Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Forgiveness, Stress, and Living in the Present Moment

Some time ago, m good friend and colleague, Dr. Sam Standard, lectured in both my
Health Psychology course and Introduction to Clinical Psychology course
at UVM. 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.

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.”

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

  • Ellie

    This is a moving entry, Doc K. And I will attempt practice forgiveness..after I get even. ;)

  • Kat

    I’m wondering how trauma and addictions can be addressed with forgiveness. Many “suffer” greatly and would really benefit from re-claiming missing pieces of their histories, if they knew how. Sometimes simply being functional and moderate in this process is the best one can live. IMHO
    thanks for the practice!

  • Terri Schanks, MSW, LSCW

    Hi. Thanks for a great article and for the manner in which you share it. I was thinking about this recently as well and wrote about forgiveness and metta on our blog. I think forgiveness sets everyone free, it allows the person who needs to forgive to be empowered and step out of the role of victim, and allows the “persecutor” to step out of an old role as well. In the long run all benefit from this.
    I’d love to to a future post on your article today and link back if that’s ok with you. Our blog can be found at
    Thanks again for a good article.
    Terri Schanks, MSW, LCSW

  • m23

    Interesting article but I am a person who rarely gets offended – I’m more of a people pleaser and avoid conflict. But now i have a mother in law who went so far as to endanger my children to get a reaction out of me and. as well, treat my kids unlovingly while treating the other grandchildren with “love”. How do I forgive that? If she were not a family member, it would be easy for me to just walk away from this person and be done with it. But she continues when we have to see her to treat my kids less than the others. I get litereally sick to my stomach every time we have to see her.

  • PSNM

    Life moves on. There is a past and future in our lives. But what many of us do not realise that the present is right here and now. When we are carrying the hurt feeling in us for what has happened in the past, we continue to live in the past. We miss the beauty of the present. My master says, ‘hurt whether justified or not is self damaging’. The hurt will be with us in our memories. There is a legitimate period for which the hurt may be carried. Then we have to forgive and forget. The hurt is a terrible burden and the moment we forgive the other, we can experience a tremendous lightness in the heart. We do not waste our energies on the hurt we are carrying ans the negative feeing it generates. No person or situation is perfect and there may be reason for any situation.

  • Dr. Arnie Kozak

    Yes, hurt is like drinking poison to get back at someone else. It’s self-defeating if we get stuck in the place of resentment or nurturing a grievance narrative. Wise comment and thanks for sharing.

  • marieh

    To m23,
    No, you do not have to sit and watch hurtful acts be played out upon your children. Remember, children live what they learn. Just stop exposing them. Your position as their mother gives you the ultimate power to protect them, even from a family member. Period. It may cause quite the upheaval in YOUR household, but sooner or later the person doing the harm gets the point. I know that my mother-in-law did. It takes vigilence, patience, and commitment on your part.

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