Not only is forgiveness one of the main practices of every religion, it is necessary for the mental and physical health of every human being. When the mind is constantly preoccupied with “who did what to whom,” the body is flooded with negative chemicals. This is generated from the fight-or-flight mechanism in the brain. When the primitive brain perceives an enemy (anyone who has the capacity to hurt you), it gets the body ready to attack. The brain doesn’t know the difference between facing a person in physical reality or just thinking about that person. Anger triggers chemical reactions that produce toxicity in the body, shutting down digestion, raising blood pressure and other processes in order to get you ready to fight. If you live with or work with the enemy, then this process is going on all the time. We have all heard of stress causing ulcers and high blood pressure, and cancer being the result of long-standing resentment or nursing hatreds. How about the old catchy phrase, “retained hate causes overweight”?

The main goal of spiritual growth and psychotherapy is to help work out the anger, hurt and pain of the past that is causing dysfunction in our current life. Healing can only occur when we stop blaming all the people from our past for what our life is like today. Until we take responsibility for the condition our lives are in, we can’t change them and we can’t learn what we need to learn. Making a list of everyone you need to forgive can be very freeing to the body and mind. When you actually accomplish this feat, the body is free, for when you think of the person those negative body processes no longer happen.

Other poisons to the body, mind and spirit include shame and guilt. In our current social belief system, most people believe guilt demands punishment. Since the axe is going to fall, you have to always be ready for it. We make people we have hurt into the enemy because we would rather blame them and feel anger instead of our own guilt and shame. Self-forgiveness can be a spiritually transforming experience; the resulting peace can heal your body.

A physically and spiritually healthy person makes it a practice of not carrying grudges. A massage can be a tremendous boost to mental or physical health and well-being because it puts the body into a state of peace. The brain signals safety and rest and, as body processes are restored to normal, healing repair and restoration takes place. When you are not attacking or under attack, the body can restore itself to health.

A person doesn’t die from a snakebite. But he can die from the venom that pours through the body after the snake is dead. The venom that pours through our system after we have been hurt can hurt us more than the original hurt. All of us have been bitten. We have all been mistreated, lied to, cheated on and stolen from. We’ve all been abused in some way. Everyone has the opportunity to stop the venom with forgiveness. As an old Chinese saying advises, “If you are seeking revenge, you’d better dig two graves.”

If you want to move into a higher level of awareness and potential, take a look at everyone and everything in your past and understand that it is all over—it is all in the past. You can’t change it. Release it, forgive whom you need to forgive, and look for your lessons. Until you forgive you won’t see the lesson. Sometimes the lesson is about what not to do. Those whom we feel the most hatred and anger towards are often our best teachers.

An observation I have acquired from working with many people is that we all sign up for what we have to do here. Maybe when your husband cheated on you he had to do it to get the lessons he needed to develop the attribute of faithfulness or understand the value of loyalty. Maybe your soul needed to learn that it wasn’t about you. Perhaps you needed the lesson to acquire enough self-esteem to say, “This wasn’t about my inadequacy. I didn’t do anything wrong.” A different perspective is often reached when we decide to forgive and truly let it go. We see things we couldn’t see before. Sometimes if we don’t release and forgive, history makes us repeat it until we do.

It’s been observed that the more spiritually advanced a person is, the faster he or she forgives. Forgiveness becomes a lifelong practice for those on the spiritual path. We know that to live in grace we have to have peace. Sometimes we can’t get there on our own and so we pray for Spirit to help us forgive. Sometimes it takes a while to overcome our primitive brain that thinks in terms of “I want you to hurt since you hurt me.” But still we persist, praying and working it through until we achieve a state of forgiveness and release. Insights then follow. As in all fields of life, the more we practice the better and faster we get. So do your body a favour. Forgive.

Jackie Kosednar was the publisher of Alaska Wellness Magazine until her death in 2012.