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Practices of Love & Forgiveness

If you are just beginning to more intentionally add love and forgiveness to your life, read through some of the practices below. See which ones capture your interest. Or try one that you can practice on a daily basis, such as Show Simple Affection or Self Forgiveness. Share these with a friend or family member and support each other in becoming more loving and forgiving.

Our thanks to Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat for their contributions to this section.


Image of men forgivingCelebrate the Happiness of Another
In The Kabbalah of Envy Rabbi Nilton Bonder explains a practice that will reinforce love in any situation. "Yiddish has a very special verb, unknown to most other languages: farginen. It means to open space, to share pleasure; it is the exact opposite of the verb to envy. While envy means disliking or resenting the happiness of others, farginen means making a pact with another individual's pleasure or happiness."

The next time you hear about someone else's good fortune, notice your reaction. Do you find yourself having to force a smile and giving rather insincere congratulations? Do you ask, "Why didn't this happen to me?" It is in such moments that many relationships start to deteriorate, so it is important to be able to practice farginen with another person instead.

"To develop the ability to farginen," Bonder advises, "we must first recall from our own experience those moments when we were able to do it. And if this feeling was sincere, it will certainly have been felt with great happiness, a kind of catharsis. Every time we are able to celebrate someone else's happiness, we will, by definition, have greater reason to celebrate ourselves. In this way, we can widen our chances for enjoying life, freeing ourselves from the imprisonment of our own luck. Farginen sets up networks of confidence that enrich life."

Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama hugging Show Simple Affection
Do you shy away from hugging family or friends? From putting an arm around someone's shoulder or showing affection to your husband, wife or partner in front of your children? Many of us like to receive affection. A pat on the back, a smile and squeeze of a hand can generate good feelings. Still, social conventions and fear of what people may think can stop us from expressing our feelings in simple physical gestures. Perhaps we need more of that. Over the next week, try showing more affection to your family and friends. Note how it makes you feel and whether you detect any shifts in your relationships because of it.

This is one of the most popular and accessible personal enrichment tools. Writing regularly in a journal encourages you to see life experiences and emotions more clearly, to better understand your own behavior, and explore your attitudes. Here are some journal exercises to get you started exploring love.

  • Write or draw a tribute to a love of your life. It can be a person, a pet, a place, or a time you felt loved. Use colors, symbols, and metaphors to convey your feelings for and experience of the object of your love.
  • English poet Rupert Brooke once cataloged all the things he loved most in life. Among those on his list: "white plates and cups, cleaning-gleaming, ringed with blue lines; wet roofs beneath the lamplight; and hair that is shiny and free." Make a list of people, animals, things, and qualities in yourself and others that you love most. Ask family and friends to share things they love with you.
  • Describe a moment when you felt truly loved. What was it about that experience that made you feel loved?
  • Describe something you witnessed that showed you the meaning of love.

Expand Your Love to the Earth
Consider ways to extend your love to the living planet we call home, while renewing your relationship with nature, friends, and family. Coordinate rides with others going your way or take public transportation when possible. Eat locally-grown, fresh foods. It's a way to love your body and the environment. Begin or renew your commitment to recycling. Plant a tree. Create a Garden of Love and Forgiveness. What else can you do to honor yourself, the earth, and the rest of its fellow inhabitants?

Send Love Out to the World
Image of woman meditating in natureGenerosity of spirit and love is as important as being generous with material things. But this practice can be lost in the day-to-day busyness of our lives. Are you fortunate enough to be loved by many in your life? Are you in a special relationship? Do you have children, parents, grandparents, or a relative or friend whose love makes a big difference in your life? Wouldn't that love you feel be a great gift to share with others? There are many for whom family gatherings, birthday parties, special celebrations with friends, and other occasions of the heart are difficult times. As a practice, think of those who may not have much love in their life or those who may need an extra dose and open your heart to them. Share your love with those in need through thoughts and prayers. John O'Donohue, author of Anam Cara, a book about the teachings of the ancient Celts of England, spoke of this practice in terms of "soul friends," a friendship where two people are united in awareness, intimacy, and mutuality. He says, "When you send that love out from the bountifulness of your own love, it reaches other people." It's worth a try.

Compliment Your Partner
Something as simple as complimenting your partner can strengthen your relationship. A compliment reinforces self-esteem, encouraging your partner to see him or herself as special, valuable, and loved. At the same time, you are giving yourself a little pat on the back. Daphne Rose Kingma puts it this way in The Book of Love: "To contemplate the uniqueness of your mate is, at the same time, to inform yourself about your own fine qualities. For the exceptionalness of your beloved is a reflection of you; you would not be in the arms of this incredible person if there weren't also something very special about you. To relish your [partner's] sensitivity is to be made aware that you are the kind of person in whose presence such emotional elegance can flourish."

Be Kind
In Love as a Way of Life, Gary Chapman suggests that one way to become more loving is to do small kindnesses for others: tipping well, sharing your umbrella, holding the door for someone. See every encounter with another person as an opportunity to express kindness. Here are two ways to practice kindness as a way of loving.

"At least two mornings this week think of five opportunities you might have in the day ahead to express kindness to someone in words or actions. At the end of the day record the acts of service you did."

"Practice hearing yourself talk. After each verbal encounter, ask youself, What did I say that was kind? and What did I say that was unkind?" Apologize for any unkind statements.

Be Open to Wonders
La Conner tulips and barnThere is something about love that just can't be put into words. Like a gorgeous sunset or the smile of a young child, it takes your breath away. Love is characterized by moments of wonder. We reinforce this feeling when we are mindful of surprises, awe-inspiring sights and situations, and other daily wonders of our lives.

Keep a "Moments of Wonder Journal." Every evening, think back over your day, paying special attention to the experiences that engaged your senses—smells, textures, tastes, sounds, and sights. Make a list of those marvels that made you want to respond, "Ahhh!" Set up a Wonder Table in your home.

Concentrate each day of the week on a different sense. Monday, smell; Tuesday, touch; Wednesday, taste; Thursday, seeing; Friday, hearing; and Saturday, synesthesia (the interplay of the senses). Notice what each sense is drawn to--what it loves. Try to expose your senses to new sensations. Set out a variety of herbs and practice identifying them by smell alone. Collect beads and stones and compare their surface textures. Assemble a platter of as many tastes as possible: salty, sweet, bitter, bland, etc. Look for odd color combinations in magazines and picture books. Find as many different syles of music as you can in your CD collection, or scan the stations on your radio noticing types of music, modulations of voices, and more.

A Beauty Stroll
In Wild Communion: Experiencing Peace in Nature, Ruth Baetz suggests that a loving relationship with nature is possible if we put aside our reason and open our hearts. Here is one of her practices:

"Everywhere I stroll I say, 'Hello, beauty,' or 'You're magnificent, beauty.' Each time there is a rush of recognition and delight.

I walk on a carpet of gold witch hazel leaves, breathing on the sweet scent of the tree's strange spidery flowers. I put my face into a branch full of red maple leaves and kiss one. I study an intricately curled brown leaf hanging limply on a peach maple tree.

I walk into the arms of my favorite bright yellow tree. 'Hello, beauty. I know you're fleeting in my life. I know as a human animal with limited capacities I can't hold you, but I thank you for being here today.'"

