(Originally published for The Dragontree)

There’s so much talk in the natural health world about ways to cleanse our bodies, but so little about how to cleanse our minds. I’d suggest that most of us need more of the latter than the former. We recently ran our Rituals for Living program, in which we offered daily recommendations for mind and body wellness, and one of the prescriptions was to forgive someone. A subscriber wrote us to ask, essentially, “But how? How do you forgive someone who did something that feels unforgiveable?” In responding to her, it occurred to me that I’ve had this conversation with dozens of patients over the years, and that perhaps by turning it into an article, more people could benefit from it. So, here it is, the most fundamental step to cleansing the mind: Forgiveness.

1. Recognize that most people are just confused children (or at least we can be when we’re emotional). Our bodies have gotten bigger and older looking, but inside we’re the same consciousness we’ve always been, still looking to get our needs met, still wanting everyone’s approval, still perhaps wanting to cause hurt when we get hurt, and just trying our best to make things work using the tools we have.

In the process, we often cause pain for others. If you’ve been on the receiving end, it may be worth considering that the perpetrator of the hurt was acting out of confusion: not really understanding that they could get their needs met without hurting someone else, not really understanding the impact of their actions, not really conscious of the love that’s always available to them, and not really understanding their connectedness to you. This may not make their actions okay for you, but hopefully it makes forgiveness more of an option.

2. Consider that lifelong punishment may be unreasonable. If it’s your intention to withhold forgiveness of someone (possibly yourself) for the rest of your life, maybe this qualifies as “cruel and unusual.” It’s a uniquely human thing to hold a grudge and never let it go. If a baby lion gets too rough with its mom, it gets a swat and then it’s over with. Humans, on the other hand, like to stay mad at each other for a long, long time, and it’s unnatural. Have your reaction – really have it – accept it, and be done with it.

3. View forgiveness as something we do for ourselves as much as for the other person. When we withhold forgiveness of others we basically take on the job of administering an ongoing punishment, so we’re playing warden in the mental prison we’re keeping them in, and it demands energy and mental “bandwidth.” Do we really want to give our energy and peace of mind away to the very person we believe wronged us? Does corrupting our peace and restricting our inner freedom make the situation better in any way?

Resentment is an emotional poison in our system. Even if we don’t want to do anything nice for the person we’ve been resenting, for our own sake we need to get that poison out. The nice part is that it will bring us immediate relief. We get to quit that warden job and detox from the poison in the same act.

4. See forgiveness not as a single act, but as an ongoing commitment. Often, it’s not possible for us to just pronounce someone forgiven and have that be the end of it. Instead, we might need to make a commitment with ourselves that from now on we’re going to recognize any time we’re harboring resentment toward them and let it go. And every time we notice that we’ve picked it back up, we’re going to let it go again. We’re not going to analyze why we picked it up again, we’re not going to scold ourselves for having picked it up again, and we’re not going to indulge in the resentment again. We’re just going to drop it (forgive them again) as efficiently as possible. And we’ll immediately feel lighter.

5. If you feel so emotional that forgiveness seems impossible, choose anger over despair. As soon as you have enough distance from the situation to wonder, “What do I do with this intense emotion I’m carrying around?” remember that anger can more easily be transformed into action and determination than hurt and sadness can. So, find the part of you that is angry about whatever happened.

This adversarial part of you insists to yourself (and probably others) that someone did something wrong.  That something shouldn’t have happened that did happen. And simultaneously, that we, from our current perspective, are right about this. Perhaps you build your case in the shower and while driving.

The thing is, when we’re stuck in being right, we block our movement forward in life. We diminish our own perspective. We keep ourselves from seeing the big picture of what will get us most efficiently to a life of happiness and fulfillment.

You can hang out in this “he/she was wrong to do this” place forever, but if this is about something someone did to you, in a way they’re still sticking it to you as long as you live in this mindset. As long as you continue to sideline your life and happiness for this mental argument, they’re still hurting you. As long as you replay these conversations and events, you reopen your own wound.

The river of life continues to flow, but you’re clinging to a rock called “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen.” The silly part is that you’re not really stuck in a fight. The whole one-sided thing is happening in your mind, where it’s only you who continues to get punished. You who pretends that there’s value in carrying on with it, sorting it out, perpetuating a fight that the other party isn’t present for, corrupting your own happiness and potential, corrupting the quality of presence you have with others, and investing energy into something that will never give you back anything.

If the best you can muster is anger and the desire to cause hurt, then the ideal way to stick it to the other person would be not let him have any more of your soul than you’ve already given; instead, pull back all the energy you’re giving them – divesting completely. Forgive completely so that they don’t get the tiniest bit of your consciousness anymore. Eventually the need to withdraw your energy will be replaced with a more equanimous neutrality.

Let me know what happens. I love hearing about people’s challenges and triumphs with forgiveness.

Now, continue on with the next step – forgiving yourself – with You Are the Light of the World.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten