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Taking down the walls: Challenges and opportunities of forgiveness

By Margaret Cullen and Gonzalo Brito

wall-copy“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility”
— (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

These are challenging times.  There is more divisiveness than many of us can remember in our lifetimes.  This climate of fear and destabilization promotes distrust, antagonism and even hatred.  These emotions, moods and mental states not only undermine society, they rob us of our peace of mind, and send even the most “enlightened” among us into reactivity and contraction making us incapable of seeing clearly and acting from our highest intentions.
In the midst of this unprecedented sense of foreboding and dystopia, we need more than ever to work against the tendency to close the heart and solidify the sense of enemies “out there”.  We read in the papers every day what it looks like when anger and fear are driving behavior:  walls, travel bans, partisanship, polarization, racism and irrationality.  Forgiveness is the antidote.  It is the anti-wall, the anti-ban, the refusal to foreclose on our own humanity, no matter what is happening “out there”.

With our current president, this can seem impossible.  There is so much at stake, so much to fight for.  And yet, if we look to history at those who succeeded in transforming society, in creating greater social justice, we see paragons of forgiveness.  Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and His Holiness the Dalai Lama effected societal transformation through the power of their love and forgiveness.   It was this force that mobilized millions and catalyzed change.  It was the refusal to hate, the refusal to respond “in kind” by making their opponents the enemy, which gave them the strength and the power to prevail.   Forgiveness and love did not weaken them, nor diminish their capacity to act.  Not only did it make their actions more powerful, it allowed them to maintain their dignity and self-respect even as they were being vilified by the forces of fear and anger.

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral”  said Martin Luther King. “It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”

Can you imagine how would it be to live in a planet in which each one of the 7.5 billion human beings carried every single hurt, every resentment, accompanied by every anger and desire for revenge? Even from a biological perspective, forgiveness can be seen as a survival strategy for humankind, since without forgiveness our species would have annihilated itself in endless rounds of retribution. So, forgiveness makes sense not only morally, but also practically. From time immemorial, wisdom traditions have insisted that forgiveness is the path to attaining enduring peace. In the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, it is said: “In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law.”

But I’m not Ghandi, why should I forgive?

In more personal terms, forgiveness gives us our life back right at that moment when the soul starts drying up from unforgiveness.   To forgive ourselves, or to allow ourselves to accept forgiveness from others, takes down the walls of the heart.  These walls don’t succeed in protecting us any more than they protect our borders.  In fact, they keep out the joy and creativity that comes from connection and expansion, just as our travel bans and walls keep out the vibrancy of multi-culturalism.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, it is clear that exactly because we are deeply relational beings, our lives will be full of small and large hurts.  We bump up against each other all the time and, much as we’d rather not think so, we will be the perpetrators of hurt as often as we will be the victims. Forgiveness has the potential to restore a sense of belonging to our family or community and, in a more basic sense, to return our basic humanity and capacity for love and joy.

Forgiveness is the way the heart knows how to heal from the inevitable hurts and disappointments of life. It involves a softening of the heart and a letting go of resentment and anger toward those who have harmed us, betrayed us, or abandoned us (including ourselves!). Contrary to popular caricatures of strength and power, forgiveness isn’t for sissies! As Gandhi said “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” And like any other complex process, it can’t be forced or imposed.  It is a process and needs to honor the heart’s organic rhythm of opening and closing. Nevertheless, forgiveness can be consciously practiced, and the mind and heart can cultivate the habit of letting go of resentment and finding peace.

For those who think that the benefits of forgiveness are just anecdotal or something that happens to “spiritual people”, it might be interesting to know that there is a growing body of scientific research on the psychological and physical benefits of forgiveness. For example, forgiveness has been associated with reduced stress and reduced anger (Harris et al. 2006), reduced depression, anxiety, and cholesterol levels (Friedberg, Suchday, and Srinivas 2009), better sleep (Stoia-Caraballo et al. 2008), and reduced back pain (Carson et al. 2005), to name just a few findings. These findings are also interesting metaphors for what we already know intuitively. How much weight are we carrying on our backs through the resentments and grudges we’re holding on to? How easy is it to fall asleep if we’re caught in rumination about past hurts?

Holding on to resentment has been described like swallowing poison and hoping the enemy will die. Although this analogy might seem exaggerated, it points to something important: resentment mainly affects those who feel it, not the object of their resentment. In fact, the other person may not even be aware of or care about our resentment. This is why the promise to never forgive someone is condemning oneself to suffer. Because the long term effects of resentment can be quite toxic to the body and mind, forgiveness makes sense even from a purely selfish perspective—it frees us and lightens us.

Finally, forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning, forgetting, sweeping under the carpet, or putting a smiley face sticker over injustice. Forgiving does not make an immoral or hurtful act become okay. To the contrary, it says: what happened hurt, but I choose to move on with my life. Forgiveness is a declaration of independence that can be done no matter what the other person does or doesn’t do. In this sense it is an unalienable right.

Meditation for cultivating forgiveness

The capacity to forgive is basic to the human (and perhaps mammalian) heart, and it’s also a skill that we can develop through practice. The following is a guided meditation from our book The Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance Workbook, which has a chapter on forgiveness. We encourage you to listen to this guided meditation in which forgiveness is directed three ways: asking for forgiveness from others, self-forgiveness and forgiving others. This practice can help you to find peace with what is unresolved in your own heart, and generate space for more love and connection. Even at those times when the heart is hard and dry, setting the intention and orienting the mind in the direction of forgiveness on a regular basis can help improve your quality of life.

Link to audio file.

Margaret and Gonzalo co-authored “The Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance Workbook. Join them for the Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance (MBEB) Teacher Training Intensive, April 9-15, 2017 at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA. Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance is an empirically-supported 9-week psycho-educational group intervention that teaches mindfulness meditation and emotion training.

References

Carson, J. W., F. J. Keefe, V. Goli, A. M. Fras, T. R. Lynch, S. R. Thorp, and J. L. Buechler. 2005. “Forgiveness and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Preliminary Study Examining the Relationship of Forgiveness to Pain, Anger, and Psychological Distress.” Journal of Pain 6: 84–91.
Friedberg, J. P., S. Suchday, and V. S. Srinivas. 2009. “Relationship Between Forgiveness and Psychological and Physiological Indices in Cardiac Patients.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 16: 205–211.
Harris, A. H. S., F. Luskin, S. B. Norman, S. Standard, J. Bruning, S. Evans, and C. E. Thoresen. 2006. “Effects of a Group Forgiveness Intervention on Forgiveness, Perceived Stress, and Trait-Anger.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 62: 715–733.
Stoia-Caraballo, R., M. S. Rye, W. Pan, K. J. B. Kirschman, C. Lutz-Zois, and A. M. Lyons. 2008. “Negative Affect and Anger Rumination as Mediators Between Forgiveness and Sleep Quality.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 31: 478–88.