On Faith: Six steps of forgiveness

What can we do when we have made a mistake that has caused harm to others? Is there anything we can do to be free from guilt and again feel peace of mind?

A process for asking for forgiveness from others and learning to forgive ourselves involves six steps. It is easier to enter into this kind of a process when there is a path, a guide and some support, which most religious and spiritual traditions offer. The process is personal and flexible, and it should be regarded as a guideline or suggestion, not a rigid set of rules that can fit every situation exactly.

The first step is a willingness to admit we have done something wrong. This is easier to do when our philosophy or theology affirm the essential dignity and worth of the human being, while at the same time recognizing fragility, shortcomings and the inevitability of wrongdoing.

We can more readily allow ourselves to be honest and humble rather than to stubbornly defend our ego or idealized self. This step is also difficult when it causes us to see clearly the suffering we have inflicted on someone else, and to experience their pain as our own.

The second step is to consider why we did the harm. This involves "soul searching" to better understand what motivated us to do something we now regret. We must be thorough if we want to be genuine about our remorse, compassionate in understanding ourselves, and sincere about not repeating the wrongdoing.

This is not a justification or rationalization but an attempt to increase self-awareness. For example, a spouse may have little understanding about why he or she was unfaithful. Someone else might not know why he says cruel things and can't seem to stop doing it. Another person might not know why she lies, often for no reason.

Consideration should be given to all of the particulars, whether the harming was intentional or unintentional, serious or minor, a first time or repeated. This willingness to face the parts of us that are selfish and the desire to make steady progress in living more genuinely is essentially a spiritual process. It may include meditation and prayer, journaling or the use of a workbook, therapy or counseling, activities at church, synagogue or temple, or other resources.

The third step is a sincere commitment not to continue or to repeat the harm. The credibility of this vow and the strength of resolve will depend upon the first and second steps. Making changes can take time and progress may not always be clear cut. If someone is committed to being less irritable and more patient, this may be a life time project. It will be especially difficult where addictions are involved.

The fourth step is to apologize, ask for forgiveness and to discuss the wrongdoing. In some cases, this may not be possible or appropriate.

The fifth step is to make amends. How can I show, concretely, that I am sorry? What can I do to make this up? If I cannot make it up, what is a meaningful token? Making amends can require sensitivity and creativity. I knew someone who had stolen a painting from a work colleague. His decision, two decades later, was to donate it to a charity. A friend who is thoughtless might make amends by picking up the lunch check.

After we have completed the process of forgiveness, if we continue to have disturbing thoughts about the event, we should consider whether this is a dysfunctional negative thought habit, a tendency to obsess about past mistakes or not to accept that we do fall short. From a Zen perspective, we aspire to do our best, we inevitably fall short, we feel badly and we renew our aspiration. Each element — aspiration, failure, sadness and renewed aspiration — expresses our natural, true self.

This process may be used for minor, everyday kinds of let-downs as well as for major life-changing events. While some of the men I have known through our Zen Center Prison Project have used this process for healing, others cannot, especially if they insist upon seeing their crime as an "accident" and maintain innocence.

The last step is to utilize this process again and again throughout our lives. We will need to continue to be sensitive to the ways in which we cause harm, to continue to be willing to be accountable and to be steady in our desire to grow in compassion and wisdom.

DEBORAH BARRETT is a counselor, minister and teacher at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

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