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Keep calm and forgive! Learn the art of letting go

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Manoj Soral delves into the art and science of the essential practice of letting go

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone — you are the one getting burned.” — Buddha

Right from our childhood, we have heard our parents, teachers and our religions tell us that forgiveness is a great virtue. We have heard examples of great prophets and saints who were always so forgiving. But the moment someone hurts us with their words and actions, or if we feel that we have been exploited by someone – physically, mentally or emotionally, all the lessons on forgiveness are instantly forgotten. What remains is the memory of the abuse or humiliation, seething anger and a desire for revenge. And these emotions are the “hot coal” that the Buddha refers to.


Hot Coals

All emotions are forms of energy. And energy is always moving, always seeking an outlet. If the energy of negative emotions like anger and the desire for revenge is suppressed within for a long time, it not only causes anxiety disorders, but can also cause other complications in the body. At times, this ‘hot coal’ singes a person to such an extent that it becomes impossible to recover from it. “Constantly thinking about past hurts is unhealthy for a person.

It creates unhelpful emotions like hatred, anger and sadness. These emotions cause suppression of serotonin (‘the happy chemical’) and increase stress hormones. In the long run it can lead to depression and anxiety. Past hurts can also lead people to believe that no one can be trusted. This belief causes even greater harm, leading to a lot of unpleasantness in people’s lives, and they also miss out on good opportunities in their relationships and life in general,” explains Dr. Deepali Ajinkya, a Mumbai-based practising psychologist.

Positive practice

Practising forgiveness is the only way to prevent these negative emotions from harming you. Forgiveness, says Dr. Anju Kapoor, a practising counsellor in Mumbai, is liberating. “Why carry the burden of what the other person has done? Why should we allow someone else’s actions to take a toll on us? Why should we give it space in our mind? Letting go is actually far easier than carrying a baggage of hurt and resentment,” she says.

Interestingly, the modern definition of the word ‘forgive’ is different from what it was around a thousand years ago. According to the modern Oxford Living Dictionary, to forgive means “to make allowances for, stop feeling resentful towards, feel no resentment towards, stop feeling malice towards, feel no malice towards, harbour no grudge against, bury the hatchet with.”

However, a little research into the origin of the word throws up something totally unexpected and extremely interesting. The word ‘forgive’ comes from the old English word forgiefan, which means to ‘give, allow, grant’ ‘to give away’ (in marriage, etc.), or ‘to give up’. It comprises the words for meaning ‘completely’ and giefan meaning ‘give.’

Feeling and action

This clearly means that in old English, forgiveness was actually about taking action and not just about feeling, as modern dictionaries define it! To forgive someone not only meant changing your feelings towards people but also changing your actions towards them. And it was perhaps this old meaning of forgiveness that Jesus referred to when he asked Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7. In fact, complete healing can occur only when people change both their feelings as well as their actions towards those who hurt them.

There are several remarkable benefits of the complete healing that forgiveness brings. It clears away all the harmful, negative emotions and replaces them with positive emotions. This not only improves relationships and brings joy into your life, but it also has dramatic physical effects such as improved mental health, improved self-esteem, a stronger heart and immune system and reduced stress and anxiety.

Inability to forget

However, while some people are able to forgive easily, those who have been in the grip of resentment and anger for a long time naturally find it difficult to forgive. It could also be because to many people, forgiving is synonymous with forgetting. And they find it difficult to forget. But, as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev says, “Forgiving is not forgetting. It is very important to remember that. You must always remember the sweetest and the bitterest moments of your life. Forgiving means you don’t carry bitterness in you, because it destroys your life. It means that you will not act out of resentment. It means that you will act out of what is needed for the situation.”

Rationalising hurt

Indeed, forgiving people becomes incredibly effortless if one is able to look beyond their seemingly hurtful actions and find the real reason behind their behaviour, as this anecdote from Buddha’s life illustrates: One day, when Buddha was preaching to his disciples, a man suddenly came and spat on his face. Buddha’s disciples were enraged at the man’s audacity. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He must be punished otherwise everybody else will start behaving in this manner!”

But Buddha asked his disciple to keep quiet. “He has not offended me. He is a stranger. He must have heard that I am an atheist, a dangerous man who is leading people astray. He may have formed some idea about me. He has spit on his idea, not on me. He does not even know me, so how can he spit on me?”

Next day, the man returned and fell at Buddha’s feet, asking for forgiveness. And Buddha said, “I cannot forgive you, because I hold no grudge against you.”

So, if you are finding it difficult to forgive someone, remember that it is you who need to remove the bitterness within yourself. As Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”