Own Your Feeling
Here comes the next step on the path, we’re going to begin to shift our focus. When we speak about feelings, we often picture an arrow moving inwards to our heart – perhaps a little like this:
“God, she makes me so angry!”
We could say here that it’s like someone is showing up with some ‘anger’ and they’re handing it over to me. ‘She’ came to my house, and without me asking, she gave me some ‘anger’ and I took it straight into my heart – and now I’m pissed off. “God, she makes me so angry!”
This is how it looks like emotions work. But when we think about it…they’re not like germs that can be transferred from one person to the next. If someone’s in a foul mood, or yelling profusely, we might say that that has an effect on me – and that effect comes from within myself, not from outside. To put it scientifically, our emotions are internal, biochemical brain reactions to a perceived or imagined external stimulus. To put it less clinically, our emotions arise from our own selves, after we take in the scene around us through our unique filters (our beliefs, our background, our life-experience, our family experience…all of our experience). That means that all emotions stem from ourselves based on a perception or a perceived experience. More like this:
“I feel angry.” There’s a subtle shift here, and one that’s monumentally important. It redirects our arrows, and shows our anger is arising from within ourselves – it’s not given to us like an unwanted present – it’s a feeling from our heart/mind.
Now, that feeling arises because of a stimulus – likely, you didn’t spontaneously walk down the street and suddenly experience anger (or another emotion) without prompting. And, at this stage, we want to focus on what’s happening for ourselves. So, the external stimulus (“when I see her”) is grayed out in the diagram. Yes, it’s an important part of the process of emotions and forgiveness, and one that we will return to later. For now, let’s connect with ourselves and bracket-off or gray-out all those things external to ourselves. “I feel angry” – arising from myself, and going towards myself – this is my experience and my feeling. I own it.
Now hop back to step 1 and pick up one of those feelings – let’s say ‘devastatingly sad.’ In step 1, we may have written “Her actions led to me feeling devastatingly sad’.’ Notice now how the arrow goes inwards, from her actions to my feelings. Now in step two, we want to change that arrow ‘I felt devastatingly sad [when I saw what she did].” We are refining it down to its essence: “I felt devastatingly sad.”
Again, take this opportunity to mull over that emotion. Notice when other factors come into play, and politely put those thoughts on pause. This step is not about her, or her actions – or even what happened. This step is about us. What we felt and what we are feeling right now.
Remind yourself that as humans, We Feel. Sometimes profusely and overpoweringly; and, each of these feelings is uniquely ours. The feelings arise within us, based on how we think about a situation, how we understand the people involved, how we were raised, etc. When we are hurt, angry, sad, alone, scared, confused, we usually try to put these emotions on other people: you hurt me, you made me feel angry. We might even choose to place blame while making it sound like our feelings: “I was betrayed, I feel humiliated, you embarrassed me.”
Look through your list above. Do you see any of those sneaky pseudo?feelings that carry implications of blame? Try to rewrite these as genuine feelings and needs (i.e., if you wrote ‘betrayed’ in the list, try writing “sad/connection” meaning “I felt sad because my need for connection wasn’t being met.”) Ruminate, muse, wonder, explore, feel… over and over again until you reach profound connection with these emotions in their basic form.
Remember that this step is for you. The other person, or the event, does not belong in here. If they show up in your mind, politely invite them to leave – remind yourself about your experience and your emotions as they stand alone for now. Connect profoundly and deeply with them – notice, without soothing; experience, without dismissing; invite, without judging.
Say the phrase out-loud to yourself: “I feel __________.” Yell it if you like, from the top of your lungs. Or whisper it softly to yourself, and let it wash over you again and again…. “I feel ________.”
Pause. Breathe. Pause Again.
If we move on to the next steps of this forgiveness process without balance, we are guaranteed to fail. The next step is our first chance to affect the feel/flavor/belief/behavior within a past grievance. If we attempt to make that change before we come to know, accept and fully experience our emotion…OWN our emotion, it’s like trying to pick an apple from a tree that hasn’t fruited yet…
If we haven’t allowed time for the tree to grow, then there are no apples. If we try to harvest, we’ll just rip up that poor little tree – and then we’ll be missing both the fruit of forgiveness in the present, and the possibility of that fruit in the future.
Pause. Experience patience. Allow the sapling to grow and blossom and appreciate its growth.
Pause. Allow the blossoms to turn slowly into apples.
Pause. Pick the sweet fruit and take a bite.
Even then, the fruit may be a bit unripe, a little sour to the taste. Return to your waiting, your breathing, your patience.
Try again another day.
All fruit of the forgiving tree ripens at a different pace. Forgiveness for a small slight may take only minutes, while forgiveness for a large event may take weeks, months or years.
Growing the Forgiving Tree
The appendices of this manual offer nourishment to aid the growth process of the forgiveness tree. A little self-empathy, some tonglen (later), some empathy from others, finding a person to help you process… these will allow the tree to grow faster, and result in a more robust and full tree in the end.
