“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha
I have a hard time with forgiveness.
My experience is that anger and forgiveness are intrinsically linked. Many spiritual and religious doctrines vilify anger, but like all things, it has a purpose that can even be healing in nature: self-protection and self-advocacy in the face of oppression and abuse.
The problem arises when the anger comes from a place of reaction to something in the present that does not actually represent a threat of oppression or abuse. It is a reaction to what is perceived, rather than what is real.
In this case, it’s a reaction to emotional pain, regardless of the source. And then the anger is turned inward, against the self.
I’ve seen so much shaming (on both sides) in response to the anger that others are expressing about the state of our country and the world. The fact that we’re angry is good: it shows that we’re engaged with the world and we are attached to something better, something more in alignment with our values and viewpoints.
But when anger is paired with dehumanization, it turns to hate.
This is the key to unlocking hate, and the call for the wholehearted social justice warrior to drop arms and move toward forgiveness. We must remember that those we are angry at are human, not monsters. They are confused at best, and in deep suffering themselves, at worst.
It’s not an easy task, even for those of us who are deeply committed to a regular mindfulness practice. It’s not an easy task when there is still so much pain, suffering, inequality, hate, and violence actively infiltrating our lives and our media. It’s not an easy task, when forgiveness seems foolish, even irresponsible.
Forgiveness is a deeply personal practice, and to begin, we must be ready. We must be willing to recognize that some part of our anger is hurting us as we clutch it, rather than protecting us as we hurl it at others. If we don’t, then we aren’t ready. And that’s okay, we cannot make ourselves forgive if we are still suffering.
Often, when there are acts of hate and oppression, they come from fear and ignorance, and sometimes mental instability. These things are not evil and terrible in and of themselves; in fact, they are very human experiences.
Defusing anger is a practice, and one that for me is inconsistent at best. The best success I’ve had is utilizing pranayama (breathing exercises) and creating a habit of not personalizing the thing that is angering me.
When I assume something that has happened is a personal affront/attack (and one that was intended to goad or injure me) I go from 0 to 90 rage-monster in milliseconds. Defensive measures engage, and it’s hard to stop the momentum of anger before it overwhelms my limbic brain completely. I can’t think or make rational decisions, then. I am all emotion and suffering!
The best and most effective antidote to anger and the signpost toward a path of forgiveness is mindful self-compassion.
What does self-compassion look like? How do we begin to work with it when we are so twisted up in anxiety, fear, or anger?
The first step comes with feeling, recognizing, and understanding how much suffering we’re experiencing when we engage in habitual reactions of anger, fear, or anxiety. We allow the feelings to exist without leaping to action, or doing something about it.
Our animalistic sides would like for us to leap into action! Jump into the fight! But this doesn’t serve our higher purpose. We want to make the best decisions we can to effect change. So, we abide with the uncomfortable sensations that arise without acting on them.
We give ourselves the experience of cradling our feelings of suffering, imagining the wound we feel as a small wounded baby animal. We self-soothe and open ourselves to fully allowing the emotional sensations to wash through us. We practice breathing in and through the emotional sensations.
Perhaps we find a safe and quiet place to emote, to cry, to scream and yell (not at others, but just to release the emotional tension).
We take care of ourselves and rest, take a break, go for a walk, work out, play with a pet, talk to a friend, create art. Maybe we do something soothing for our bodies, like drink a cup of tea, eat some chocolate, take a bath, get a massage.
When the sharp edge of emotion has passed, then we can be curious about why it arose in the first place. We can bounce the experience off someone we trust, we can journal about it, we can exchange ideas with someone who may have had a similar experience.
This is the place where we can make our best and most effective decisions for change. Here, we can compare this experience to the past, and weigh for ourselves the best course forward toward healing.
At the end of the day, forgiveness is the call to recognize that the things we reject in others are often a mirror of the things we reject in ourselves. Perhaps it’s that we work so hard to overcome the qualities in ourselves that we see proudly displayed in others that bothers us.
Regardless, healing the world and our country starts with healing ourselves. And it begins with forgiveness.