Generosity Practices
Giving is one way we express our love—to those close to us, to our neighbors, to animals and plants, and to the Earth. We are encouraged to be generous at certain times of year—holidays, birthdays, at year's end for tax deductions—but spiritual practices can help us make generosity an everyday activity.
  • Rabbi David Cooper in his book, God Is a Verb, suggests that every morning, you put a dollar in a place where you can reach it quickly. Give it away to the first needy person you meet, without stopping to evaluate how the money will be used. This practice cultivates the habit of giving without judgment, without ego, without thinking about what you might get back.
  • Have a generosity piggybank in your home. When you resist the impulse to go out for an expensive dinner, put a note in the bank with the dollar amount you have saved by eating at home. Children might choose to forgo a new toy and put the equivalent money in the bank. Adults might add up the cost of parking saved by taking public transportation. Periodically empty your generosity bank and have a family council to decide how to distribute it. Be creative in how you fill the bank and how you give its contents away.
Planning for Gratitude
Create a Gratitude Calendar in your datebook, email program, online calendar, social media profile, etc., and use it to remind yourself to say blessings. You might have a different focus each month: 1) People I've Known, 2) People I Don't Know but Admire, 3) Artists, 4) Service Providers, 5) Spiritual and Other Communities, 6) My Body, 7) Places, 8) Animals, 9) Nature, 10) Food and Drink, 11) Things, 12) Opportunities.

Practice Compassion
In her book First Invite Love In, Tana Pesso shares 40 guided meditations from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition designed to cultivate compassion. Here is one of them:
"Think about someone who has upset, irritated, or angered you. Imagine that in a past life this person has been the most loving and caring mother to you conceivable. Imagine that this person made every sacrifice possible to shield you from danger, comfort you in sadness, and attend to your every need. Then think about how grateful you would have been to this person when they were taking such care of you when you were a child. Now try this with as many people as possible who have upset, hurt, or angered you in the past."
Hugging Practice
This hugging practice is recommended by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in his Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. It is a perfect ritual to do with the ones you love.

"You can practice hugging meditation with a friend, a child, your parents, or even a tree. To practice, first bow to each other and recognize each other's presence. Then, enjoy three deep, conscious breaths to bring yourself fully into the present moment. Next, open your arms and begin hugging, holding each other for three in-and out-breaths. With the first breath, become aware that you are present in this very moment and feel happy. With the second breath, become aware that the other person is present in this moment and feel happy as well. With the third breath, become aware that you are here together, right now, on this Earth. We can feel deep gratitude and happiness for our togetherness. Finally, release the other person and bow to each other to show your thanks."

List-making focuses our attention and helps us discover what is really important to us. Here are two suggestions for creating lists that can help bring love into the foreground of your life:
  • Love list. This simple, yet powerful idea comes from Life Is Sweet by Addie Johnson. Make a list of every single person you love. Then make a second list of all the people who love you. Stash it in a pocket and look at it when you are having a tough day.
  • Make a list for tomorrow. Every day offers us opportunities to express unconditional love. Nobody is perfect at this, but we can get better at it if we consciously try to offer love without expecting things in return. In It's Up to You, Karen Casey suggests the simple practice of making a list of the times and people who will get your love tomorrow. This will help you remember and create opportunities to love more intentionally.
New Year's Practices to Honor Your True Self
The beginning of a new year is a time for stepping up to a vision of who you really are. Here are two journal exercises to jump-start that process.
  • Identify your special gifts and the talents or skills you have developed. Our gifts--what we are naturally good at--and our talents--what we have chosen to improve--are clues to our special calling. Reflect on how well you are fulfilling your destiny.
  • Draw pictures of some of the masks you tend to wear, the outer expressions of your inner selves. Choose the one you would most like to present to the world.
New Beginnings
"The great metaphors from all spiritual traditions--grace, liberation, being born again, awakening from illusions--testify that it is possible to transcend the conditioning of the past and do a new thing," Sam Keen has reminded us. This kind of transformation implies a marked change in your life, but you can practice it by making simple changes. Start by doing something, anything differently--walk to work by a new route, answer the telephone with a different hand. Then, expand that out to other behaviors that affect how loving, forgiving, or compassionate you are--even if it means beginning with changing your thoughts. Set an intention that you are willing to make a new beginning--again and again.
Pay Compliments
A compliment is more than something nice you say to someone. It demonstrates what you value and also strengthens that quality in yourself. Here are ways to practice.
  • In Energize Your Heart in 4 Dimensions, Puran and Susanna Bair say there are three parts of a compliment: "First, be completely positive and leave out any implied putdown. Second, state the observable evidence that supports the compliment, and third, connect the compliment to the person's heart, to make it clear you're talking about the person, not their job or behavior." For example: "I love to work with you; you make people feel they can succeed, because of your consistent optimism."
  • In Leap Before You Look, Arjuna Ardagh challenges us to compliment strangers. "Go into a place where there are people you do not know: A shopping mall, restaurant, bank, or park. Compliment three people you have never met. 'I love your nail polish. Thank you for the radiant presence you bring to your job. You have beautiful eyes.' Approach an old couple and tell them how much love you can feel between them. See how far you can step out on a limb in spreading into this world a little more irrational generosity. Do not upset anyone, but equally do not hold back. Step beyond the habitual limits of socially acceptable restraint."
Seeing Ourselves Through Other's Eyes
In her book Radical Self-Acceptance, Tara Brach, describes a simple spiritual practice for reframing how you see yourself:
"Sometimes the easiest way to appreciate ourselves is by looking through the eyes of someone who loves us. A friend told me that when he sees himself through the eyes of his spiritual teacher, he remembers how deeply devoted he is to seeking the truth. One of my clients realizes he is lovable when he remembers how his grandfather used to delight in his boyish curiosity and inventiveness. Sometimes seeing ourselves through the eyes of a close friend can help us to remember our good qualities.... We don't have to limit our appreciators to the human world. I once saw a bumper sticker that said: 'Lord, help me to see myself the way my dog sees me.'... The practice of looking through the eyes of one who loves us can be a powerful and surprisingly direct way to remember our beauty and goodness."

