Thursday, August 16, 2012

Repairing Our Mistakes: How to Ask for Forgiveness

Ever tell a child to apologize? Frequently, he or she would rather do almost anything else than ask for forgiveness. As adults, it is not much different. Why?

Requesting forgiveness means admitting we were wrong. This is a blow to our egos, which think we never make mistakes. But we can shrink our egos down to size by increasing humility.

One way to enhance humility is to remind yourself daily of the following: Everything I am and have accomplished is due to the help of my Creator. My successes and achievements come only from Him. He is my strength and with Him, I can do anything. Without Him, I can do nothing and would be totally helpless. In truth, without God, I am nothing; I wouldn’t even exist.

When we acknowledge our human frailty, we can then be on the lookout for our inevitable mistakes and immediately correct them.

There are numerous ways we harm others: Speaking negatively about them, making hurtful comments, ignoring or mistreating them, causing financial harm or withholding items or monies due.

The above list encompasses common behavior. Yet, many times we do not realize we have committed them. People frequently think they have done the right thing, even when they are grossly mistaken. As the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” A frightening thought – if we often do not realize we harmed someone, emotionally or financially, how can we be certain we are not walking on that road?

1) Be brutally honest. When we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we are very good at rationalizing sinful behavior and fooling ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is technically OK. Ask yourself, “Even if what I’m doing is within the letter of the law, am I doing, “…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...(Deuteronomy 6:18)?”

The more complex and self-serving the logic needed to justify our behavior, the greater the chances that it is evil in God’s eyes. In the end, His view is the only one that matters.

Ask, “What do I want more: To be right or to do right? Am I willing to admit I was wrong in order to do what is right?”

When you are ready to do the right thing – your Creator’s will – at all costs and ask Him for assistance, He will help you achieve your goal.

2) Learn the law. Study the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior. One resource is Rabbi Yitzchok Silver’s fascinating book, The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships. In addition, Rabbi Silver recently authored, Money in Halachah: A Comprehensive Guide to Business and Domestic Money-related Halachos.

Another important work on monetary laws is Halachos of Other Peoples’ Money by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner. The title is telling; a common error which leads many to violate the prohibition of stealing is the assumption that “I’m not a thief; the money in question is mine.” When discussing a situation with a knowledgeable rabbi we may discover, in more scenarios than we expect, that God says, “The money in question is not yours, it is other peoples’ money.”

3) Ask your rabbi. Even when you think you know the law, in matters where you have a vested interest, it is important to consult with a rabbi for an unbiased perspective. King Solomon taught us (Proverbs 12:15), “The way of the fool is correct in his own eyes, but he who is wise listens to advice.”

In general, if someone has made a claim against you, financial or emotional, or if you caused someone distress in any way, either apologize and make amends, or go to a rabbi well versed in Torah law and find out how the Torah guides one to act. If possible, invite the other party to present their side, as you have a biased view of the situation.

A quick guide to asking for forgiveness

Motivate yourself: Asking someone for forgiveness requires sufficient motivation. To start, realize that God does not overlook the harm done to one of His children; if we do not do our best to right the wrongs we have committed, those sins will come back to haunt us.

In addition, think of the sense of freedom that comes with being forgiven, when the heavy weight of harm done to others has been lifted from your shoulders.

Some people do not want to apologize because they are concerned they will repeat the same mistake and make asking for forgiveness meaningless. Apologizing is not the equivalent of taking an oath never to repeat the offense. When we say we are sorry, we are saying: We feel badly we have caused them distress, we will make it up to them, if appropriate, and we are committed to do better in the future.

Make a list of those whom you have harmed: Consider family members, friends, neighbors, fellow congregants, business associates, former classmates, individuals with whom you are not on good terms and those with whom you have had a conflict in the past. (Even when we were right, frequently, we may have needlessly hurt other people.) Consult with your rabbi if you are unsure about the need to apologize to someone or if you think it will only make matters worse.

Commit to approaching the person: Once you have compiled your list, choose the person you think will be easiest to make amends with and pick a date on which you commit to call, write, or approach them. Focus on one or more people each week, until you have cleared your slate.

During the exchange: When you ask for forgiveness, be sincere and to the point. Acknowledge what you did and that it was wrong. Do not give excuses or minimize what happened. Express regret and make amends, when applicable. Use phrases such as: “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “Please forgive me,” or, “Do you forgive me?” Most of the time, people will graciously forgive us if we show sincere regret and a desire to make things right.

Sometimes, people are dismissive and respond to our request for forgiveness with, “Don’t worry about it,” “It’s OK,” or, “It was no big deal.” In that case, it would be best to say to them, “To get the most closure, I’d appreciate it if you said, ‘I forgive you.’”

