhist terms, each rebirth could be to a higher or lower “realm” based on how close to or far from escaping the cycle we are.

Once you’ve decided to forgive you start down a path of healing. It’ll take time, and maybe several efforts. The offender who you’re forgiving might never know you’ve forgiven them, nor is it going to prevent you from taking whatever steps are necessary to bring this to a close.

Forgiveness lets you remember the event and retain the lessons learned without letting it trap you in that vicious cycle of suffering. And it’s a good practice to adopt, because even though they deserve to face the consequences of their actions, you don’t deserve to constantly suffer from them.

You deserve to heal and be free.


Forgiveness doesn't erase the anchoring event, it just frees us from the chain that ties us to it. ~ David Jones Click To Tweet


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