Beliefnet
Mindfulness Matters

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.

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.”

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