The Wisdom of Atonement lesson for week 5: Healing the Wounds Through Ritual and Ceremonies of Atonement

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The Wisdom of Atonement


Healing the Wounds Through Ritual and Ceremonies of Atonement

Douglas George-Kanentiio, Ed Tick, Kate Dahlstedt, and

Rev. Heng Sure
In preparation for this lesson, please read chapters 12, 9, 5 and 14 in

Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement

Healing the Past, Making Amends and Restoring Balance in Our Lives and World by Phil Cousineau (ISBN 978-0-470-90773-3).
Since time immemorial human beings have been in conflict with each other. There is not time in history that does not record some form of fighting, battle, violence, or war. And yet, right alongside this bloody and discouraging history are innumerable philosophies of peace, as well as practices that help troubled peoples come back together, spirits healed and reconciled with their past.

While we are generally aware of the ways people in the Western world have attempted reconciliation after terrible conflicts, there are also lesser known but equally—or more—powerful practices among the indigenous peoples of the world.

What can we learn from the First Peoples of the world?

According to Douglas George-Kanentiio-Kanentiio, an American Indian journalist and Indian rights activist, we have plenty to learn. In Beyond Forgiveness, he writes brilliantly about how much his ancestors, of the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy, knew of the healing powers of atonement. For the last one thousand years, he writes, rituals and ceremonies of atonement have helped them ensure that peace and harmony were restored after any terrible conflict.

Those practices were vital in “the reestablishing of balance, the restoration of sanity, the alleviation of grief, and the resumption of life.” (Please read pages 171-172 in Beyond Forgiveness to learn more about the “Great Laws of Peace within the League of the Iroquois.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do you believe there may be other legitimate forms of peacekeeping than those practiced in the West? Are you open to hearing about other justice systems?

When you read Douglas George-Kanentiio’s powerful essay in Beyond Forgiveness, you soon realize that forgiveness and atonement are not lofty ideals with abstract benefits among American Indians and virtually all other indigenous peoples around the world. Instead, as he describes the Iroquois justice and reconciliation system in his essay, they are essential to the spiritual wellbeing of the tribe.

What do you think the most significant difference might be?

You guessed it! Rather than a punitive and adversarial system that isolates offenders, the Iroquois way is to assure that amends are made to the victim so that both are made whole again. (Read pages 172-173 in Beyond Forgiveness.)

This effort is called “cleansing the mind,” an echo of the ancient idea that atonement is a form of catharsis for everyone involved.

Out of centuries of conflict with other tribes in the northeast, the Iroquois came to realize that it was of the utmost necessity to help life go on after warfare, chaos, violence, and so they developed elaborate and sophisticated procedures evolved for resolving disputes. All of this was in the interest of what he calls “peacekeeping and peace acting.” (See pages 176-178 in Beyond Forgiveness for Douglas’ insight into the stark differences between indigenous and Western systems of justice making.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Considering the high rate of incarceration in North America (The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world), would it makes sense to consider the Iroquois way as an alternative, or a way to augment Western justice?

How did the Iroquois manage this peace keeping, and what can we learn from them now? Douglas maintains that the they encouraged the offending party to acknowledge the wrong and make amends, or what he calls here compensation, to the injured person or parties, to make things whole and complete, allow victims a say in the punishment, and restore the offenders to normal life. (Please read pages 178-179 in Beyond Forgiveness to learn about the role of compensation in Iroquois peacemaking.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Can you imagine how compensation might help restore peace after a violent conflict, either historically, after a war, or individually, as in a family dispute? How do you feel about compensation? Can the killing of a son or a husband, or a mother, be compensated for?


Dr. Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt

Do you ever suspect the language of “oneness” as being too vague? Then perhaps it would help to know how it is used to discuss what happens to men and women at war.

Dr. Edward Tick and his wife Kate Dahlstedt work with Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to help them on their healing journeys. They have found that the perception of oneness is very helpful in the healing process because that is precisely what is destroyed by acts of violence; one’s very sense of integrity, one’s sense of being a whole and complete human being is often shattered in war.

