Learning How to Forgive
by Hugh Prather

For most of us, forgiveness is a two-sided coin. Anyone we want to forgive, we forgive instantly. Anyone we are conflicted about forgiving, we never quite forgive. The root meaning of forgive is: To let go. To give back. To cease to harbor. So, forgiveness is as easy as opening our hand and dropping what we are clutching. In fact, it's so easy that little children do it instinctively. "You're not going to invite Joie to your birthday party, are you?" asks the parent of a four-year-old. "Don't you remember what Joi did to you at the playground?" But the four-year-old answers, "Joie is fun to play with!"

Unlike adults, children value the present moment more than the past. They would rather be happy than right. They instinctively understand that it's more fun to decide from now than from then. It's more fun to let go of a grievance than to hold on to it. Little children get it: Judgment is an unpleasant state of mind that hurts us more than the other person. But so often we adults don't get it. We have forgotten that forgiveness is not being nice to someone else, it's being nice to ourselves. In order to prove that the other person is wrong, we must remain unforgiving to prove their guilt. Not being able to forgive poisons our relationships, weakens our health and makes our entire life miserable.

The reason we have so much trouble forgiving is that we are not honest with ourselves. We haven't yet confronted ourselves with the question, "What is so good about not forgiving this person? Do we hold power over them in some way?" If we forgave this person, we would have to take more responsibility for the way in which we use our mind. In short, we would have to stop being a victim. Instead, we wring our hands and say, "I've tried so hard to forgive but I just can't do it." Or we ask God to forgive for us. Or perhaps the worst, we tell ourselves that we have forgiven, when, actually, everyone around us can see clearly that we haven't. Here are some guidelines for helping you forgive that person you seem to be having a hard time forgiving:

Forgiveness is an act of the heart. Forgiving doesn't mean we have to spend time with the person, or remain in their presence. It doesn't mean that we refuse to let someone go, that we always lend money when asked, or that we never take legal action against someone. It means we release this person from intruding upon our balanced state of mind.

Forgiveness occurs only in the present moment. We don't have to forgive for tomorrow, only for now. When the judgmental thoughts come back, we don't throw up our hands and say, "This is an impossible situation." We simply let go of our chaotic thinking as best we can and return to mental wholeness. Forgiveness is a gift to our mind, not to the other person. We strive to become fully aware of how a grievance affects us emotionally and physically and how it impacts our other relationships. To do this, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves.

Some things are more difficult to forgive than others. The trick is to commit to the process. We do the best we can each time we get caught up in attacking kinds of thoughts, and we set no time limit on our future efforts. It will take as long as it takes, and we resolve not to stop until we can think of this person in peace.

When something or someone is particularly hard to forgive, it can be helpful to begin with a meditation, a prayer, or a guided imagery exercise. For example, imagine the person standing before you and recall everything they did to you. Next, remember incidents in which someone, anyone, was kind or patient or simply happy with you. Experience this feeling as a beam of healing light that comes into your mind and heart. Use this light to surround the person you have not forgiven in a cloak of this light. Finally, picture God, a Guardian Angel, or some other Divine being standing behind this person and watch as this figure walks into them, filling them up with the light. Repeat this exercise once or twice, then put in place a plan of what you are going to do the next time disturbing, unforgiving thoughts come to mind. Decide to do this as long as need be and remind yourself that the cost of not forgiving is much too high, but the benefits will bless you for a lifetime.

Hugh Prather is a New York Times best-selling author. His latest book is "Shining Through" (Red Wheel Weiser/Conari; 2004). Recent books include "Standing on My Head" and "The Little Book of Letting Go." Hugh is also a radio talk-show host on Sirius Satellite Radio, a columnist, a relationship counselor, and a minister. His email address is hprather8@comcast .net. You can also purchase his book online at www.newliving.com/store.