We all hold grudges. But it’s important to know that holding a grudge against others—or even yourself—can cause immediate and lasting harm to your mental health. It can even cause you to feel physically unwell. And if you practice a religion or spirituality, it can cause you to feel out of alignment with the universe.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a great “letting go” of the unnecessary burden of grudges. It’s like canceling unnecessary debt. It is a gift, first and foremost, for yourself. It can be difficult, but like most skills in life, it can be learned and we can always start small.
Dropping the mindset of opposition
When you’re holding a grudge, you are clinging to a limited, isolated mindset. You are always at war, even if there are no battles currently happening. Even in seemingly neutral spaces, such as a grocery store, you might see the object of your grudge or someone who looks like them. Immediately, your peace of mind will be lost.
You will be less trusting of others, as well. As we grow older, if we do not learn to let go of grudges, we will accumulate them like postcards from our life-journeys. Then, whenever we meet a new person, we risk associating them with one of those past grudges.
Eventually, and usually unconsciously, your grudges can even become biases. Perhaps you have had only a few encounters with people of color, but you were untrusting toward them from the start due to things you heard growing up. Then, due to that, your experiences with them weren’t great. This can reinforce biases and prejudices against particular groups of people.
It takes conscious effort to see the amount of energy we are wasting on old grudges. And then it takes yet more effort to let them go.
As I’ve written about before, my favorite meditation practice is the cultivation of loving-kindness. The practice, as I learned it, always begins with cultivating loving-kindness for oneself. My favorite explanation for this comes from a reference to the pre-flight instructions we get on airplanes: “in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down. . . Be sure to put yours on first before assisting others around you.”
We can have an impulse to put ourselves last, especially in spiritual practices. But when we’re thinking of something like loving-kindness, we can imagine the quality and quantity of what we can give others going up dramatically if we have offered it to ourselves first. It’s not a zero-sum game. The more care we invest in ourselves, the more we will be able to invest in others.
After building up a reservoir of loving-kindness for ourselves (this might be small at first depending on how you relate to yourself, but it will grow over time with practice), we reach out to a good friend. This can be the easiest step for most of us, as we often have far more positivity toward a good friend than negativity. So joy and care and contentment just build and build.
Third, we invite in a neutral person. I usually go with the clerk at the grocery store. They are someone I recognize but don’t have strong feelings for, positive or negative. We can also choose a coworker or perhaps a distant cousin we haven’t really gotten to know yet. The key is in having a general sense of neutrality in our feelings toward this person.
Fourth, we invite in a difficult person. Sometimes it’s too hard to invite in the most difficult person we know, so we start off a bit easier. Maybe try an old boss from years ago, or a friend who we fought with and drifted apart from. Each time we do the practice, we are strengthening the muscle of forgiveness and dissolving the grudge from our hearts.
And kind of like cleaning an old mirror or stubborn pot in the sink, we find that our first attempt doesn’t seem to do a lot. But we come back, again and again, noticing small changes each time, until the cleaning is done. It works just the same way with our grudges. Eventually, we have let go of all of the internal bickering and we see them in a caring and compassionate light.
We do not need to change our behavior and go contact the person, especially if we have reason to believe that they haven’t gotten over their grudge. And we never need to make ourselves a target for more negativity or hurt. This work can be purely internal for us, scrubbing our own heart free from negativity so we can be more at peace with ourselves and more present and joyful with people we care about.
After really good loving-kindness meditations, I can feel a weight lifted off of my shoulders. Over my life, I have certainly accumulated my fair share of grudges. Many I don’t even think about. But when I bring these people and our past situations into meditation, I can heal and forgive. More often than not, I know that I contributed to the tension or fallout. Part of the practice is to recognize this and see how to not make the same mistakes.
This is life moving forward and upward, as opposed to feeling stuck and weighed down by our pasts. Our life will be filled with mistakes, but each one is an opportunity to learn and eventually to do better. Again, this is far more about healing our own hearts than it is about reconciling those old relationships. I’m sure I have grudges, deep down, with people I’ll never see again. But I also know that I can keep working on myself and uncovering those grudges, one by one.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.