There was a segment on 60 Minutes last Sunday 'Road to
Redemption' which really blew me away. I don't usually watch 60min but saw the story about a man whose 18 year old son had been murdered during a robbery 14 years ago. The father, Ken Marslew, decided to deal with his hate and anger by helping the man who drove the getaway car, organised the robbery, but didn't actually pull the trigger. He is helping this man who pleaded guilty and served 14 years in jail. They are going to work together to make the World a better place.
If you didn't see it go to their website. Ray Martin interviewed him, and it's an
unbelievably Life Enhancing story and worth blogging about.
I was planning to blog about Forgiveness as a Life Enhancing Skill at some stage over the coming months, but prompted by my friend Janine's email, and after watching the video of the 60 Minutes segment online, and being very inspired by the story, I decided to bring the timeframe forward and blog about it now.
Why focus on forgiveness?
The wisdom of forgiveness is highlighted in almost all spiritual traditions and more recently, research from a number of fields is backing up the usefulness and importance of practicing forgiveness. For example, both Buddhist philosophy and recent scientific research from the new field of Positive Psychology have shown that compassion, forgiveness and loving kindness are key components to happiness. The evidence is in - Practicing forgiveness is an important daily activity for living a happy, fulfilled and enhanced life.
And of course, there’s no such thing as ‘forgiveness’ – it’s a nominalisation (a disguised verb) for the ongoing process of forgiving. You don’t ‘have’ forgiveness for yourself or someone, you do forgiving of them. It’s an active process.
So how do you do forgiving? Well, it comes from the heart.
Did you know we have more than one brain? We actually have 3 brains in our body (which I'll be blogging on in more detail over coming months). Recent research has found that as well as a head brain, we actually have fully functioning ‘brains’ filled with neural tissue in our hearts and our guts – a heart (cardiac) brain and an enteric (gut) brain.
So expressions like “follow the wisdom of your heart” and “listen to your gut instinct” are quite accurate and deep neuro-linguistic reflections of our unconscious knowing of the existence of these distributed brain functions. It’s wonderful how complex and powerful our mind/body’s really are!
So coming up in this blog entry, I'll share a technique that uses the power of the heart-brain and gut-brain to help overcome anger and instead do forgiving.
But before that, let's take a moment to look at the details of some of the research findings from Positive Psychology.
"Forgiveness is the most powerful thing you can do for yourself. If you can’t learn to forgive, you can forget about achieving true success in your life.”
(Dr. Wayne Dyer)
Forgiveness is a powerful emotion!
Forgiving is a powerful emotion. When practiced, it floods the body with soothing and healing neuro-hormones and stimulates postive emotions and positive states of being.
The research from Positive Psychology has shown that people who forgive are healthier and happier than those who hold grudges. In one Stanford University experiment, people who learned and practiced forgiveness reported fewer backaches, headaches, muscle pains, stomach upsets and other common physical signs of stress compared to a control group. They also reported higher levels of optimism, hope and self-confidence. Showing forgiveness really is both good for you and good for your happiness and peace of mind.
The converse is also true. People who focus on anger, injustice and who feel they have been treated unfairly suffer from a higher risk of heart disease. A study of 8,000 people by researchers at the University College London found that those with a profound sense of injustice had a 55% higher chance of suffering serious heart disease. Researchers found that the focus on injustice and unfairness engendered negative emotions that lead to biochemical changes in the body.
An inability or unwillingness to forgive has also been found to be associated with persistent rumination and dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on. When you are angry, resentful and bitter you are only hurting yourself. So it’s important for your mental health and important for your physical health that you forgive.
The take home message – focus on forgiving, your long-term health depends on it.
Healing the heart
The key is that forgiveness is about healing yourself and letting go of any negative responses and burden. The main thing to note is that the process of forgiving is vital for building positivity and healing in your own life.
A useful strategy for practicing forgiveness is to use your heart-mind to focus on forgiveness and to hold the feelings of forgiveness in your heart. As highlighted above, neuroscience has discovered that we have a heart-brain – a small functioning brain containing around 40,000 neurons in our heart. This heart brain connects and communicates with the head-brain and gut brain and validates the idea of the wisdom of the heart. Your heart-brain learns from experience and from practice. So by concentrating on and holding feelings of forgiving in your heart you can gradually and gently build up your skills and unconscious competence at doing forgiving. It’s an important process that will allow you to live more healthily, happily and with joy in your heart and life.
