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4 Simple Steps to True Forgiveness

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As Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment is just the beginning”

Back or neck aches, unaddressed hurts and sadness, painful traumas and losses. This is where Compassionate Forgiveness comes to our rescue.

In Recovery Today’s last issue, we practiced the first step in Forgiveness: “Facing our Resentments Honestly,” which invites us to acknowledge to our heart what actually happened and how we kept our resentment stories alive. Today, we move forward with Steps Two and Three of Forgiveness.

Step Two: Naming Core Feelings and Beliefs crosses the Shore to Forgiveness. Achieving the leap into forgiveness is like crossing a stream. The shore we stand on is familiar, riddled with defensiveness, personal reactions and elaborate stories of blame. It thrives on frustration, irritation, anger and guilt – all surface feelings that distract us from true healing.

The journey across this stream, from ego reactivity to forgiveness, is rarely clear. But we do know that endlessly chewing on ego’s stories only holds our guilt, resentment and anxiety intact while keeping forgiveness at arm’s length.

By pausing quietly, closing our eyes and asking our heart, “Which core feeling – hurt, fear, sadness or shame – is triggered by another’s unconscious acts?” we swim past ego’s nonstop monologue about who did what when and how it should have been different. This shortcut deepens the healing process leading to trueforgiveness. Anytime we feel upset, angry or resentful about another’s actions, we owe it to ourselves and loved ones to name our core feelings and beliefs. This is not only a shortcut – it’s our responsibility.

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For example, Jenny found out about her husband’s second affair with the same co-worker through his emails. She felt shocked, enraged and devastated.

“Damn you!” she told Frank in therapy. “I told you in the beginning, forty-five years ago, that if you ever cheated on me, I’d divorce you. Five years ago, when you cheated on me with this lonely hussy at work, I forgave you against my better judgment. Now I’m sixty-five with 10 years of sobriety, my five children have children of their own, and I have to grow old alone because you’re a stupid fool. Pack your bags and stay in a hotel for now. You’re not welcome in my bed anymore.”

Jenny filled out the divorce papers and kept them in her top desk drawer. Guilt thoughts blamed her for not being sexy enough to keep her man and not seeing the affair earlier. Her friends begged her to file and leave him a popper. But Jenny spent fitful nights crying to sleep, torn between forgiveness and leaving.

“Naming your core feeling and belief might help your decision?” I said.

Reluctantly she agreed. As Jenny closed her eyes and peeked underneath her rage and guilt, she was flooded with grief. “I never feel good enough. Mom ran off with her boyfriend when I was twelve, leaving dad to raise me. Now my own husband goes elsewhere for sexual favors. What’s wrong with me?” she said.

Frank and Jenny continued to work on their marriage. Frank apologized repeatedly, swearing he wanted to grow old and someday die in Jenny’s arms. Jenny took the time she needed to move through rage, loss, grief and betrayal.

“I wouldn’t let myself think about getting caught or how deeply it would hurt you,” Frank said. “I felt sorry for her being a widow. If I could, I’d erase it all in a heartbeat. All I can do now is keep telling you that you are the love of my life.”

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Eventually, it was his genuine tears of remorse at the fear of losing her that softened Jenny into forgiving him. He came home to share lunch with her daily, something he had not done for years, and they began traveling together again. But even after she forgave Frank, and after he shored up his integrity in therapy, it still took several more months to heal her broken trust.

“When I finally forgave myself for not seeing the affair,” she said, “I could forgive him. And when I healed the grief and despair I’d sat on since I was a girl, I finally felt good enough in my bones.”

In August, Frank and Jenny renewed their vows on their fiftieth anniversary.

Forgiveness always shares the same moment with our ego. It welcomes all emotions with the compassion of a loving grandmother. It gently reminds us, “You are safe and loved. Nothing is wrong. You are simply a human being releasing pent-up fear, hurt, sadness or shame. Let go and allow it to pass through you.”Naming our core feelings is a true source of freedom, joy and inner peace.

Step Three: ACKNOWLEDGING THE TRUTH TO OUR YOUNG SELF We humans are built to handle hurt. We are built to hear the truth, no matter how much that truth stings in the moment. What we can’t handle well is lies. Left in the dark, we swirl downward into the abyss of ego’s reactions, stories and fears, desperately searching for something to hang our hat on. We hunger for truth.

