Like many other primates, such as chimpanzees and macaques, humans have a strong motivational tendencies to retaliate after being victimized. After any slight, insult, act of aggression or infraction, we seek retribution against those who transgress, committing additional wrongdoings in response. Alas, these reactions generally don't put an end to misdeeds and encroachments; revenge creates a cycle of vengeance, as most acts of retaliation are perceived—by the original transgressors who receive the retribution—as disproportionate, far more painful and harmful than the first offense (which was often caused by carelessness during times of stress, rather than planned.) Consequently a back and forth, tit-for-tat series of retaliations and counter-retaliations ensue (Baumeister, Exline, Sommer 1998).
Given the disastrous results that invariably ensue, all cultures have laws and processes that codify and enact punishment, taking the retaliatory response away from individuals. No coherent society can thrive without a regulation of the revenge response, given how quickly it can spiral out of control. However, recent genocidal events in regions such as the balkans, the middle east and rwanda indicate how little control we have over our inclinations to seek revenge at all costs.
Forgiveness is more than a nice idea, it is an essential ingredient to peace of mind. Multiple empirical studies (starting with Emerson in 1964) have documented a direct correlation between forgiveness and health and mental well-being. An inability to forgive is related to depressive cycles, low self-esteem, anxiety and anger, whereas those who develop the capacity to forgive show lower incidents of depression, paranoid ideations, psychotic lapses (Mauger et al 1992). Research by McCullough in 2001 demonstrated that pardoning personal offenses results in a greater degree of satisfaction with one's life over a significant period of time. Additionally, mentally reenacting previous woundings has detrimental results on the cardiovascular system and needlessly triggers the fight-flight-or-freeze response, creating greater likelihood of associated maladies such as diabetes, heart disease, immune system illnesses, etc (Witvliet, 2001).
A group of adolescents who underwent a six week forgiveness practice displayed notable progress in positive outlook, hope and a reduction of anxiety (al-Mabuk 1995). It is worth noting that developing an ability to forgive others is correspondent to the practice of forgiving oneself; the less we can let go of rumination over the misdeeds of others, the less can reduce our own self-belittlement.
What follows are some basic, preparatory steps towards forgiveness. Remember, letting go is a process that can take years, but the difficulty of the process are worth it, given the alternative of obsessive resentment. To learn a wide variety of approaches to this skill, visit dharmaseed.org, click the 'talks' link and enter "forgiveness." It is especially worthwhile to start a practice of listening to the many guided forgivingness meditations.
1) Remember that forgiving doesn't let a transgressor off the hook; they still have to live with the legal and psychological consequences of their actions. We forgive so we can move on and let go of the thoughts. Those who have injured us have to live with their actions.
2) Start with oneself. Bring to mind times we've acted unskillfully, especially in letting ourselves down, feeling the disappointment somatically and allowing it to pass. A mind that pardons is a mind that is free to embrace the present and define life by many experiences, rather than a single, narrow story.
3) To forgive has etymological roots in the word 'unbind.' Harboring resentments ties us to the worst and ugliest acts of others, rather than the many skillful actions they've produced during a lifetime. Forgiving allows us to free ourselves from an enslavement to life's shadows.
4) Forgiveness does not mean allowing someone back into our proximity or interactions; letting go of resentments does not mean letting go of boundaries, even staying away entirely from another. It is possible to forgive and to keep a safe distance. Again, we forgive so that we can let go of retaliatory obsession and move on with life.
5) When 'The Story' of the breach arises, try to envision the events through the eyes of the transgressor, creating a full backstory and life events, understanding how isolated acts do not define entire lives. Viewing events from another perspective takes a great deal of effort, but the long results are worth it.