Doing What's Hard
In It's a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice, Bo Lozoff shares a slogan used in his community: "You can do hard." Lozoff, the cofounder of the Human Kindness Foundation and its award-winning Prison Ashram Project, explains that in our times saying something is "too hard" allows us to give up without trying. By using the slogan we remind ourselves of our potential service: "We need not run away in fear just because something is greatly challenging," Lozoff says. "It might be daunting, but we can do daunting. It might even be scary, be we can do scary."

It helps if you reinforce your desire to do something that is difficult with a concrete practice. Making a vow in front of others is one way to give some importance and momentum to your efforts. Here are some recommended steps to vow-making:
  • Before making a vow, spend time in reflection or prayer about what you want to do.
  • Share this process with your partner, a good friend, your pastor, teacher, or spiritual director. Openly expressing your plans reinforces them.
  • Write your vow or promise down. Be very specific. You may want to start with a short-term plan.
  • Finally, state your vow publicly before friends, family, or community. There is real power in making commitments before others. You promise to uphold your vow, and those present make a commitment to support you.
  • Once you have made a vow, repeat it to yourself every morning. This practice reinforces your intention and also gives you proof positive that you can do hard.
Deep Listening
One of the many ways to practice deep listening is to try and be truly present with the other person. It was said that the writer Ernest Hemingway had a way of listening with such intensity that the person doing the speaking felt supremely complimented. One step is to seek to have agenda free conversations where you are free to listen to what the other person says rather than listening while thinking about what you are going to say in response. Another practice is to make lists to assess how you listen: I always listen to....: I rarely listen to... I could improve how well I listen to....
Creativity and Love
People tend to think that creativity is a solitary endeavor, yet artists often talk about having a muse and the joy they experience creating for their loved ones. In ancient China, it was said that it takes two to create a masterpiece: an artist who imagines something beautiful and a person who appreciates it. To do your part in creating a materpiece:
  • Share a drawing, painting, photograph, poem, or other work of art--an original piece or one you admire--with someone you love.
  • Respond to a loved one's creativity by writing a letter or email of appreciation or calling them.

Older man looking contemplatively out a windowForgiveness

Self Forgiveness
Imagine what might happen if we were all more forgiving. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. So start by learning to forgive yourself using Fred Luskin's nine steps to forgiveness, also featured in Prevention magazine and the campaign film, The Power of Forgiveness. This may help you find compassion and forgiveness for others. Luskin is co-director of the Stanford-Northern Ireland HOPE Project and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.