We all make mistakes. No one, and I mean no one is perfect! Indeed, ‘perfection’ doesn’t exist in the world. It is an ideal. From physics we know that we live in an entropic universe. What this means is that everything we do ultimately creates more disorder in the universe. Even the creation of order actually produces more disorder. For example, an air-conditioner cools the air in a room, thus reducing the entropy of the air. However, the heat involved in operating the air-conditioner always makes a bigger contribution to the entropy of the environment than the decrease of the entropy of the air. So the overall entropy in the universe increases from the operation of the air-conditioner.
So there can never be something that is perfect. Everything is in a constant state of change and everything is impermanent. That’s the nature of the universe we live in. By attempting to be perfect and blaming, disappointing or angering yourself when you or the people around you don’t live up to some ideal is both un-sane and counterproductive.
It’s time to let go of anger, of old regrets, of blame and recrimination. When you love your self and your life deeply and wondrously you let go of these negative emotions – of negative emoting. Trust yourself. Support yourself. Forgive yourself. For-give to your self. You deserve loving kindness. Calmly abide the trials and vicissitudes of life. Nothing's perfect, no one’s perfect, we all continue to learn and try to find our way in this wonderful but imperfect world. So relax, think ‘calm abiding’ and let go of any fearing, angering or blaming that you have been doing in the past now.
For-giving to yourself!
Some people think forgiveness is a sign of weakness. Those who’ve studied it can tell you without qualification that forgiveness is a sign of strength. It takes strength of purpose to choose to practice forgiveness. Especially in the face of anger and bitterness. Take a look at the 60 Minutes segment mentioned above. It took and continues to take immense guts and strength for Ken Marslew, the father of the murdered boy, to let go of the anger and bitterness, and instead embrace life and attempt to make a positive difference from what has happened.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning wrongful behaviour, excusing thoughtlessness, or forcing reconciliation with the offender. Forgiving is not the same as condoning. Forgiving is done for yourself. To heal and support yourself. It’s a gift of happiness and peace of mind that you give yourself. It’s about letting go of anger and resenting. It’s about moving out from under the emotional burden of bitterness and liberating yourself from negative feelings of hurting or angering.
As described in the research from Positive Psychology, an inability or unwillingness to do forgiving has been found to be associated with persistent rumination and dwelling on revenge, whereas forgiving allows you to move on. When you are angry, resentful and bitter you are only hurting yourself. So it’s important for your mental health and important for your physical health that you forgive.
Another important thing to note is the distinction between the inner experience of forgiving and the public expression of it. They need not both be performed to gain the health and happiness benefits of forgiving. The research suggests it can be sufficient to practice ‘silent’ forgiving in the form of a softened and more sympathetic heart. This can be useful when the aggressor does not earn or merit the forgiveness.
Remember, forgiving is about healing yourself and letting go the negative responses and burden. In cases where the aggressor has apologised and made redress, a public expression of forgiveness can be appropriate and can support building better and more healthy relationships. It’s up to you to decide what’s appropriate for your own outcomes and happiness. The main thing to note is the inner process of forgiving is vital for building positivity and healing in your own life.
How do you DO forgiving?
How do you do loving kindness and forgiving? Well, it’s really quite easy. Start with yourself. Create and hold feelings of forgiving and loving in your heart and then apply them to the situation or context that you feel needs forgiving. Start by thinking of memories or experiences that fill your heart with loving kindness, with compassion and forgiveness. Then really focus on those feelings, amplify the heartfelt sense of forgiving. Get in touch with these warm loving feelings. Build them up and out and around your heart and body. As you breathe in and out, feel them expand and grow, till your whole chest, your whole torso, your whole body is filled with deep feelings of loving kindness. Make sure you expand them from your heart to your gut. Deep inside your torso and stomach. This will send important messages from your cardiac brain to your enteric brain; from your heart brain to your gut brain.
Now start to think of the person or the situation or behaviour that needs and wants forgiving. Continue to breathe and amplify the heart and gut feelings of forgiving and compassion as you recall the situation. This focuses your heart and gut brains on loving feelings and allows them to learn and apply forgiving to the situation.
