Forgiveness can be a very difficult process, but it can also be very healing.  If we have been deeply hurt, we may have no interest in forgiving or it may seem impossible. But an inability to forgive usually means carrying inside a psychic knot of anger and ill-will that darkens the heart and keeps us connected to the very person from whom we may wish to be free.

Correctly understood, forgiveness is a conscious process of releasing resentful feelings. It frees us from being emotional victims of others, allows our hearts to breathe, and moves us one step closer to experiencing the natural flow of compassion that arises when blockages are removed.

Forgiveness does not mean condoning someone’s behavior, allowing them to be irresponsible or abusive, or letting them back into our lives. It does not mean being nice to the person you forgive—or even talking to them. Because it’s primarily an inner process, we can practice forgiveness and still take appropriate action to correct someone, set boundaries to protect ourselves, or even press charges.

A significant obstacle to forgiveness is the presence of anger, rage, grief or fear that may prevent us from acting skillfully. We may be more comfortable directing our fury toward someone than facing those painful feelings within ourselves. Inflicting suffering on others may feel good or justifiable temporarily, but it won’t heal our wounds or offer real peace to our hearts.

Resolving painful emotions requires that we acknowledge them without shame or self-judgment. Emotions are meant to move through us. In order to feel safe enough to experience them, we may need support, particularly if our own mindfulness is not strong enough to be fully present to our pain without getting lost in it. As we untie these emotional knots, we recover our perspective and clarity, and often see the hard lessons that our suffering has taught us.

This effort to reflect on and release painful feelings lays a foundation for the process of forgiveness. As we learn to face our own impulses and reactions, it becomes easier to understand the actions of others. Forgiveness then becomes a practice of looking beneath the surface of a person’s behavior to acknowledge the deeper spiritual essence that is worthy of our respect.

Looking deeply, we may recognize that many of our interactions with each other are unconsciously based on protecting our self-image, trying to control the ever-changing world around us and win the acceptance of others. We can practice having compassion for the ways that we all suffer from our attempts to arrange for happiness, reminding ourselves of the innate goodness within, like the light beneath a lampshade. We can also acknowledge the ways we may have hurt others when we’ve been preoccupied with our own safety and desires, and in this spirit of compassion, forgive ourselves for these mistakes.

Forgiving ourselves is a significant step toward understanding the actions of others that have hurt us. We can practice looking with eyes of compassion and releasing bitterness from our hearts, seeing both someone’s behavior and their deeper spiritual Self. It may help to envision such person as a child, full of hopes and dreams and shaped by the various traumas of human life.

Forgiveness might become easier when we understand that those who made us suffer are no doubt suffering themselves. And we may need to practice numerous times breathing into our hearts, letting go of our anger and trusting that their own suffering will bring them the lessons they need to heal and be whole.

As we make this effort to forgive, we move from responding to another person’s ego-identity to acknowledging their true nature. We begin to erode the confines of our own ego and release the armor around our hearts, accepting ourselves and others as we are.  We begin to experience a deeper source of happiness—one that comes from knowing our connection with all of life—and to feel the natural impulse to love and give that engenders a profound peace.

About the Author:

Swami Ramananda is the president of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco and a greatly respected master teacher in the Integral Yoga tradition, who has been practicing Yoga for more than 35 years. He offers practical methods for integrating the timeless teachings and practices of Yoga into daily life. He leads beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level Yoga Teacher Training programs in San Francisco and a variety of programs in many locations in the United States, Europe, and South America. Swami Ramananda trains Yoga teachers to carry Yoga into corporate, hospital, and medical settings and has taught mind/body wellness programs in many places. He is a founding board member of the Yoga Alliance, a national registry that supports and promotes Yoga teachers as professionals.