What Is Forgiveness?



When someone asks 'what is forgiveness?' (or you ask yourself that question) you can easily end up confused.


Defining forgiveness seems like looking out at the clear night sky and trying to count the stars. It seems like an enormous task. We know that forgiveness is very important, but we don't really know what it is, and so we feel that we don't know how to forgive.

We DO know how to forgive, of course, and forgiving ISN'T complicated at all, but many times it sure seems both complicated, undesirable and very hard to do. All of which it isn't.

Looking at life in the simple light of love, unity, and inner peace versus fear, separation and conflict is a powerful personal development technique. I recommend using it whenever something seems difficult or complicated. In that light ...

Forgiveness is the movement from a belief in and an experience of fear, separation and conflict to the truth of (and an experience of) love, unity, and inner peace.

Forgiveness is giving up illusion and accepting reality - not just any reality, but absolute reality.

Forgiveness is letting go of hurts and grudges from the past as well as letting go of the fear of tomorrow. When you forgive you become present in the now instead of living in the past or the future. When you forgive you move your focus from your ego and the ego of others to your true self (your heart, your core, your soul) and the true self of others (their heart, their core, their soul).

Thus, forgiveness is simply allowing. Forgiveness is allowing yourself, others and life to be the way you and they are.

So, forgiveness is a form of letting go and coming Home.

Our Cultural Heritage Confuses Us


Why are we so very confused when it comes to forgiveness? The answer lies in our cultural upbringing. The thing is most of us have grown up in a culture that has got most of the important things in life turned upside down. For instance:

- Using a sentence from a famous TV-show we think 'The truth is out there' ... when really the truth is 'in here' (inside ourselves, in our hearts, in our souls).

- When something goes wrong we think it's about appointing guilt, blame and punishment, when really it's just about putting things right for everyone involved.

- We think that being 'right' and 'good' (and thus making others be 'wrong' and 'evil') is important, when really 'right' + 'good' and 'wrong' + 'evil' is socially, individually, culturally and in every other way relative (as well as the basis for separation), and all that matters is being present with ourselves and other people.

- We think that holding on (to an idea, an ideal, a belief, an identity, a feeling, a memory, a habit, a person, a thing or anything else) is important, when really by letting go of whatever it is we're attached to will lead to our having the thing we desire in abundance.

- We think that life and other people 'do onto us', making us powerless victims of life and others, when in fact they are only doing what they think is right, so taking responsibility for yourself and your experience no matter what happens is the ultimate in empowerment and a high road to happiness.

- We think that we need to fight to fill a bottomless pit of unavoidable, inflexible needs , when really our true needs are quite limited (small and easy to fulfil) as well as flexible and subject to our free will.

- We think that love is something external, conditional and limited that we need from others, when really love is internal, unconditional and unlimited (and part of our true nature), so that GIVING love to ourselves and others next is what causes us to feel the love we so desire.

- We think that forgiveness has to do with other people and life itself, when really forgiveness is an internal process that only has to do with ourselves. Having misunderstood the nature as well as the purpose of forgiveness, and we think that withholding our forgiveness is 'just punishment' for others (and life itself), when actually the only person really punished by lack of forgiveness is ourselves because as long as we do not forgive, we keep suffering while others move on.

- In short, we all want to be happy, and our culture has taught us that happiness lies in other people and material things, when our inner state of being, our consciousness is the all important key to happiness, and we should be empowering  ourselves and our children to explore and work with consciousness rather than seeking external approval, conditional love, money and material stuff.

UNforgiveness: What It Does to You

What happens when you do NOT forgive? Well, when you do not forgive you think yourself 'innocent' and 'right' as opposed to others (as well as life itself) whom you judge and condemn as 'guilty' and 'wrong', which means you make yourself a victim (of others and of life itself).

Victims are always disempowered, of course, as opposed to people who assume responsibility, which makes them empowered, which means that not forgiving is disempowering.

And also, having separated yourself from others and life, you feel unable to connect with others and with life itself, so you live in loneliness.

Further, when you do not forgive:

- you are trapped in the past (reliving old hurts over and over and over again)
- you fear for the future (fearing that the old hurts will repeat themselves)
- your focus on the past and the future makes you unable to experience the now
- you are continually vulnerable because you do not let old wounds heal
- you are uncooperative and alone, instead of cooperative and together with others
- you are rigid and inflexible (and thus breakable), instead of flexible and adaptive
- you are focused on and identified with your own limited, fear-based ego, and not focused on and identified on your loving heart and your unlimited soul

Living in the past (and fearing the future) is living in an illusion, because the past is gone and the future hasn't happened yet, only the now is real.

It's the same with being identified with your fear-based ego: it makes fear seem real to you (which it isn't) and makes love, peace, freedom and happiness seem UNreal to you (even though they are properties of absolute reality) - in other words: more illusion.