Say the words:
“I do forgiving, I feel forgiving, I am forgiving. I forgive everyone and everything. I forgive myself completely. I forgive the world and people for not being perfect. I am a worthwhile person who deserves loving, kindness and support. I forgive everyone and everything.”
Say these over and over, with warm, loving tonalities. Hug yourself both physically and in your imagination. And all the while keep breathing love and forgiveness into your heart and mind and life.
Do all this for a number of minutes, and then repeat it again for at least 3 to 5 times. Each time you practice the ‘doing’ of forgiving and compassion you’ll find it gets stronger and easier. Your heart and gut brains will learn and remember.
And also remember, forgiveness is not something you have, it’s a process you do. So continue to do it often. One really useful idea is to do a quick form of this every night before you go to sleep. When you rest your head on the pillow, give yourself a metaphorical hug and tell yourself that you forgive yourself and you forgive the world and that you love yourself and the world and really build and feel the loving kindness in your heart. Then spread this feeling of forgiving and loving kindness out into the world, and apply it to anyone who has caused you pain, loss or hurt. It’s a great way to love, nurture and enhance your life and generate more happiness and joy in your world.
You can also practice forgiving by doing the buddhist technique of Loving Kindness Mediation.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Research by Positive Psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has shown that the practice of the Buddhist technique of Loving Kindness Meditation can mitigate the effects of negative emotion. When practiced for as little as an hour per week, Loving Kindness Mediation can enhance positive emotions and buffer against negative emotions such as anger, fear and envy.
Loving Kindness Meditation is a meditational practice in which you send out thoughts and feelings of love, kindness and well-being to all sentient beings. It involves 4 phases, with each phase lasting approximately 5 minutes each. The meditation can be done as a visualisation in which you imagine and feel a sphere of love and light around yourself and then radiate it out from yourself. It can also be done as a verbal exercise in which you repeat phrases or mantras while remembering and recalling positive memories of love and kindness.
- The practice begins by focussing on developing a loving acceptance of your self. This is the first phase. Fill yourself with thoughts, feelings and images of love, caring and acceptance. Repeat words like “I love and care for myself. I deserve happiness, health and love.” Visualise yourself filled with a radiant ball of love centered round your heart and radiating throughout your body and your life. Do this for 5 minutes.
- The second phase involves meditating on loving kindness for someone you already care about and love. This could be a close friend, a parent, a lover, a mentor, teacher or benefactor. Concentrate on sending them feelings and messages of loving kindness. Visualise the light of your loving kindness and compassion spreading from your heart out to them, surrounding and filling them and their life.
- In the next phase, you shift your visualisation and meditation to someone you are neutral to, perhaps a stranger or an acquaintance. Do this for 5 minutes also, before moving on to phase 4.
- The final phase is more challenging. In this phase you focus on sending loving kindness to people that you dislike or who have been difficult or hostile towards you. Feel and imagine enveloping them in compassion, forgiveness and kindness. You can also spread your thoughts of loving kindness out to all beings in the world, encompassing all sentient creatures, all people.
You will find that this meditation exercise feels fantastic and has a lasting effect that stays with you for many, many hours. Indeed, Dr. Fredrickson’s research shows that the more you practice the meditation the longer the effect lasts and spreads across the contexts of your life, generating emotional and psychological resources that support ongoing happiness and success.
"Forgiveness is not an emotion, it's a decision.”
Forgiveness and Kindness
So I hope I've convinced you that forgiveness and forgiving is a Life Enhancing Skill that increases happiness and is well worth actively practicing. Living with a spirit and attitude of forgiving is a proven strategy for overcoming the enemies to happiness of anger and retribution and enhancing your health, your life and the lives of those you care about.
Next time someone does something that pisses you off, do the kind thing to yourself and forgive them. Let it go. You’ll not only be kind to both them and yourself, more importantly you’ll be giving yourself the gift of the positive emotions that kindness brings. And remember, as the famous American humorist Josh Billings said “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness”.
Finally, as Ken Marslew, than man interviewed by Ray Martin in the 60 Minutes segment says:
Do forgiving, it's Life Enhancing!
smiles and best wishes,
Here's some links to info on Loving Kindness Meditation:
Here's some interesting info about the enteric and heart brains and techniques for communicating and working with them:
And here's some books, based on scientifically validated findings, that you might find useful for increasing your life enhancing skills in forgiving: