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The Spiral of Forgiveness

12/20/2012 11:23 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

Some years ago a woman came to me for an Archetypal reading because she was feeling blocked in her work. Six months before, she had submitted a book proposal to an editor at a commercial house to whom she had been introduced by a mutual friend. After several discussions, the editor had invited her to submit the proposal and promised to get back to her as soon as possible. When the writer, whom I'll call Susan, hadn't heard back several months later, she sent an e-mail inquiry, but received no response. She not only felt stymied in continuing her work on the project, but also suffered a good deal of self-judgment and guilt for her failure to get results. Because Susan had established a personal connection with the editor before sending her the proposal, she was further concerned that she might be imposing on their nascent friendship.

My intuition said that Susan needed to call the editor on the phone, and, if she couldn't get past her receptionist, to send her a hand-written letter. She was reluctant to take these steps, though, so we proceeded with the reading, using the deck of Archetype Cards that I'd developed with Caroline Myss. The archetypes, based on Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious, are ancient patterns of behavior that we all share, although some archetypes are more active in certain individuals. Among other things, the reading revealed the Damsel in Susan's house of relationships (including business partnership) and the Saboteur in her house of creativity and good fortune. It was clear to me that she had to take charge of the situation by following up, rather than waiting for an imaginary Knight to rescue her, thereby sabotaging her best interests in this creative project.

A day or two later, Susan called me back excitedly to say that she had phoned the editor, who confessed that she had not yet gotten around to reading the proposal. "She had seen the e-mail," Susan said, "but hadn't opened it, because she sensed what it was about and felt at fault for having reneged on her promise."

Not only was Susan relieved, but so was her editor friend, who acknowledged that a nagging burden of guilt had been lifted. Whatever might happen with the proposal, I was delighted that Susan's actions had had a spiraling effect. I wasn't especially surprised by the editor's response because I knew firsthand all the stories of proposals being "misplaced," e-mail lost in spam filters and busy people just being too busy. What struck me, though, was her admission of relief at being able to own up to her guilty feelings. The spiral of forgiveness, encompassing the real and perceived harm we've done to ourselves and others, had expanded to relieve both people of their self-imposed guilt.

That spiraling pattern made me think of the form of meditation known as "loving kindness," or metta in the Buddhist tradition, which directs our inner attention to focus love and empathy first on ourselves, then loved ones, friends, strangers, enemies and finally all sentient beings, including (in some versions) animals, plants and microbes. Similarly, I believe that before forgiving others we have to forgive ourselves, as self-hate and guilt are often at the root of our antagonisms. And because it's impossible to recall or even to know all the incidents for which we hold ourselves and others accountable, consciously or unconsciously, the best way to cover the territory is by following a spiral pattern similar to that of the metta meditation practice, beginning by forgiving ourselves. The outline below may be too detailed to go through every time, but use it to get started. After you've tried it a few times, you can improvise by adding and removing elements as it evolves for you.

Forgiveness Meditation

I forgive myself for everything I've done that I know was wrong. I forgive myself for consciously harming others, stealing, lying, cheating and failing to be compassionate.

I forgive myself for my perceived mistakes in judgment that I believe harmed myself or others, whether they actually did or not.

I forgive myself for inaction when action was called for, and for not intervening to help or protect others when they were in trouble or under attack.

I forgive myself for perceived failures to try hard enough to succeed at something, whether of a material, psychological or spiritual nature.

I forgive myself for my reflexive judgments against myself and others, and any harm I imagine came from that.

I forgive my body for all times when I believe that it let me down, became ill, lost vital energy or experienced pain.

I forgive my mind for all times when it confused or hurt me, felt pain or guilt, or led me to abuse my body and brain.

I forgive myself for failing to be a good steward of the land, its wildlife and resources and of my own possessions.

I forgive others for everything they did to me that they knew was wrong; for consciously harming, stealing, lying, cheating and failing to be compassionate.

I forgive my parents, family members and teachers for intentionally or unintentionally harming me or acting without compassion, including doing what they thought was "for my own good."

I forgive others for perceived mistakes in judgment that I believe harmed myself or others, whether they actually did or not.

I forgive others for their inaction when action was called for, and for not intervening to help or protect me or other people when we were in trouble or under attack.

I forgive others for perceived failures to try hard enough to succeed at something I believe they should have completed.

I forgive corporate, political, and religious organizations for anything they have done that may have harmed me, or the world, in any way.

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