- Listen to other Stories of Forgiveness – hear and feel the pain of others: http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/
- Volunteer at an elderly care home or hospice, or go to a community center – find people to listen to who have lived through and moved through difficult situations. Hear more about their lives. If someone is in pain around you, hear their pain, and connect with their story. Find a moment to remember that suffering is a collective human experience – and that suffering has a spectrum.
- Look into the eyes of a child – find the wonder and magic. Peer deeply into a person who trusts you completely and fully without reservation or fear. Connect with the joy that lies deeply in the endless enthusiasm and optimism of our youth. Find out their name; what are their hobbies? What are their hopes? What do they dream for themselves? Listen again, and remember that joy is also a collective human experience – and that all joy is the blossoming of possibility in the present.
- Spend a week walking different paths – literally. Take a different route to work, or to hang-out with your friends. If Thursday is pizza night, change it to Tuesday. If you read a book from 8-9pm every night, change that pattern – do something from 7:30-8:40 instead. Ask for a different schedule, and go about it in different ways. Our brain takes cues from our environment – if we repeat endlessly the same pattern, we invite our brain/heart to do the same. If we’re looking for a different view, a different focus or a different perspective, we can nourish that journey through taking untrodden paths and surprising ourselves with new and refreshing ways of engaging with the world.
Similarly, there are ways to poison the tree and to stunt its growth. Bitching, stewing, blaming, impatience, frustration, finding others who only multiply and enhance your anger… these will all cause your tree to become sickly and die.
Note here, there is a difference between feeling angry (or any feeling) and bitching/stewing. It is possible to feel anger beautifully, as a sign of our heart’s ability to feel and our own liveliness, without swallowing that anger and harming ourselves (and our forgiveness trees) or worse, allowing that anger to explode out of us and damage ourselves and those around us. It is critical that this anger does not have a foe or a ‘should’ attached to it. (more on that later)
Feel into your anger: what does your body say to you when you are angry?
Avoid saying “I can’t believe I’m still angry! God damnit this will ruin my day.” Avoid saying “Shit, if only I could get past this anger, I could enjoy my meal!” Perhaps it won’t be the most joyful meal of your life, perhaps the conversations will be slightly more difficult, and at the same time there remain spaces of joy in and amongst the spaces of anger. Feel into those as well.
Allow yourself to say ‘I am angry. And that is my emotional state. It is neither good nor bad. It is a part of what I am.’ Notice how your anger interrupts your vision, colors your thoughts, affects the other parts of your day. Practice awareness, and do not dwell or ruminate.
Avoid focusing on the other person – the tree is a metaphor for your own mind, and your own journey in recognizing and loving your emotions. If the other person shows up in your mind, escort them out by focusing again on yourself.
The tree will not grow if you’re looking forward to ripping off one of its branches and using it as a club to beat the other person (or the world/fate) with. Yes, you may have these feelings; when you do, recognize them, say hello, and send them on their way by focusing on something else – one of the ‘nourishing’ options for example.
Notice as well if others invite you to dwell on external factors, or if others are encouraging you to use your tree branch as a club. Consider excusing yourself from those moments/interactions – or making an open request to speak on more peaceful matters.
Pause and Check
Growing this ‘Forgiving Tree’ takes time and work. So let’s stop a moment and check in.
How is my little tree doing? Is it bearing fruit? How does the fruit taste? Sweet? Nourishing? Lovely? Maybe a little tart, a little crisp, a little bitter – reminders that suffering is human; pain is normal and real.
When you think back on that first sentence you wrote in Step One, what do you feel now?
Likely, those emotions you wrote down are still knocking around in your heart, and hopefully their colors are a little muted, their sounds are a little duller, their taste is a little less sharp.
When you think about that moment, your heart doesn’t beat as quickly, the judgments of the other person (or yourself) don’t come so readily to your mind. You still feel those emotions in their raw, full form, and maybe they’re a little transformed, or a little lessened.
It’s likely that as you’ve been reading this manual you’ve had a particular event in mind from your past. You’ve given it some new thought and with this new perspective, may already be feeling a certain lightness.
Consider for a second the last month. Can you recall an event that you haven’t yet thought about that had you feeling sad or angry?
Think about that event for a second.
How did it feel? How do you feel now?
Now let’s debrief.
As you thought about your feelings around this event, did you notice anything different? You probably considered them with extra care and context considered what you’ve read here so far. After all, you are reading this.
Did it affect those feelings? Did it make them a bit lighter?
Maybe you even immediately considered these feelings in a new light…with ownership and authenticity, recognizing the feeling as real, normal, and uniquely yours.
The knowledge you’re gaining is helping you form a habit for how to experience and think about your feelings. If you’ve taken things so far with care and attention, you’re probably already noticing things working differently and are thirsty for more. Let’s continue!