Friday morning when I was teaching a yoga class in Brooklyn, it suddenly dawned on me what forgiveness is and why it’s so important. Having spent the last 17 years studying liberation philosophies, I have of course encountered the idea of forgiveness before, and heard over and over how important it is. But I didn’t really get it until Friday.

The crowd that comes to my Gentle Flow class at 11am Fridays at Yoga Sole in Windsor Terrace is hard core. They are between the ages of 40-70 with no aspirations to be extreme athletes, so when I say hard core I’m not talking about arm balances and pretzel stretches. I’m saying they have been through some shit in this life – deaths, divorces, life-threatening illnesses, children growing up and leaving home, old age moving in… the stuff that makes you either crumble or expand.

As a teacher, I only offer philosophy and accompanying guided meditations that I feel the class is ready to take on. I try not to offer philosophy that might destabilize them or trigger emotional overwhelm. So oftentimes in my classes full of younger, peppier students I might be teaching more challenging poses, but I’m going pretty light on the philosophy.

However that crew in Windsor Terrace could teach me a thing or two about a thing or two. I know they come back because they want to keep getting real – because they are not crumbling, they’re expanding. I think that might be why my insight into forgiveness happened while I was teaching that class.

The theme of the class was “Don’t take anything personally” based on the second “agreement” from Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements.

Ruiz says:

Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds. Their point of view comes from all the programming they received during domestication.

So I read this out loud in the beginning of class, and made jokes throughout class about not taking the fact that we were holding plank pose personally, etc. Then as the energy settled into a more meditative vibe towards the end, I suddenly realized that when you deeply understand that nothing anyone has ever done to you is personal, that’s when forgiveness automatically happens. And that’s when you no longer have to carry the weight of their sins against you.

That’s why Jesus said “forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

The key to forgiveness is that you must fundamentally understand that the person who “wronged you” was not doing something personal against you. Even if their insults were perfectly matched to your tender spots. They were only playing out the momentum of their conditioning.

Essentially, that urge towards self-defense that comes with taking things personally is a healthy survival urge. When the organism feels threatened, it identifies the threat and shields against it. But when that defense mechanism is stuck “on” for years after the threat has subsided, you’re just carrying a really heavy shield for no reason. People still carry these shields against folks who are dead!

You carrying that weight does not punish the person who “wronged” you. It just weakens your joints and slows your roll.

The easiest way to forgiveness is if you get to have a very deep conversation with the person who wronged you, so that you come to understand them. By thoroughly understanding where they were coming from you can intellectually accept that it wasn’t personal. So forgiveness arises.

That’s what happened with me and my dad. After some very rocky early teenage years, I stopped visiting him because there was so much angst between us that I thought he didn’t love me. Fortunately, through my 20’s we were able to forgive and repair because we had some really big brave conversations and chose to understand each other, and realize it wasn’t personal. But those conversations only happen if you’re really lucky.

Oftentimes you can’t have those conversations with the person who you feel damaged by. They might not be willing to have them with you, or they might not be around anymore, or your chemistry might be so volatile that it’s not worth it to try. Or maybe you have never actually met the person you feel wronged by; like an abandoning parent or a political figure. This makes forgiveness a much bigger task.

But when you are taking things personally, when you can’t forgive, you are still in an intimate embrace with that person. By stepping away, hoisting them off of you, and standing at a serene distance, you can take clear action to handle what needs to be handled, or move on.

I know it’s a lot to ask of the fragile human ego, but even if that person/system is still hurting you, by realizing that they know not what they do, that it isn’t personal – by forgiving them – THAT’S when you will know exactly which action to take to take to create closure and move on with your life.

So what has this post brought up for you? Are you carrying the weight of non-forgiveness towards someone or something? Are you interested in setting it down?


Photo: Ken Chau

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