The High Holiday season is an especially good time to ask for forgiveness. People are more likely to be forgiving then and the holidays provide a natural lead-in for the conversation, e.g., “Rosh Hashanah is around the corner and I would like to begin the New Year with a clean slate. I feel badly about the time I….”

Afterward: If they forgive you, thank them; they have just given you a gift. In the future, do the best you can to prevent a recurrence of the wrong that was done, and go out of your way to be helpful to them.

Once you have secured a person’s forgiveness, put a check mark next to his or her name and move on to the next person on your list.

Repairing the world one person at a time

Each individual is precious and is compared to an entire world (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). Therefore, when we harm someone, it is as if we have damaged the whole world. When we make amends and request forgiveness, it is as if we have repaired the entire world.

The world is in dire need of repair; many are hurting from wrongs done to them. From whom will you request forgiveness?

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Dealing with Distressing Memories

King David compared one who has faith in God to “…A suckling child beside its mother…(Psalms 131:2)” Imagine how an infant feels while resting after being nursed. When we realize our Creator is guiding our lives and we unconditionally accept His will, the peaceful feeling of complete reliance and contentment can be ours.

Maintaining an attitude of reliance and contentment can be very challenging, especially when faced with a distressing incident or memory. You may find the following exercise helpful. The first part of this exercise is based on the pendulation technique by trauma expert and author Peter A. Levine. In this technique, a person gently shifts awareness back and forth between focusing on something which currently brings up emotional distress and something which brings up emotional calm. This can help neutralize the emotional distress which the incident used to bring up.

Only do this exercise with memories you feel safe thinking about and not with ones that are overwhelming or very disturbing. In those cases, seek professional help, or at least read works focused on the treatment of trauma, such as those by Peter A. Levine, among other authors. If while doing this exercise you feel increased distress, stop the exercise, and do something else which you find calming and relaxing.

Exercise: Sit comfortably or lie down. Bring to mind the image of an infant resting after being fed. Imagine you are that infant, resting in the protection of your Creator who provides for all your needs. As best you can, try to tap into feelings of trust, safety, peace and contentment. To facilitate this, you can recall a time when you felt those feelings. You can also use a different calming image if you find that more effective.

Now, think of a distressing event – start with only a mild one. While visualizing yourself in the unpleasant situation, realize that you are like that infant, always resting in the protection of your Creator, no matter where you are. Gently shift back and forth, between visualizing the distressing incident and feeling the emotions associated with it, and visualizing the comforting image of the infant (or a different image) and feeling the emotions associated with that. Keep doing this, until you generally feel calmer, and/or are able to feel some feelings of safety and protection even while thinking about the distressing event.

When you are ready, begin the second step of this exercise which will incorporate the use of affirmations. While thinking about the distressing incident, say out loud, “My Father is always by my side.” Imagine a trusted confidante asking you, “How does it feel to have your Father always by your side?” Pause, while you tap into the feeling.

While still visualizing the distressing incident, say, “I relax into my Father’s support.” Imagine being asked, “How would it feel to completely relax into your Father’s support?”

Clear your mind of the incident and take a deep breath in. As you exhale slowly through the mouth, with a sigh of relief, feel your body go limp; allow yourself to completely let go and relax into your Father’s support. Do this for at least two exhalations.

Now rest in a state of being completely supported and protected.

After you have done the above technique a number of times, you can try the digest version: While thinking about or experiencing a distressing event, take a deep breath in and as you exhale slowly through the mouth think, “I relax into my Father’s support.” Do this for at least two exhalations.

An alternative exercise is to think while slowly breathing in, “God is with me” and while slowly breathing out, “I relax into my Father’s support.”
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Discover Your Inner Peace

Inner peace, the feeling of deep tranquility, is often sought after, yet seldom achieved. At the core of inner peace is acceptance: Accepting ourselves, and the life our Creator has given us. We achieve acceptance by making peace with ourselves over past mistakes and by making peace with our Creator over life’s challenges. After we have made peace with the way life has unfolded on the outside, we can find peace on the inside.

Making peace with ourselves

Forgiving and accepting ourselves is challenging. Yet, when we berate and harshly criticize ourselves, we do more harm than good. If a person views himself as worthless and bad, that is how he will act. We need to have a positive image of ourselves, one we will be motivated to live up to.

Do damage control: Before attempting to make peace with yourself for a mistake – whether as minor as burning dinner or as major as getting scammed – first take responsibility for the error and repair the damage as best you can. Depending on the situation, see if you have to first ask for forgiveness from others and/or from God (if you are unsure, speak to a rabbi).