So in all the areas where you cannot forgive you cannot access reality, only illusion.

An Example of Non-Forgiveness from Real Life: Infidelity

Someone I know mentored a woman who felt her life was shattered when she discovered that her husband had been having a 2-year affair with a co-worker.

Her extremely intense reaction to this stemmed, of course, from the beliefs she had taken on: beliefs about herself, her husband and her marriage. These beliefs ended up hurting her badly.

In her grief and rage, she started digging and found out every detail that she could about their liaison. Then, she went about re-enacting with other men what her husband had done to her.

This turned out to be a really bad idea, because not only did her revenge based philandering make her even more discontent, she caught several venereal diseases and made her lovers hurt and angry too, so her 'revenge' cost her health and wholeness, and it got real close to costing her life as well!

Did she get what she wanted? Of course not. Her expectations, beliefs and feelings had been hurt, she was in turmoil, and what she wanted was inner peace, unconditional love, freedom and happiness. Hurting yourself and other people (here: her husband, but even more so her lovers) will NEVER give you those things. Not ever. Forgiveness, or if you prefer, letting go is what can give you those things.

Definition of Forgiveness

The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as "to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt". The definition of forgiveness includes moral, judicial, religious, political and therapeutic interpretations.

This is the 'official' definition, and it gets everything wrong, albeit indirectly.

Why the Traditional Definition of Forgiveness Is More Cultural Illusion

If look closely at the above definition of forgiveness you will notice that this definition has the SAME mistaken cultural bias as mentioned above: it's about others. Granting OTHERS pardon, giving up all claims you have on OTHERS, giving up debt that OTHERS are supposed to owe you.


In this definition forgiveness is supposed to be giving up your 'right' to give back to someone what is 'deserved' - to hurt as you've been hurt. It is supposed to be 'merciful', not giving back what is 'deserved' in revenge and retribution.

All this is turning reality upside down.

Also, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind". Or, to put it bluntly: the 'normal' definition of forgiveness in our culture is a load of crap!

Forgiving is NOT about other people.

Forgiving is about YOU, not others. YOU are the one forgiving.

It is true that others (and life) can be a part of the equation, but it is pure illusion to think they should be the focus of, or the reason for, YOUR forgiveness. YOU are the reason for your forgiveness, YOU should be the focus of your forgiveness.

No matter what happened, other people just did what they did because that was the best they could do with the knowledge, understanding and resources available to them at the time. All they did was do their thing, play their part. They were merely actors in what became YOUR drama.

If it is your drama (and it certainly is), then you are in charge. You always have been, and you always will be.

YOU are the one who will be empowered by taking responsibility for whatever happened back in the past as well as for whatever will happen in the future, because YOU are the one who decides to live in an illusion or in the reality of the now. You don't always get to decide exactly what happens, but you ALWAYS get to decide how you experience it and what you make it mean to you.

Given our shared cultural background all this is not an easy set of things to wrap your head around!

Because forgiveness always means that there is supposed to be a precedent offense, it seems very costly and unfair. Why should you have to give up retribution ('payment') when you didn't do anything wrong? Why should you set someone free when that someone surely deserves everything he or she has coming?

The answer to all such questions is always that it isn't about others, because it is YOUR drama in which you are the victim, so you are the one who needs the empowerment that taking responsibility will give you. You are the one who will be set free, not others. You are the one who cannot currently see reality and feel inner peace, love and happiness, not the others. In every way YOU are the one who will be benefitting from YOUR forgiveness.

Other Traditional Definitions of Forgiveness


If we look at forgiveness from an higher, somewhat anthropological perspective these probably what we would call the primary dimensions of forgiveness:

1. Judicial Forgiveness

When an unlawful act has been committed, the offended party takes on the penalty of the law, and lets the offender go free without paying the 'debt'.

2. Moral and Religious Forgiveness
When we're talking morals and religion, forgiveness is a response to 'sin', hurt and injustice. The response is returning one of non-retribution (as in 'turning the other cheek'), or even of giving 'good' for 'wrong' (as in helping those who have offended). This peacemaking behavior can be attributed to either a deity or simply to the ruling cultural norm of 'good behavior'. The point is that when we have been deprived through offense we still freely and with good will give forgiveness.

3. Political Forgiveness (incl. Racial Forgiveness and Other types of Group Forgiveness)
Political forgiveness acknowledges historic offenses towards ethnic and national groups as well as abuse of power by those in charge and forgives those who transgressed. Political forgiveness is a radical act of peacemaking that admits oppression, and offers a new start. The past cannot be relived or altered, and the wrongs cannot be made right. The debts may be incalculable, but peace is valued more highly than war.

5. Therapeutic Forgiveness (incl. Forgiveness as Personal Development)

Forgiveness is letting go and setting yourself (the offended) free. It is what this page is (mostly) about.

