Their daughter was brutally murdered on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa while working against Apartheid.
Five years later, Linda and Peter Biehl arrived in South Africa to support her killers’ freedom.
For them, forgiveness didn’t excuse the horrendous crime. They simply let go of any vengeful feelings. They empathized with the feeling of rage that existed in South Africa at the time.
“I don’t see them as evil people,” Linda Biehl said. “They have already taken responsibility for their actions and asked for forgiveness.”
Obviously, this is not easy. But if you practice forgiveness, you’ll feel a lot better. Dr. Maxwell Maltz called it, “the scalpel which removes emotional scars.”
There are three steps to forgiving anyone anything:
- Make anger your enemy.
- Watch your thoughts carefully
- Practice compassion for the person who wronged you
But first, it’s vital we understand what forgiveness is NOT…
Forgiveness is not a weapon
If you feel superior to the person you’ve ‘forgiven,’ you still have work to do.
Forgiveness is not a card to draw during your next argument. As Henry Ward Beecher, the American clergyman said: “Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note – torn in two and burned up, so that it can never be shown against anyone.”
That doesn’t mean you excuse the person’s actions. You don’t have to stay with a cheating spouse or an thieving business partner.
However, you should aim to walk away from the relationship with a genuine compassion for the person who wronged you.
Step 1. Make anger your enemy
Just because you have the right to be angry doesn’t mean you should.
Anger and hatred are the most destructive human emotions. You lose sleep, you don’t work effectively and you alienate those around you. Steadily, your situation gets worse. And because you blame someone else for your misfortune, the cycle of hatred never ends.
“By giving in to anger, we are not necessarily harming our enemy, but we are certainly harming ourselves,” said the Dalai Lama.
The person is not your enemy. The anger you feel when you think about that person is your enemy.
The Dalai Lama talked to a monk who spent 25 years in a Chinese labour camp. The monk suffered torture, hunger and indignities beyond imagination. Yet he was calm and serene. The Dalai Lama asked the monk how he held his composure for so long.
“I was often afraid of hating my torturers,” the monk replied, “for in doing so I would have destroyed myself.”
Step 2. Watch your thoughts
Now you’ve decided anger is your enemy, you need a weapon to fight it. The most effective way to fight anger is simply to notice it as a sensation.
We have a really bad habit of labeling ourselves by our emotions. We say “I am angry,” when really we mean “I’m experiencing anger.”
Anger can literally hijack the mind and consume you. It’s a bit like love, only far more devastating.
But when you notice anger as a sensation, you separate yourself from it.
Emotions – especially strong ones – appear most vividly in the body. When you experience anger, your head might tense up. Your chest might start to tighten. You take short, shallow breaths.
Draw attention to these sensations. Notice where you feel the anger in your body. Rather than feed the emotion or give in to it, simply observe it.
Anger needs fuel.
You keep your anger fueled with stories that replay in your mind over and over again. Chade Meng Tan, who runs Google’s Search Inside Yourself program, calls this ‘feeding your anger monsters.’
The more you feed your anger monsters, the bigger they get and the worse you feel. But when you pay attention to your thoughts, you can decide to cut the food supply.
“Therein lies the source of our power,” says Chade Meng Tan. “If we do not feed them, they will get hungry and maybe they will go away.”
Step 3. Practice compassion
Now you have a way to control your own emotions, it’s time to feel compassion for the person who wronged you.
This is the hard part. Just as we label ourselves by our emotions (“I am angry”), we label others by their wrongdoings: “She is unfaithful.” “He is a bully.”
“Forming the image of the ‘enemy’ as despicable, we generalise it to mean the whole person,” says Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. “We solidify the ‘evil’ or ‘disgusting’ attributes we see as being permanent intrinsic traits.”
We need a fresh perspective. Here are two simple facts:
- Everyone wants to be happy.
- The person who harmed you believed their actions would make them happy.
Did it make them happy? Did their actions bring them lasting peace and fulfillment? I can tell you the answer is almost definitely ‘no.’
Sometimes the person realises what they’ve done and shows remorse. Forgiveness for them is acknowledging of what they’ve become.
Others don’t show any remorse or accept any blame. They need your compassion even more, because their ignorance will always keep them on a cycle of misery.
Martin Luther King didn’t brand Civil Rights opponents as ‘evil racists.’ He said they were ‘damaged human beings.’ Under no circumstances was it acceptable to respond with violence and vengeance.
Buddhist compassion works the same way. This isn’t cheap pity. It’s a wholehearted desire for all living things to be freed from suffering.
If a person can do something so terrible and feel nothing, imagine what mental tortures they must wrestle with.
A technique for practicing compassion
Whenever Chade Meng Tan feels anger towards someone, he practices a simple exercise called ‘Just like me.’
Repeat these words. As you say them, picture the person you’re trying to forgive.
“This person is a human being, just like me.”
“This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.”
“This person has experienced pain and suffering, just like me.”
“This person wishes to be free from suffering, just like me.”
“This person wants to be happy, just like me.”
“This person wants to be loved, just like me.”
Practice this until you feel a genuine compassion for the person who wronged you. Then wish for them to be happy. Wish for them to be loved. Wish for them to be free of suffering.
Kindness is the most sustainable source of happiness there is. Forgiveness is arguably the most powerful act of kindness you can offer.
Peter Biehl obituary http://articles.latimes.com/2002/apr/02/local/me-biehl2
Radical Forgiveness, Linda Biehl interview http://moonmagazine.org/linda-biehl-radical-forgiveness-2013-02-14/
A Mother Forgives Her Daughter’s Killers http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20140604,00.html
Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill, by Matthieu Ricard
Search Inside Yourself, by Chade Meng Tan
Psychocybernetics, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz
I Am, documentary by Tom Shadyac
Featured photo credit: diwero via pixabay.com