I was sitting in a rustic camping lodge on an island in Washington State with a crackling fire in front of me. The smell of pine and earth and wood smoke delighted my senses with each inhale. Around me, people were chatting intently and occasional spurts of laughter erupted in the great hall.
I didn’t want to be there.
It was a retreat – a spiritual retreat – that my employer had sent me to over my protestations. But the theme of the retreat was about learning to be more welcoming in the world and the agency for which I worked found this to be very pertinent to their mission.
So here I was, sitting on a chair and kicking the pine floor idly with my toe, wondering what was going to happen next.
I didn’t want anything to do with spirituality.
A decade prior, a college ministry I was involved with had treated me with a stunning betrayal, humiliating and treating me with remarkable insensitivity. After that, any mention of religion, church, or spirituality automatically raised my hackles.
And yet, there was something about this woodsy retreat that was softening me. Perhaps it was returning to the evergreen environs of my native state of Washington or perhaps it was the friendly and open countenances of my co-retreaters, but I could feel a subtle shift inside me.
I remembered my partner’s words that morning as I left for the airport, “Maybe this will be good for you.” By the time the retreat facilitators called us to the evening session with the energetic and alluring beats of African drums, I had decided to give this experience a chance.
“To be more welcoming of others, we need to be more welcoming of ourselves,” the facilitators said. With that in mind, the plan for the next day was to prepare for and then participate in a healing ritual.
The next day, with the logistics of the ritual in place, the leaders directed us to write down an issue we were struggling with that we would like to be healed. As the other participants scribbled busily on their pieces of paper, I wrote one word:
There were three parts to the ritual: fire, water, and earth. The fire portion did nothing for me. No miraculous healing there. I began to feel some of my old resistance and suspicion arising.
The guide for the water segment of the ritual approached me in the darkness, asked me to pick out a small stone from a bowl, then led me to the edge of the water down the hill from the lodge. She explained that the stone I had picked out represented forgiveness. I was to wade out into the water and, when I was ready, toss the stone into the water as a symbol of forgiveness that was needed in my life.
I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs and took a few steps into the icy water. I thought about the people who had wounded me so deeply in college. “At last,” I thought, “I’ll be able to forgive them.”
I dipped the stone into the water and then, as though my hand took on a life of its own, it moved the stone to touch my forehead and then my heart. I directed my lips to form the words, “I forgive them all.” But, as my hand moved back and then arced forward to release the stone, I heard myself say,
“I forgive myself.”
I gasped and both of my wet, salty hands flew up to cover my mouth. Tears burst from my eyes as I began to understand what had just happened.
My anger wasn’t at them, it was at me.
For holding onto the hurt for all these years, for allowing myself to get into a place where I could be so dreadfully wounded, and for locking my spirit away for so long.
I rushed out of the water, grabbed my shoes and socks, and blindly ran back up the hill in the darkness. My bare feet were almost pierced by the sharp rocks on the path, but I didn’t care. My utter joy outweighed any physical pain I was feeling.
I burst into the lodge where the earth group was conducting the last part of the ritual – connecting with Mother Earth with all of her comfort, security, and love. I lowered myself onto a mound of earth in the middle of the great hall and, as my hands and feet were gently covered with soil, I lay there with muddy tears of joy streaming down my cheeks knowing, once and for all:
I was free.
You might need self-forgiveness if . . .
1. You continue to struggle with anger that is hot and bubbly at the surface for years after the event took place.
I found that I rarely talked to friends about my college experience because I would become so livid in the retelling of the story that it was hard for me to become calm for a long time afterward.
When I gained more perspective, I began to notice that most times in my life when I continuously felt extreme anger toward someone, it was because I was compounding it by being angry for myself for getting into the situation in the first place.
If you find yourself angrier than usual or for longer than is normal for you, be honest with yourself about who you’re really angry with. Sometimes it helps to talk this out with a friend or therapist.
2. You suddenly cut something completely from your life that was previously very important to you.
Spirituality was – and is – very important to me but I erroneously equated the whole concept of spirituality with one group who had hurt me. Trying to avoid pain, I threw the baby out with the bath water.
If you have unceremoniously dumped a healthy component from your life due to pain or anger, take a deeper look. Was it really necessary to excise that piece of your life? Are you hurting yourself in other ways by severing your connection to something that was once meaningful to you?
Perhaps you need to forgive yourself instead of hurting yourself further.
3. Your sensitivity to a certain topic is blown out of proportion.
Prior to my retreat experience, anyone who brought up a topic that was remotely spiritual became the object of at least eye-rolling on my part if not outright cynicism. And I’m not a cynical person!
Do you ever overreact when certain subjects are brought up? Might there be some wound underlying your reaction that needs the healing balm of self-forgiveness?
Two ideas for sparking self-forgiveness
Once you have decided you need to forgive yourself, it can sometimes be hard to allow the experience to happen. Here are just a couple of ideas to get the ball rolling:
1. Be open to manifestations of grace.
Grace as in “a favor, or kindness.”
Sometimes the Universe, a divine presence, or just great timing can provide you with the freedom you seek through self-forgiveness. Be open to it. If I had remained closed to the ritual and other events at that retreat I attended many years ago, I might still be struggling with soul-sucking anger.
2. Use symbolism.
Rituals, ceremonies, or other procedures that involve symbolism can help your mind and heart to connect on a deep level and release your core of self-forgiveness.
Personally, I don’t think talking about my anger or my need for self-forgiveness would have ever brought me what I needed. But using the symbolism of a ritual got me out of my head and into my heart and my spirit that had been jailed for so long within me.
You can do a ritual with friends or by yourself. Write a letter and burn it. Toss a stone of forgiveness into water or a canyon.
Be creative and follow your heart. Your freedom is worth it.
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Last reviewed: 4 May 2013