Consider what you learned from the experience and what you will do differently in the future; write these down to refer back to. Then see if you can let go of the blame or guilt you feel about the event.

What if you cannot let go?

Acknowledge God is guiding your life: Unless you willfully did what you knew was wrong or negligent, your mistakes come from God for your highest good; nothing, not even our errors, happens without His permission. What you thought was a mistake was just one step along a path leading to where you need to go.

Embrace your imperfections: Who gave you your flaws? Who made you prone to error? God. Accept the way He created you – which is the optimal setup to fulfill your life’s purpose. In addition, acknowledge that no one is perfect; we all have challenges and make mistakes. Ask yourself, “At the time of the incident, was I doing the best I could in a difficult situation? Am I certain that if others where in my exact position – with the all challenges and issues going on – they would have done any better?”

Treat yourself as you would others: Frequently, we are harder on ourselves than on others. We may overlook a wrong someone else did, but consider our own mistakes unforgivable. Don’t we deserve the same compassion and acceptance? After repenting, God forgives us, shouldn’t we forgive ourselves?

Forgive: When you are ready, look in the mirror, think about the mistake you made and say out loud, “I forgive myself.”

If you have trouble forgiving yourself, perhaps you need to first focus on forgiving others. When you become a more forgiving person, you will have an easier time forgiving yourself. Also, focus on enhancing your self-image to help you realize that you are worthy of forgiveness (see, “How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself).”

Making peace with God

When life does not go as expected – especially when we experience physical, financial or emotional pain – we may feel that we have been treated unfairly by our Creator. We may even be bitter, resentful and angry. How do we handle such strong emotions? How can we become more accepting of the life our Creator has given us?

Express your pain: Nothing is wrong with respectfully questioning God. Throughout Psalms, God is asked why He is sometimes silent and appears to have abandoned us (Psalm 13 among others). We need to express our hurt to Him. We need to ask Him to reveal His sometimes hidden love. At the same time, we need to realize that God never promised a pain-free life – that is not the purpose of this world; this world is about overcoming and growing from challenges. Each challenge comes from God out of His love for us and is for our eternal benefit. We just do not understand the mystery of His ways. He is, after all, infinitely wise and we are not.

Expand your perspective: We can learn to be appreciative of the blessings God gives us and has given us throughout our lives. When we do, we will view the times we did not see His guiding hand in context with all the times He was clearly present, providing and protecting us. The periods of our lives marked by dark clouds do not reflect a change in His involvement, just a change in our ability to perceive His providence.

Accept unconditionally: The aspects of our lives we like – the gifts – and those we do not like – the challenges – both come from our Creator; they coalesce and form a unified whole. As Job said (Job 2:10), “…Will we accept the good from God and not accept the bad?”

Challenges, open us up and enable us to discover our inner gifts; the more intense our struggles, the more intense the gifts waiting to be uncovered.

Weave your unique tapestry: In truth, everything is a gift, some sugar-coated, others very bitter. God gives us the strands we need to fulfill our life’s purpose; we have to weave them together, the sweet and the bitter, into an exquisite tapestry that only we can make. If one strand was prematurely removed or absent, our life’s work would be deficient. At the end of our lives, we will present our handiwork to our Father in Heaven, with the hope that we have made our Father proud.

Reveal your inner sweetness: Sometimes, we call out to God in pain and ask, “Why? Why this suffering?” In the next world we will understand. For now, consider the following metaphor: Only when an orange is squeezed does incredible sweetness pour out. Within each one of us, emanating from deep within our souls, is incredible sweetness. When life is difficult – when you are squeezed and “hugged” by God – let your soul’s sweetness burst forth, returning His embrace, with an outpouring of heartfelt faith, sincere repentance, fervent prayer, and selfless acts of kindness. When God hugs you, hug Him back. When you hug God, out pours from the Heavens healing and blessing; not always when we want or in the way we want, but always when and what we need.

Pray: When you are ready, say to your Creator, “I know my suffering and difficulties come from You; they are out of Your endless love for me and for my ultimate good. I know You are all-powerful and infinitely wise and that I cannot understand Your ways. Help me accept, grow from and transcend my challenges.”

Discovering inner peace

You have an oasis of peace inside you. The door through which you enter this oasis is unconditional acceptance. To help you find this door, think about, throughout the day, that God is with you. He is guiding your life, protecting and strengthening you, and giving you exactly what you need for each moment. 

With faith, comes the awareness that nothing bad will happen to you, ever. Painful events? Definitely, but always for your highest good. You realize that come what may, “God is with me, I have no fear…(Psalms 118:6)”

While making reasonable efforts to improve your life, give over your problems to God and rely on Him to take care of you. Let go of worry, let go of fear, and relax into your Father’s support.
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