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Spiritual Practices for the Dark Night -- Forgiveness

Okay -- one more in the spiritual practices series.

But I don't put forgiveness in the same category as thanksgiving and tithing, practices I keep and commend to my readers.  I can't say that I practice forgiveness.  When forgiveness happens, it comes as unbidden as a gracious gift in a time of desperation.

I can't tell you how to forgive.  I never learned.

What I mean by forgiveness goes something like this:  This person has a relationship with me, in which I can expect this person to treat me well, AND this person did me some harm, AND I forgive this person and will carry the burden of not forgiving no longer.

I never learned that kind of forgiveness.  I learned BUT forgiveness:  This person did me some harm, BUT it wasn't that big a deal.  Or:  This person did me harm BUT there were extenuating circumstances.  Or: BUT I just haven't figured out the bigger picture yet.  Or: BUT he/she couldn't help it.  Or: BUT I am the better person, and will let it go.

But the BUTs don't work.  They hide a wound that does not heal.  They disrespect me and how I deserve to be treated.  And they cover with a fig leaf my disrespect for the one who hurt me.

The "I just haven't figured it out yet" thing is especially problematic.  There are certain statements that simply can't be reconciled unless something gives.  In my case, my brain.  Rehearsing and rehearsing the same event, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, experiencing that pain over and over -- this is called rumination, the bad kind of rumination, perseveration even, my therapist would call it when she was trying to scare me out of it.

There are a jillion studies that demonstrate the harm that rumination causes, depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thinking.  Right now I am reading a review of the literature on Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought by Edward Watkins.  Oh, the things I do for my readers.  It's long.  I'll tell you more about it later, when I get to the constructive part, because rumination is one of my best subjects.  I am as good at rumination as I am bad at here and now. If there were an Olympic event in rumination, I would be in Vancouver next month.  The real reason I am reading Watkins is to give me ammunition in my continuing internal debate with a former therapist, which, come to think of it, is rumination.  But I am not there yet.

Like forgiveness.  I am not there yet.

But last month there was a blue moon.  The blue moon is the second full moon in any given month.  They don't happen very often.  Usually there is just one. Hence the saying, Once in a blue moon.  So I decided to mark the occasion by doing something I hardly ever do.  I forgave someone.

I think the basic move in forgiveness is dialectical thinking.  Dialectical thinking is fresh in my mind because NAMI's Peer to Peer class includes the concept.  It involves holding two contradictory thoughts in one mind at one time.  Such as, This person has this relationship with me, in which I can expect this person to treat me well, AND This person did me some harm.  I have to stop trying to reconcile these two statements.  Each of them just is.  It just is.  I don't have to do anything about it.  I just let it be.

What I am letting be, of course, is the flawed humanity of people with whom I have relationships.  And, as it turns out, that includes me.

I don't know why God forgives.  God must have had it in mind when we were created, because we were created with such a capacity to screw up.  That's the price tag for the capacity to love.  So the theologians tell me.  Lately I am ever more respectful of what I don't know about God.  Like why God forgives, and how I might ever forgive.

I have another therapist, not the one who tried to scare me out of my rumination.  This one does energy work with me.  The way he explained it, we blink into existence and out and in again several times per second.  Inertia being what it is, we usually are pretty much the same from one instance to another.  But little nudges in the energy field can change the direction ever so slightly, and over time, move us in a healthier direction (or maybe not so healthy, but that wouldn't be on purpose, one would hope.)  I said, That sounds like Process Theology (which I studied in seminary.)  And he agreed.  I asked, I don't have to believe in it for it to work, do I?  (Because believing is pretty hard for me right now.)  And he said I didn't.

I like energy work, because I don't have to do the work.  I could do it last year during a long time when I couldn't talk.  I lie on the table, while some soothing music plays and he waves his hands, or connects one point of my body to another by holding each, or rings a tuning fork, or I don't know what, because my eyes are closed.  He could be playing computer games for all I know.  But I don't think so.

We talk about it after, and sometimes there are interesting connections.  Once in a bad time, while I was lying there, breathing, eyes closed, I thought, "This is a spiritual battle."  I was glad to know that my therapist's name is Michael, an auspicious name for the job.  When he rang the chime that marks the end of the session, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was an icon of the Archangel over his desk.  So then he said, "It was very strange.  I felt like I was doing spiritual battle."

This week, the word that came to me over and over was "forgiveness," like a mantra.  And afterward he said that my second chakra is particularly active right now, having to do with assertion of self and self-care.

That's what they say, that forgiveness is what you do for yourself.  You lay your burden down and release yourself from the hold that the other person's action, the past has on you.  It sounds like a great idea.  I do get stuck on how to deal with the consequences while letting go of the cause.  "I forgive" doesn't make mental illness disappear.  But not forgiving sure compounds the pain.  So I am going to try a new affirmation when I breathe.  I have been using, "I am here; this is now."  This year it will be, "It just is; let it go."  I'll see how it goes.

The forgiving I did at the last blue moon seems as fragile as moonlight itself, a gift that I hold very gently.  So I do not recommend forgiveness to you.  It's more like, I hope it for you.  And for me.

photo by Simon Howden, from


  1. This is really beautifully written and a fascinating concept. And your mantras are so simple, but powerful.

    I hope you continue to learn to forgive and heal.

  2. Absolutely...very nice post. Forgiveness has always been difficult for me. I really don't think I know how to do it, at least consciously. Often enough I find myself holding on to an anger with volition. And I know that very moment, when I recognize I'm doing so, is the very window for insight and change. It's amazing to me how good anger feels...and it's so destructive. Thanks again for the post.


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