Visualizing Forgiveness
It can be useful to rehearse an act of forgiveness by practicing visualization. This exercise is adapted from Robin Casarjian's Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Bring to mind a person with whom you are in conflict. Recall what the real issues behind this conflict are for you. Recall what you are feeling about this person. Recall what you feel is still workable for you in this relationship. Breathe in and feel the wholeness within your own being.

Now imagine yourself in a safe place and imagine being with this person. Tell the person, as simply and clearly as possible, how you perceive the issues between you and the truth of your experience. Speak from your deeper self to his or her deeper self. Imagine that the person really listens and hears you. When you are ready, bring your attention back to the present moment. If you are able to, use this exercise to actually have that conversation.

Another Point of View
Think of a situation in your life where you would like to be forgiven or would like to forgive. Write or record a short description of the situation from your perspective. Now imagine that you are the other person in the situation and write or record a short description from that person's perspective. How are the two stories different? Have you ever thought about the situation from the other person's perspective? Does it make you more willing to consider forgiveness in this situation?

Just Like Me
Resentments, disagreements, and estrangements hurt all parties because they reinforce feelings of separation. Often we can't forgive someone until we can see the situation from their point of view. A good practice to encourage this kind of perspective shift is "Just Like Me." Whenever you find yourself making an assessment of another person, whether you are saying something critical or something complimentary, right after you think or say it, add the statement "just like me." For example, "My partner is so stubborn, just like me." "My friend holds too many grudges, just like me." While you are claiming negative qualities, also claim positive ones. For example, "My friend is so generous with her time, just like me." "He is so creative, just like me." This activity can help you see that we are all imperfect and make mistakes.

Remind People of Their Good Qualities and Deeds
In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield describes an African forgiveness ritual: "In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe." Even if you cannot stage this extensive a ritual, you can reinforce and encourage forgiveness by reminding the person who has committed a wrong of their positive qualities and contributions.

Image of Cauasian woman in a discussion with African American manPractice Meeting People for the First Time
Hugh Prather, author of many books of spiritual reflections, considers the steps necessary for forgiveness in Morning Notes: 365 Meditations to Wake You Up. He concludes that "a judgmental feeling about another person is based on the same belief as my fear of making mistakes: I think what someone once did is more important than how the person is now." Practice meeting people as they are right now, as if you were meeting them for the first time. If their past actions dominate your perceptions, this will be difficult. Notice how your feelings and availability change when you start with a clean slate.

We find that to practice love or forgiveness, it is necessary to persevere and keep on in the face of loss, adversity, and suffering. Here are some attitudinal adjustments that help develop resilience.

  • Keep things in perspective by not seeing yourself as a victim or the world as a chamber of horrors.
  • Live each day for the long haul; keep the big picture in mind.
  • Cultivate patience so that you can be flexible during hard times.

More Self Forgiveness Practices
In Choosing Happiness Stephanie Dowrick uses short seed meditations to encourage journal writing and reflection. Here are some of her suggestions on self-forgiveness.

  • "Practice gratitude for what is good and supportive in your life.
  • When self-hatred or self-pity fill your mind, meet them with compassion but don't cultivate them. Pay attention to something uplifting. Focus on your strengths.
  • Support your need for self-forgiveness with clarity and compassion."

When you need to forgive yourself, it's important to acknowledge what you have done and learn from it, but also to value all of who you are. In Spiritual Rx Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat recommend a simple practice to help you recognize the big picture of who you are; it can be very helpful when you are down on yourself. "The next time you tell a story about yourself, instead of saying 'I am', substitute the phrase, 'Part of me is.'"

Passing Forgiveness
In many Christian worship services, there is a point after Confession of Sins prayer called "Passing the Peace." One worshipper turns to another and says, "The peace of God be with you." The reply is, "And with you also." Use this or another saying in your rituals to indicate acceptance of the forgiveness of God and the expression of mutual forgiveness.
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