I don’t know about you but this time of year doesn’t always feel warm and fuzzy. The giving season often highlights one of the most difficult acts of giving, forgiving. A real F word if I’ve ever heard one. Maybe because deep down the pain beckoning us to let it go burns just as much as the first time. Or maybe because the gauze of egocentricity camouflaging the wound has us convinced there isn’t anything wrong. And then we strike another match. Oh, the fires we fuel from our undone forgiveness! The damage is real. So is the challenge in letting go. 

There is an apparent physical reaction we have to it, notice what happens in your own body when you read this word: forgive

Sometimes it’s as if my entire body were one big fist, clenching. As if Thich Nhat Hanh were speaking directly to me when he said, 

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” 

As if all of the forward folds I’ve endured over the past decade were futile. Pause. Just long enough to recognize Fear, the real F word undisguised, rearing it’s provocative head. There’s plenty to fear in the vulnerability forgiveness demands. 

I recently read a relatable book about hardwiring happiness that suggests it’s our survivalist instincts to not let the good sink in. If we do that we become vulnerable, and vulnerability is a sure set-up for even more suffering. And so it goes, the perpetual cycle of clinging to the bad to reinforce our ability to endure life and all it encompasses at any given moment—including the undone forgiveness that manifests in all sorts of stressful ways in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies—generating a sizable amount of unnecessary weight and tension. 

Who doesn’t want to shed unnecessary weight and tension?

I know I do, and the greatest solace I have is knowing I’m not alone in the suffering nor the desire to surrender to it. There is a way. The opposite of indifference, hatred, cruelty, is compassion. Scientific literature is proving that compassion is a trainable muscle that can be strengthened over time, resulting in a shift in our perception of suffering, and the action we take towards alleviating it.

Compassion meditation, traditionally known as Metta Bhavana, is an ancient Buddhist practice that has guided people in cultivating loving kindness for hundreds of years. The basic technique consists of a generation of benevolence first towards oneself, then towards a friend or someone you respect, then a neutral person, then someone whom you dislike. Here are a few steps to begin exploring this technique. As recent research suggests, our ability to become more altruistic can happen in weeks time with committed effort. 

1. Check in. Become aware of yourself, feeling from the inside out.

2. Observe. Notice the feelings that arise as you recall a time of suffering.

3. Amplify. Start by generating feelings of peacefulness. Let these feelings evolve into strength and confidence, then love in the most sincere expression possible. You might choose to use an inspiring image or phrase to help you achieve this.

4. Repeat. Use these three steps towards a friend, a neutral person, and finally someone you dislike—in light of forgiveness, perhaps someone who could use yours. Observe what happens in your own body as you imagine a time they suffered. Then generate positive emotions directed at this person or people. 

It’s important to note that there is no set amount of time, image, or phrase. Use what time you have or need. The image could be golden light or a heart, radiating, or any visualization that aids you in the creation of sincere love. The phrase could be as simple as, “May I, or you, or she/he, or they, be happy and free.” You might be considering one person, or a group of people such as your family, or those from a country you’ve visited, or even humanity as a whole. Finally, if you arrive at the person you dislike and cannot shake the feelings of ill will while attempting to perform Metta, repeat the three previous persons until this becomes more available. 

Forgiveness is one of the most important contributions we can offer the healing world. Start by exercising compassion towards yourself. Little by little surrender unnecessary weight and tension. Accept that it won’t be an overnight remedy, yet is part of the cure. I’ll leave you with the always timely, Prayer of Loving Kindness: 

May I be filled with loving kindness

May I be safe from inner and outer harm

May I be well in body, in mind, and in heart 

May I be peaceful, happy, natural, and free.

May you be filled with loving kindness

May you be safe from inner and outer harm

May you be well in body, in mind, and in heart 

May you be peaceful, happy, natural, and free.

May all beings be filled with loving kindness

May all beings be safe from inner and outer harm

May all be well in body, in mind, and in heart 

May all be peaceful, happy, natural, and free.

Links for free downloads and resources about the practice of Metta here and here.