Instructions for Forgiveness Practice

Forgiveness practice is a mantra-based practice, meaning that is based on the recitation of phrases in one's mind. These phrases are offers of forgiveness to oneself or others. The practice is designed to incline the mind toward a particular form of positive thinking, as an antidote to self-criticism and blame. I like to teach this practice in such a way that it implants in procedural memory (the area of memory where reflexes and automatic actions are stored) as opposed to chronological memory, so that it remains accessible in moments of stress. That way, the practice will eventually arise automatically when it is needed, whether the practitioner consciously "thinks of it" or not.

Here are some basic instructions to get started:

  • Sit in a position which is relaxed but upright. Eyes may be closed or open. It is not necessary to keep the body perfectly still when doing forgiveness practice, but it is still a formal technique, so try to find a position which can be maintained in relative stillness with minimal strain or effort.
  • Keep some attention on the place where you feel emotion in the body. For most people, emotion arises along the midline of the body, across the stomach, chest, neck and face. We are trying to detect signs of positive affect, which may or may not arise.
  • Keep some attention on visual thinking, focusing on the aspect of visual thinking which represents the outline of the body in it's current position. For some people, this is a visual representation of the body's position in space, centered at the head and looking down. For others, it is a rapid succession of visual responses to local physical sensations (e.g an image of one's elbow, then hand, then face, then torso--as physical sensations wash over the body).
  • In auditory thinking, begin to recite this phrase:

For any harm I have caused, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words, or actions, I forgive myself as best I am able.

Or the short form:
I forgive myself. or I forgive you. …whichever feels more natural.

  • If spreading the attention over all three of these focus spaces is too challenging, it's ok to reduce it to one or two. As practice progresses, try to reintroduce all three focus spaces. It is this "multi-modal" aspect of lovingkindness practice which helps it to implant in procedural as opposed to chronological memory.
  • If afflictive emotion arises during this practice, that's fine. If possible, let it arise in the background, and continue the technique in the foreground. If that's not possible, consider switching to lovingkindness practice.
  • Traditionally, this practice begins with oneself, and then extends to five more categories of people: teachers/mentors/benefactors, friends, family, neutral people, and difficult people. As practice moves to these other categories, visual thinking will be used to hold images of the various people to whom well-wishes are being sent. For a comprehensive practice, it's good to spend some time in each of the six categories.
  • When other people are the focus of the practice, the following phrases can be used:

For any harm you have caused, knowingly or unknowingly, through your thoughts, words, or actions, I offer my forgiveness as best I am able.
For any harm I have caused, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words, or actions, I ask for your forgiveness.
For any harm I have caused, knowingly or unknowingly, through my thoughts, words, or actions, I forgive myself as best I am able.

Or the short form:
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I forgive myself.

Additional Thoughts

  • Forgiveness practice does not necessarily imply that you will resume ties with a person who has hurt you. Nor does it imply that the hurtful action is now somehow "ok." This practice is simply about abandoning afflictive thinking in one's own mind, recognizing that resentful rumination is only serving to poison one's own experience, it does not actually improve external circumstances. Obviously, constructive thinking and dialog about how a given situation may be avoided in the future is different from ruminating to generate resentment or self-criticism. Even regret can be useful, as a learning tool. If you're not sure, look closely at the motivation behind your thinking. It will become clear what is and isn't constructive.
  • It isn't necessary (or even advisable) to shoot for the most difficult person first. Practice on someone with whom you have a minor disagreement. Work your way up to the more difficult people in your life.
  • Certain people find it easier to practice forgiveness for self when they picture themselves as children. This is always an option. To help this process along, I often invite students to reflect on the simple wish we all have as children to be happy, to be loved. Even when our actions are unskillful, they come from these sincere and innocent motivations.