My good friend and colleague, Dr. Sam Standard, lectured in both my Health Psychology course and Introduction to Clinical Psychology course at UVM yesterday. We heard about his dissertation research conducted while obtaining his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Stanford. Forgiveness has been an underappreciated yet critical variable in health and self-perception. His research has shown the detrimental effects of not forgiving, or of being in a state of unforgivingness.
Forgiveness is not excusing, condoning, or letting the offender or situation off the hook. As Huston Smith said “it is not letting the past dictate the present.” This reminds me of the story of 2 Vietnam War POWs (recounted by Thich Nhat Hanh, I believe). At a reunion many years later, one veteran who had worked through a forgiveness process asked his POW companion, “have you forgiven our captors?” The other veteran said something to the effect of “I’ll never forgive them.” To which the forgiving veteran said, “then they still have you in prison.”
This imprisonment is more than psychological; it has measurable physiological effects. During one research protocol, subjects were asked to think about an event for which they had not forgiven. They did so for 5 minutes. For this mere 5 minutes worth of negative focus, they experienced an 8 to 12 hour climb in the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic cortisol activation leads to a host of health problems, as much research has identified. These effects include increased blood pressure, cholesterol, atherosclerosis, blood clotting, heart attack, suppression of the immune system, insulin resistance, loss of bone minerals, loss of muscle protein, and atrophy of brain cells. When we are focused on the unforgiveness narrative our heart variability resembles that of a person with advanced heart disease. However, a 5-minute heart-focused meditation (focusing a warm feeling in the region of the heart) creates a heart pattern that is markedly different (smooth as opposed to jagged).
The Stanford Forgiveness Project had subjects undergo a forgiveness intervention. The Stanford Forgiveness Project used a 3-step approach to creating and resolving grievances, which involved moving away from 1) taking events personally, 2) blaming others for our feeling overwhelmed (our rules being broken), and 3) creating the grievance narrative or story. This group-based mutltiweek intervention helps people to work through the process of being unforgiving to forgiving, drawing on cognitive behavioral principles. The steps involved in transforming a grievance included enhancing the ability to cope, which included working with physiological activation via relaxation, shifting rule-bound thoughts to preferences, and rewriting or retelling the grievance narrative. Measurable changes in stress physiology and negative affect were found for these subjects. Another forgiveness processs model (Worthington) involves recalling the original hurt, empathizing with the perspective of the transgressor, giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness (even if they don’t deserve it), making a public commitment to forgiveness, and then working to hold on to forgiveness.
While the forgiveness research does not explicitly refer to Buddhist philosophy, there exists a natural fit between forgiveness and mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is a tool for managing physiological reactivity and automatic forms of narrative thinking, which are the two main components of the forgiveness intervention. Mindfulness helps us to become intimate with our thought patterns. This intimacy can help rules such as“people need to do what I expect ... or else!” yield to preferences, such as “I would prefer if people did what I expected, but I am not going to get bent out of shape about it if they don't.” To move into forgiveness we must let go of our suffering-inducing narratives of how we were hurt or wronged. One forgiveness researcher (Enright) defined forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.” This sounds like lovingkindness meditation! Sam notes that "mindfulness is a skillful means through which we can lay the foundation for cognitive restructuring. It provides the natural contrast medium so that we can better see the stridency of our rules for others. Plus, mindfulness of body allows one to literally feel unfogiveness, and to open to positive alternatives."