No matter what the problem (offence) is, therapeutic forgiveness can always be achieved - simply because it is a choice. Of course it is a choice that the offended has to be ready to make.

So therapeutic forgiveness can either take the form of a long and slow movement along a meandering trail of therapy, or it can be the result of a short and quick and often very intense sequential process.


If the forgiveness takes the slow, meandering path it may include careful untangling of the resentment and bitterness that imprison the offended, taking steps in a safe context to explore the background and the possible meaning(s) of the offense, acknowledging any personal responsibility, grieving the losses, and finally setting yourself free by letting go. A process like this can take weeks, months or years.

However, in spirituality and personal development therapeutic forgiveness can ALSO be fast. If the forgiveness is the result of using a powerful self improvement technique even very serious issues can be resolved fairly quickly in the course of one or a limited number of sessions.

Such self improvement techniques include the Journey by Brandon Bays, and the Work by Byron Katie, my own the Let Go Method, and Stanislav Grof's Holotropic Breathwork and also Grof Holotropic Breathwork.

The whole point is that forgiveness is a decision to set yourself free of the past (and the fear) and live in the now, and any process of forgiveness is simply a way of helping you get to the point where you can and do make that decision. In fact, odds are that reading this page has facilitated your own personal ability to forgive, simply because you now understand more about the nature and the process of forgiveness.

What Forgiveness Is Not

Another way to discover 'what is forgiveness' is to examine what it is not. It's a good idea simply because forgiveness is so very important and there are so many misconceptions about the concept. So, here are a few things that forgiveness is not:

• Forgiveness Is Not Denying


Forgiveness isn't pretending that something didn't happen, or that it wasn't hurtful. On the contrary, forgiveness gives a realistic appraisal of the offense, and relinquishes revenge.

• Forgiveness Is Not Forgetting (as in 'Forgive and Forget')

We hear about "forgive and forget," but real forgiveness does remember what happened, and since real forgiveness is empowering and takes responsibility, the remembering is a way to ensure that the offence doesn't happen again.

Henri Zvi Deutsch, a community builder among Holocaust survivors, expressed the fear that the world would forget the atrocities of World War 2. It is a real possibility, so films like Steven Spielberg's and places like the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum are exceedingly important. If we forget, we run the very real risk of repeating and reliving atrocities.

• Forgiveness Is Not Enabling the Offender


Forgiveness doesn't minimize the wrong. It doesn't make excuses for what happened. It doesn't avoid the attribution of responsibility. Forgiveness doesn't enable the offender to keep on offending; on the contrary it enables the victim. Forgiving enables the victim to shed the chains of that role and move on.

• Forgiveness Is Not Bargaining or 'Quid Pro Quo'


Forgiveness isn't a quid pro quo deal. It has nothing to do with bargaining like, "If you do this, and promise never to do that, then I will forgive you." On the contrary forgiveness is a one-way, unconditional deal that the offended has one hundred percent control over, and which really doesn't have much to do with the offender. And, of course, even though the offended has forgiven the offender one hundred percent, the offender might still be punished by the law / the justice system.

• Forgiveness Is Not Indiscriminate Belief or Trust


Trust is built over time, with a demonstration of changed behavior. Forgiveness does not mean that personal boundaries are abandoned so that we open ourselves up to abuse; on the contrary, by taking responsibility for our experience of what happened and moving ourselves OUT of the role of a victim we ensure that we will not take part in such happenings again.

• Forgiveness Does Not Ensure Reconciliation


Forgiveness doesn't wait for an apology and is not dependent on another's behavior. It is a free and gracious gift that we SEEM to give the offender but which in reality we give to ourselves. Forgiveness may facilitate, but does not ensure relational restoration. True reconciliation requires change in both parties. Reconciliation is the coming together of both sides in mutual respect.

The Benefits of Forgiveness

Research shows that forgiveness brings health and happiness. There is a decreased incidence in cardiovascular and neurological disease among forgivers. Resentment, on the other hand, has been shown to increase the number of health problems.

Dr. Fred Luskin's work (see: Learning to Forgive ) reveals that those who are taught (!) how to forgive are less angry and hurt, don't have a false feeling of entitlement and feel less like victims. They are more optimistic, flexible, compassionate, and self-confident. They manage stress better, have more energy and their health is better. Who wouldn't want all that, huh!

When people use powerful self improvement techniques such as the aforementioned 'the Journey' by Brandon Bays, the Work by Byron Katie, the Let Go Method by Soren Lauritzen and Stanislav Grof's Holotropic Breathwork to create forgiveness, they experience the exact same things:

Moving from fear, hurt, separation, conflict and a feeling of being trapped to the truth and absolute reality of love, bliss, unity, inner peace and freedom is the exact same thing as happiness. The bigger the hurt or injustice we forgive and let go of, the more powerful is our experience of happiness.




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