I previously had written a post titled, "The Stages of Forgiveness." But as a post I just wrote, "A Different Take on Forgiveness," notes, the more appropriate word is compassion not forgiveness. "Forgiveness" implies guilt and free will, but people don't have free will and thus not guilt in the usual sense of the word. They have responsibility but not guilt. And so I have edited that post.
If one wants to be at peace, if one does not want to suffer, then compassion is the order of the day, because the negative feelings we harbor towards others only make us suffer. It hurts only us, not those we are angry at. As an ancient unknown poet quoted in Plutarch says, “Anger at things that happen shows small wit; for all our wrath concerns them not a bit.”
The precursor to forgiveness/compassion is to free ourselves from anger and resentment. (See my post, "Freeing Yourself from Anger and Resentment.") It's a precursor because it's not realistic to seek compassion while you are still feeling angry. The two are mutually exclusive. However, as stated in the post, once you free yourself from anger, you will find that the anger of your mind is replaced by sadness, which comes from the heart. And so there is no more barrier to feeling compassion.
The first stage of compassion is to have the intent to be compassionate. Without such intent, there will be no compassion. But such intent does not get pulled out of thin air. Given our attachment to our emotions, there needs to be a powerful motivator to have us adopt this intent.
That motivator for this, as with most things spiritual, derives from two things. First, our acknowledgement that the most important thing to us, the thing we value most, is our peace and happiness; ending our suffering. If you are not clear that ending your suffering is the most important thing to you, that it takes precedence over all the grievances you have towards life, then you will continue to suffer.
Second, the awareness that the negative emotions we harbor towards others causes us suffering. Regardless what we experienced, what was done to us, it is the way our mind reacted and continues to react to that experience that causes us suffering, not the act itself. So we must find a way to have compassion, to let go our negative emotions, if we want to experience peace.
The second stage of compassion is opening up our heart to be compassionate. The door to opening our heart is our knowledge that each of us is a product of our life experiences. We are the way we are, we do the things we do, because we have been programmed by our life experiences to act in certain ways. This is the cause of samsara. That is why suffering is the universal truth, unless we have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to Buddhism, or other spiritual practice, and have dedicated ourselves to walking the path. Even then we are rarely totally free of suffering.
As a monk once taught me, if something or someone pushes your buttons, that something is the direct result of that person’s suffering. How can one resent someone for doing something over which they had no real control and which is a result of their own suffering. As Buddhism teaches, we all have the true Buddha nature inside us. There is no such thing as a bad person, just people who do bad things. This is a cause for compassion, not hatred.
The final stage is deciding to have compassion, biting the bullet. Just do it! The relief you feel will be palpable.
We are further helped in making this decision by understanding that compassion does not absolve the other person of responsibility. While our moral system is built on an assumption that most people know, have the same understanding of, right from wrong, I have written elsewhere that this is really a false assumption. Because of our varying life experiences and the way we have been programmed by them, different people with different life experiences have quite different concepts of right and wrong, even within the same social group or even family. Moreover, we do not have the full range of free will that is usually assumed. We are again greatly constrained by the way our life experiences have programmed us and actually have a rather narrow range of free will.
But regardless of this lack of real control, civilization requires that people take responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, recognizing the limit of free will and of knowing right from wrong requires that we treat the individual ... whether a criminal or someone who has done us wrong ... in a compassionate and healing manner.
When you decide to show compassion, even with the option of setting the record straight, your ego-mind will not be happy. It will challenge you. But if you reject its guidance because it is not right for you as it causes you suffering (see my post, "Test the Wisdom of What You're Doing or Thinking of Doing"), and instead return home to your heart, you will find yourself at peace, relaxed.