If we are holding onto a grievance towards others or ourselves, this can be damaging to our sense of wellbeing and even our health. The grievance story is like poison, it festers, fulminates, and preoccupies. Meanwhile, our stress response systems are in high gear trying to cope with an imagined threat.
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 five minutes. For this mere five minutes worth of negative focus, they experienced an eight to twelve 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). Forgiveness helps us to turn the stress response system off. Forgiveness is an antidote for the poison of the grievance story.
Forgiveness can be a private process of acceptance. It may not involve the other party. This person could be longed passed or it could be an institution, god, or life. Forgiveness does not mean condoning the harmful action or letting the person off the hook for what they’ve done. Rather, forgiveness is not allowing the past to dictate how we feel in the present. It is a letting go; it is coming to be in the present moment.
When we bring mindfulness to the hurt, we can see how we have been holding on and feel the emotional, energetic cost of this holding. The lack of forgiveness exploits deep-seated needs: The need to be right; the need to be heard, the need for justice. It’s easy to fall into this trap. Forgiveness situations are sticky, like the La Brea tar pits. Self-righteousness can keep is stuck. Beyond self-righteousness, there may be a fear that letting go – that accepting the situation will diminish us in some way. We cling to the story as if our identity depended upon it. “Better to be right than uncertain,” the mind says. Being open can be scary. Forgiveness requires self-reliance, a confidence that we can go through difficult experiences and still be intact. When we don’t indoctrinate ourselves with the grievance narrative we can taste this confidence.
Mindfulness helps us, in a general way, to disengage from all manner of stories, including the destructive grievance narratives of unforgiveness. Practice helps us to see how we “construct” ourselves out of these stories by identifying with them closely. “I am my story.” And to the extent that we identify with stories, is the extent that they influence us. According to forgiveness researcher, Sam Standard, “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 unforgiveness, and to open to positive alternatives.”