As Tick points out in his powerful essay in Chapter 9 in Beyond Forgiveness, “Our world exists in an essential unity; war is its opposite. War obliterates Oneness. When we go to war, we declare that we are not and cannot be at one with the other. War destroys Oneness in every aspect of our existence, and its aftermath can be so fraught with pain, suffering, loss, anger, failure, betrayal, hunger for vengeance, brokenness, confusion, grief, shame, or guilt that it can seem impossible that we will ever again become reconciled with our former enemy—or ourselves.” (Please read pages 115-116 for his profound insights into the role of the “enemy” or “the other” at war but also at home.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Does this perspective on “Oneness” resonate?

“During times of war,” said the great orator Howard Thurman, “hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism.”

Fortunately, the labyrinth of confusion is thoroughly known by the heroes and soldiers who have gone before us. Many before us have walked the path towards healing the broken spirit, and we can learn from them if we open our eyes and hearts. As Tick eloquently reminds us here, atonement is one of those practices that have been used for millennia in many civilizations, and we can learn from them all. And like Douglas George-Kanentiio, Ed Tick is convinced that war veterans have been cut off from their natural sense of oneness with life.

“The root of atonement is oneness,” he writes, “becoming one with.” Essentially, atonement entails not just awakening or exchanging feelings of empathy, friendship, or forgiveness but performing acts of repair that bring what was separated, divided, or broken back into union. And here we return to the same note with our contributors, the urgency to return to the Oneness we were all born with, but also with the sense of urgency that Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell emphasizes. Dr Tick writes, “Atonement is necessary for soldiers and nations to return home and to heal from war.”

Why necessary, to use the word that connects so many of the wise activists, doctors, and spiritual leaders we are studying in this course? Because the loss, guilt, shame, grief from the wounds that soldiers have caused also need to be healed. And what makes his work unique is his recognition that “greater healing and reconciliation than is possible through traditional therapy.” By way of creating specific acts of atonement after violence, trauma, war, it is more possible to heal each other, our enemies and ourselves, through making amends and restore the broken order of things.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How does this insight into a returned veteran’s experience make you feel? Can you see parallels with the brokenness and agonizing attempts of soldiers to heal themselves with attempts at atonement you might make?

What makes healing possible? Dr. Tick’s insights are so powerful we might call his work “atonement therapy,” which is based upon specific actions designed to “repair the damage done” by going beyond forgiveness, and going beyond traditional “talking therapy.” Among his many recommendations are: public witnessing, storytelling, and healing ceremonies. (Please read pages 124-126 for Tick’s teaching about the “secret twin of forgiveness.”) This atonement therapy potentially “repairs the damage done.” Dr. Tick tells many powerful stories of working with veterans who are building schools, tending to orphanages, bringing supplies to hospitals, clearing mine fields as part of this work. (Please read 116-117 n Beyond Forgiveness for Ed’s insights into “restoring what was broken and helping free veterans from the “agonizing goals of healing through atonement, find a path to healing.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Is there a war veteran in your life? Will this material ignite your understanding of the experiences of other vets or sufferers of post-traumatic stress (PTSD)? How else can atonement therapy take healing to a deeper dimension?


Kate Dahlstadt

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” wrote poet Alexander Pope. With that in mind we move onward. A third perspective on working through particularly difficult trauma comes from Kate Dahlstedt, MA, LMHC, who with her husband Dr. Ed Tick, co-directs Soldier’s Heart, a unique war veteran’s support organization. Kate Dahlstedt’s perspective begins with a kind of leveling perspective, the sobering thought that it isn’t humanly possible, even with the best of intensions, the best spiritual practices, to go through life without being harmed or causing harm, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The poignant question is what to do about the repercussions of those negative actions. How do we maintain any wellbeing, or of “emotional freedom” if we can’t forgive or atone?

That might seem obvious, but as she informs us, many people neglect to “ask for forgiveness, to atone for our transgressions toward others, or to seek restitution.”

Are they any repercussions for this?

Kate Dahlsted says, emphatically yes: “Holding on to anger and bitterness toward those who have wronged us only festers the wound inside us and causes unhealthy stress.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Be honest with yourself; have you ever paid a serious price for letting pride get in the way of asking for forgiveness, or for atoning?