I’ll never forget ten-year-old Sky sitting in my office begging her father, “I wish you’d told me how bad you were hurting. When mom died of cancer, I hurt too. We could have cried together. Instead you hid behind working overtime.”

Countless clients, after the initial shock of a spouse’s affair, all said, “It’s not the affair that hurts the worst. It’s the number of years you lied about it.”

Admitting our mistakes and detours out of integrity seem hard for us. We call it fear of confrontation or conflict, but really our ego avoids shame and embarrassment whenever possible. Living out of integrity creates great suffering. Lucky for us, each moment holds a fresh opportunity for us to bravely be the first person in our relationship, our family, and our work place to speak the truth.

Whether child or elder, female or male, minority or white, we all deserve to hear and speak the truth. If offenders are too chicken, we can at least acknowledge what really happened to our young self. Without truth and forgiveness, we suffer.

For instance, John turned fiftyeight when his daughter Sara called him on his birthday. Sara had been a challenging child growing up, requiring therapy as a teen for anorexia and weight issues. Following her divorce at thirty, John helped her financially until she got back on her feet as a single mom. This relationship had its ups and downs, but nothing prepared him for what he was about to hear.

“I’ve been doing hypnosis therapy and I know you molested me at six and seven, Dad,” Sara accused him. “I remember a man touching my genitals and I presume it had to be you. I can’t believe you’d do such a thing.”

Shocked, John took a few deep breaths. “I’m so sorry that anyone molested you at such a tender age,” he said, “but I guarantee it wasn’t me. I know I never touched you inappropriately. How can I help you heal from this?”

Sara hung up. That was their last conversation for twelve long years.

But at sixty-five, in his meditations, images of Sara kept appearing. He knew forgiveness was the next step, but he didn’t know how. In therapy his ego insisted, “She’s the offender! She wrongfully accused me of a crime I didn’t commit.”

Rather than argue with him, I taught John how to distinguish between his young self and his forgiving heart. I described the importance of acknowledging the truth to that young John inside who felt hurt. Anxious to get started, John closed his eyes and soon described a young six-year-old boy in blue jeans and a blue sweater swinging in the schoolyard. “He won’t look at me,” John said.

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“That’s OK,” I said. “Ask him how he feels about this false accusation.”

John was silently pensive. “He seems confused, hurt, sad and betrayed.”

“Excellent. Now speak directly to him and tell young John the unspoken, behind-the-scenes truth. Be sure to acknowledge his feelings with compassion.”

“First, I love you and I know what good morals you have. You didn’t do anything wrong. I hear how confused and hurt you feel. But you can stop taking this lie personally. I hold your hurt in compassion and I’m holding my daughter Sara in compassion. I want you to see that she lashed out at me because I’m the man who has always been there for her.” John’s body sighed with relief.

“Your old belief, ‘I don’t deserve love’ was triggered,” he said, “so let’s replace it with ‘You are so lovable.’ I’m imagining holding you while you cry.”

John covered his eyes with both arms and wept quietly. Tears streamed down his cheeks until he went for a walk later to make sense of his feelings.

Two weeks later, John returned. “I called my daughter,” he beamed. “I said what a shame it is to let precious years go by without sharing the highlights of our lives. Tomorrow I’m flying to visit her and meet my new grandson.

“During our goodbyes, she said, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry. I was in a lot of pain.’

“I know you were hurting. I forgive you,” I said. “We’ll talk about it.”

Whenever another’s hurtful words trigger strong reactions in us, we can rest assured that a core belief is raw and bleeding inside. A simple intention such as “I’m willing to name which core belief is triggered by my reaction” or “I’m willing to use this opportunity to repeat my new core belief,” we quickly release resentment, hurt and fear – everything unlike love. Speaking the truth to our young hurting self, soothing its tender wound, allows forgiveness to flow.

True Forgiveness of all those past hurts delivered by strangers and loved ones in a lifetime is a process. As you take time to move through Steps One, Two and Three of Forgiveness, your heart feels lighter and your long-held hurts and resentments fall away and hope and inner peace re-enter your horizon. In Recovery Today’s next issue, we move into the Fourth and final Step of Forgiveness, which includes the incredibly freeing Power of Letting Go.

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