Cultivating Forgiveness as a Primary Life Skill
When we forgive, what was dark and heavy becomes light.
History is studded with tales of those who have been disempowered or persecuted – only to emerge on the other side with forgiveness for the people or systems that have orchestrated their misery. For Singaporeans, the late Elizabeth Choy’s story is one that continues to feature in history books and passed on in oral tradition from one generation to the next.
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in the 1940s, the war heroine bravely smuggled supplies and messages to British prisoners-of-war interned at Changi Jail. Together with her husband, she operated a canteen that enabled them to covertly bring food, medicine, and even radio parts for hidden receivers to thousands of prisoners.
But in 1943, the couple was caught by the Japanese and Elizabeth was imprisoned for being a suspected British sympathiser. The 193 days that followed were some of the darkest of her life. Under the hands of her captors, she was interrogated, starved, beaten, and put through rounds of electrocution. The trauma was so deeply ingrained in her that for years after her release, she would remain fearful of electrical switches or appliances.
Yet, after the war was over, she refused to name any of her captors for execution. “I don’t blame the soldiers. It was the war that was wicked and evil…I shall not forget but I shall forgive,” said Elizabeth, who passed away in 2006 from pancreatic cancer. She was 96 years old.
“I shall forgive”.
Three small words that translate into one big act. For a person who has undergone immense suffering, Elizabeth still found it in her to pardon the heinous acts of her fellow human beings.
While many of us might not experience what Elizabeth had to endure, we too are equally familiar with the feelings of anger, resentment, or aversion that arise when we hold onto grudges. This might take the form of an argument with your partner, a long-held resentment towards a friend, or constant conflict with a co-worker.
As invisible as they might be, grudges have a way of imprisoning us in the past. Trapped by our inability to forgive, we continue to replay events in our head, steep in a cocktail of negative emotions, and carry the unnecessary weight of emotional baggage.
Ironically, grudges require a vast amount of energy to keep going. It requires us to fan the fire of resentment in order to keep the conflict alive. When we are preoccupied with doing so, we leave no room for love, compassion, happiness, and the warmth of relationships that bring joy.
The mental stress of holding onto past grievances is not only unhealthy for our mind but also puts our body through unnecessary stress. Our body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of two divisions – the sympathetic (our flight or fight response) and parasympathetic (which helps us to rest and digest). When the former system is activated, adrenaline courses through our body, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. Our body is in a state of high alert and primed to combat any threats. Anger and resentment trigger the same reactions in our body. So each time we relive past transgressions, our nervous system springs into action to ‘defend’ us. Over time, we find it hard to move into a relaxed state. Insomnia settles in and we experience chronic muscle tightness, increasing the risk of depression and heart disease, among other conditions. We suffer even though the event happened in the past. Grudges allow the past to become our lived reality.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, has the remarkable effect of improving our health. Studies have found that acts of forgiveness can help to lower the risk of heart attacks, reduce blood pressure, pain, and anxiety. It also improves our quality of sleep.
If it’s so much better for us, why then does forgiveness feel like such an impossible task at times? To put it simply, our mind is biologically wired to remember these past hurts so that we can avoid them in the future. In some way, our brain is simply trying to protect us.
This is where meditation can be useful in freeing ourselves from the imprisonment of our suffering. It helps us to divorce the person from the circumstance, recognise the suffering of others, meet it with compassion, and move forward with love.
When you meditate on forgiveness, you open yourself to the possibility of true healing as you learn to accept whatever arises and to just leave it be – free from the instinct of trying to control it with your thoughts. When you are no longer stuck in your thoughts, you have a way forward beyond this narrative of resentment.
Grudges allow the past to become our lived reality.
Forgiving those who have harmed you is as important as self-forgiveness, be it ways you have harmed yourself intentionally or unintentionally. Let the emotions arise, then come and go. When you begin to be aware of each thought as a passing event, you awaken to how feelings such as frustration, sadness, anger, or fear can likewise drift by like passing clouds.
Remember that the practice of forgiving and letting go helps you to move in the direction of more peace and happiness. Our body heals itself naturally, but sometimes, we need to provide it with the conditions to heal.
If you have 15 minutes to spare, begin your healing process with this guided meditation practice by Manoj Dias.