Atonement in the healing of war trauma begins with a sense of longing on the part of the veteran who feels his soul split away, and feels alternately condemned, doomed, and guilty of perpetrating “evil.” For Kate Dahlstedt, the deeper problem with grieving, emotionally shattered soldiers is spiritual, and that true healing cannot happen without doing something concrete that will rebalance life. To be reconciled in these dark depths, she writes, an act of restitution is required if soldiers are to be reconnected to their families, friends, and reconciled with their own tormented souls.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How can a broken spirit be mended? What part can a spiritual discipline, such as prayer, meditation, or a pilgrimage do back to the place where the spirit was broken?

Avoidance may be due to a kind of “cultural taboo about discussing the emotional and spiritual effects of having violated our own moral sensibilities, especially when the greater society is complicit in those violations.” But, she says, we pay a high price for not talking about the spiritual damage discuss that can be inflicted upon our very heart and soul, and face the reality of what we have done, and worse, “we remain in denial and are likely to repeat our actions.” It was Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do you feel comfortable “sharing the burden?”

Kate Dahlstedt teaches that when done meaningfully, an atonement ceremony or ritual can provide what is necessary to transcend the ordinary self to reconnect with the higher self. Ceremony is what we do with symbols and metaphors; ceremony is the concrete structure we use. For her, ritual is a spiritual healing force because it follows the ancient pattern of the rite of passage, which is the model of human change ceremony, while providing restitution. (Please read 65-66 in Beyond Forgiveness for discussion of the role of ritual and ceremony, and sharing stories.)

Dahlstedt’s work with veterans is inspiring to all of us. She advocates the use of specific rituals including guided meditation, building altars, sacred circled, sharing exercises, storytelling, and more, to reinforce the sense of at-one-ment with one another. She writes vividly about how gratifying it can be to watch the visceral changes in veterans in these ceremonies, and of how those changes give her hope for the future of our entire culture.

Stories are the oldest known form of healing, a universal restorative response to dis-ease. To share one’s story is the beginning of a journey to the end of isolationthe first step on the path toward forgiveness, atonement and reconciliation. Have you been inspired by someone else’s powerful personal story? Are you inspired to share your own story? We invite you to share your own story or reflections on forgiveness and atonement.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How do you feel about these sharing ceremonies and rituals? Do you long for more ceremony and ritual in your own life?

Rev. Heng Sure

“In the late 1970s I took a walk, a pilgrimage, for two and a half years up the Pacific Coast Highway in California,” writes the American-Buddhist monk, Rev. Heng Sure. “The pilgrimage involved making a full prostration to the ground every third step and a prayer of repentance with each bow. I kept a vow of silence for the duration, and focused my thoughts on realizing a more peaceful world through the practice of Buddhist repentance. I maintain that the effort of bowing and humbling the ego, along with the recitation of a repentance verse, is an act of atonement. (Read chapter 14 in Beyond Forgiveness; See page 189-190 for a Buddhist prostration prayer for the journey.)

Rev. Heng Sure goes on to say that in his Mahayana Buddhist tradition the expression for atonement is to “bow a repentance.” This entails the ritual gesture of placing your head, knees, and elbows on the ground is a “humbling act in itself and conducive to repentance.” This is harder than it sounds, he adds, because real bowing is hard work; but it offers “proof” of one’s real contrition.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Have you ever repented, expressed contrition for something in a ritualistic fashion?

It is difficult for most people to admit they were wrong; it is hard to believe that the past can be changed, or amended, in the sense of atonement. But Rev. Heng Sure’s Buddhist perspective is helpful here. “Repentance teaches that the mind is able to reverse itself and spit out negativity; ultimately, one can repent of all past bad karma. This principle gives me hope of genuine atonement for past mistakes.”

Rev. Heng Sure’s essay offers a wonderful recap to this week’s study when he says that when we directly address the seeds of conflict in our relationships and had “bless the person I had been fighting with,” we can then, and only then, became “at one” again. Of course, this is no easy task. As he concludes, “Atonement is more than a wholesome wish; it’s hard work.” (Read pages 196-198 in Beyond Forgiveness.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do you believe that some ritual atonement can heal a thoughtless act, even, as Buddhists say, to reverse one’s karma?

