Forgiveness part 3: the forgiveness garden and other rituals for letting go of resentment

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on February 8, 2012 at 2:25 AM

Finding a way to forgive a person who has caused harm can be one of the most difficult tasks in life to undertake, but also one of the most important. This 4-part series examines why forgiveness is necessary, how to reach a state of forgiveness, rituals that support forgiveness, and the consequences of unforgiveness.

Many indigenous cultures utilize rituals of cleansing and healing to assist with the process of forgiveness, such as Ho’oponopono, which is practiced in Hawaii. The literal meaning of the word is “to make right” and the purpose of the ceremony is to release resentment and clear away negative feelings toward others that have accumulated in the past and present.

Rituals provide a symbolic means of looking at the events of life and also help mark or signify important actions and changes that have taken place. These markers assist with transitions from one stage of life to another and provide reminders throughout life of the growth and progress that have occurred.

However, secular Western society lacks consistent rituals for the act of forgiveness and it is therefore necessary to create our own traditions and find meaning in them in order to benefit from this aspect of the forgiveness process. Here are some suggestions for forgiveness rituals that can support the act of healing old resentments:

1. Make a sacrifice by offering your time as a volunteer to some important cause. Giving of yourself can help you assume the proper mindset for forgiveness and can serve as a powerful symbol of releasing blame for the past.

2. Create a forgiveness garden with special plants chosen to signify the acts of forgiveness you have completed or are working on (for example: in my garden I planted a “Bleeding Heart” to symbolize forgiving myself for all the times I made decisions with my too-sympathetic heart that got me into trouble.) The tasks required to keep the garden healthy, such as planting, watering and weeding, provide additional opportunities to contemplate the need for forgiveness and remember that it is work-in-progress.

3. Burn up your resentment by writing lists of your grievances toward others and then tossing them into a bonfire or fireplace. As the lists turn to ashes, let your anger and resentment dissolve at the same time.

4. Release your anger by gathering up dried leaves, pebbles, pine needles or twigs that represent old wounds and negativity. Hold each item in your hands and entrust your pain to them, feeling the support of nature. Then scatter the entire collection to the wind or toss it into a stream to be carried away.

5. Make a pilgrimage to a special site that has meaning for you. During the journey envision the process of forgiveness unfolding before you as you approach your goal. Spend time at the site contemplating your choice to let go of resentment and feel the relief that comes from unburdening yourself. (Read more about sacred pilgrimage.)

6. Light a special candle to commemorate your act of forgiveness. Keep this candle for future use whenever you need to renew your commitment to releasing resentment toward others.

Any ritual you create for yourself to represent your intention to forgive can be powerful and meaningful as it helps you heal old wounds and cross the threshold into new beginnings. And that ritual can also serve as a reminder on those days when old pain seems to surface anew; for the choice to forgive must be made over and over again as the wheel of life turns.

After much struggle and prayer, Jason’s completion of his work of forgiveness was marked by the moment he had to tell the prosecutor his recommendation for punishment for the young man responsible for his wife’s death. Jason requested that the man be sentenced to community service and counseling for one year rather than be sent to jail.

But, as a beautiful gesture of true forgiveness, Jason also asked for one very surprising and unique consequence: that the young man prepare a dinner for him and his children and share that meal with them on the banks of the Animas River, a favorite place of his deceased wife. Thus the breaking of bread together would become the final ritual that would seal his act of forgiveness and release the young man from his anger.

When you are struggling to forgive someone who has done harm to you, remember that scene: a heartbroken and guilt-ridden young man carefully serving a meal, prepared by his own hands, to a grieving husband and his motherless children, sharing together the pain of this existence and lightening the burden for one another just enough to keep on living.

Categories: Forgiveness, Relationships, Spiritual Practice

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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