Forgiveness is not a traditional heart practice in Buddhism, but I find it to be very important. Forgiveness meditation is a process in which we set the intention to let go. As with all of the heart practices, forgiveness takes time. We don’t sit once in a forgiveness practice and suddenly forgive somebody completely. Through repeated cultivation, we’re able to let go a little more easily over time.
There are a few points that I think are important to understand about forgiveness practice. First, forgiveness does not mean we condone any harmful behavior. Forgiving somebody is a process of freeing space in our hearts, a practice of letting go. If somebody harms us and we forgive them, it doesn’t make us a doormat or weak. We don’t need to permit harmful behavior. Rather, the point is to let go of the pain we have in our own hearts. We can forgive somebody and free ourselves from the suffering created by holding on to resentment.
Second, we can forgive somebody without forgiving their actions. This is related to the above point. We must separate the actions from the actor. People who create harm (ourselves included) may do so intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, harmful action is often the result of some suffering in one’s life. The actor is always forgivable. When we separate the actor from the action, we can look at the person’s suffering, forgive the actor, and not enable the action.
The last thing I think we must understand about forgiveness practice is that we don’t need to let somebody harmful back into our lives. We can let somebody back into our hearts without letting them back into our lives. When we forgive somebody, we don’t need to allow ourselves to get harmed again. Forgiving is a process of letting go, but not of stepping into harm’s way again. When we work on forgiving somebody who has harmed us, it is a meditative practice of opening the heart.
In forgiveness practice, we repeat phrases toward ourselves and others. The phrases aren’t meant to evoke any strong emotion. Emotion may arise, but it isn’t really the goal. You can’t judge your forgiveness practice based on the amount of emotion you are feeling. Meditation takes repeated effort, and it is through this continual intention setting that we are able to gradually free space in our hearts.