Let’s review our course work. Every week of our course we review the Seven Practices of Atonement, which are based on the life work of the fifteen contributors to the companion book to this study series, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement. Together, they can lead to a genuine change of heart, and can lead to a more compassionate life for everyone who practices them: 

Seven Practices of Atonement
1) Acknowledge the hurt, the harm, the wrong
2) Offer apologies, ask for forgiveness
3) Try to make amends commensurate with the harm done
4) Help to clear the conscience of the offender
5) Relieve the anger and shame of the victim
6) Practice compassion for victim and perpetrator alike
7) Establish a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation
Together, these practices reveal the journey-like quality of the work that links forgiveness with atonement and healing. No one practice, no single belief system will produce lasting change or unleash the kind of transformation that is called for in our often-troubled lives.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Are there other possible steps we might take if we are to comprehend the immense implications of using the action of atonement to help us heal from even severe trauma?

Let’s keep exploring the mysterious process of moving through and then beyond forgiveness, which is so often a temporary fix for our disputes, our arguments, even our battles, to the next stage, the next level of compassion-centered reconciliation.


All four of our contributors to this week’s course use the word ceremony to describe something at the core of their life’s work. While it is a familiar word, what does it really mean? Curiously, it is a late fourteenth-century word that comes from the Latin cerimonia, which refers to what is holy, sacred, and worthy of our awe and reverence. Generally, it is an act or series of acts prescribed by ritual or custom, which is intended to celebrate, inaugurate, to mark time. For their purposes, ceremonies are a form of initiation into the depths of forgiveness and atonement, the deeper layers of reconciliation. They include: drumming, storytelling, memorial and blessing services, and vows of making acts of forgiveness and restitution.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: What simple ceremony or ritual could your group perform together at the end of this course? Plan now. Three weeks left!

“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one's enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” 1957

1. Can we curb or even end the conflict in our own minds?

2. Why does seeking revenge inevitably bring harm even to the vengeful?

3. What are the significant differences between Western and indigenous forms of justice? Can one help the other?

4. How important is it to find a way to allow offenders back into society?

5. Can you think of rituals or ceremonies that would help you?

6. Can we heal the past, restore what was lost, reverse our karma, as Heng Sure suggests?

7. How is it possible that ritual and ceremony can deepen the healing work for war veterans?

8. Do you have a personal story connecting ritual, ceremony and healing?

Select those that resonate for you

    • I affirm my right to rebalance my life.

    • I vow to work towards alleviating my own grief and the grief of those close to me.

    • I stand by those who are trying to reconcile their past actions.

    • I try to help those who are traumatized come to terms with their pain.

    • I affirm that rituals and ceremonies can be healing for even the gravest wounds of the soul and spirit.

    • I affirm that I can let go of the past and move on.


  • I vow to use my time on earth to ease any of the pain I may have cause others.

  • I will atone for my errors.

  • I will take time to make life more bountiful and beautiful.

  • I vow to study other traditions in hopes of helping me find as many roads to reconciliation as possible.


  • Set in Papua New Guinea, the insightful film Breaking Bows and Arrows explores the complex emotional terrain of personal and societal reconciliation after a bloody, inter-tribal war. The film follows the reconciliation ceremony of fighters—formerly bitter enemies, who have killed each other’s families. Here is a five minute clip:

  • Phil Cousineau’s Global Spirit program with Ed Tick, Kate Dahlstedt, and Azim Khamisa explores themes of Forgiveness and Healing on both a personal and societal level, illuminating how spiritual practice and compassion can aid us on this most critical of journeys. . We see Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt take a group of traumatized Vietnam War vets back to the land where they fought and killed, to help them learn the art of “forgiveness of the self” for what they did during a war 40 years ago. Also, Azim Khamisa practices “forgiveness of the other” as he traces how he learned to forgive the boy who murdered his own son:

  • The theme of making amends resounds throughout Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, climaxing in personal atonement and resolution:

NOTE: These study course materials were prepared by Phil Cousineau, and were created to be used hand-in-hand with the book, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, with permission of the book’s publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, Copyright © 2011 by Phil Cousineau and Richard J. Meyer.

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