The Power of Forgiveness

November 17th, 2010

Forgiveness is a lifelong challenge with few easy answers. We all have our enemies and unresolved tensions. A church pastor once asked his congregation if anyone had forgiven all their enemies. One lone hand shot up, an elderly lady.

“Mrs. Neely, that is very unusual. How old are you?”
“Ninety-eight,” she replied.
The congregation stood up and clapped their hands.

“Mrs. Neely? Share your secret with the rest of us. How have you forgiven all your enemies?”
“I don’t have any,” She replied, smiling sweetly.

“Oh, Mrs. Neely, would you please come down in front and tell us all how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?”
The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I outlived the lot of them.”

I guess time does heal wounds. The beautiful thing is that forgiveness equates to a longer and happier life. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person doing the forgiving as well as the person being forgiven. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system. This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, healthier relationships and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

One way or another most of us aspire to a deeper level of forgiveness, whether its family members or politicians or colleagues. In a recent Gallup Poll, 94% of people surveyed said it was important to forgive. At the same time, only 48% of people said they usually try to forgive. Forgiveness is easier said than done. In the same poll, 85% said they could not forgive on their own and needed some outside help. Prayer did not rate highly in the study as being helpful for forgiveness. In fact only one thing correlated with effective forgiveness, and that was meditation.

What is the connection between forgiveness and meditation?

Seeing Surface Things for What They Are

Neil Douglas Klotz is a Sufi author who has written several books that seek to uncover the original, Aramaic, sense of the words of Jesus. This is how Douglas Klotz translates the famous forgiveness words of Jesus’ Lord’s Prayer-

“Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of other’s guilt.
Don’t let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.”

The Lord’s Prayer comes alive when you allow the Aramaic of the original language to come through the words. Without forgiveness, you are held captive by surface things, like the immediate impression of things and events as being unfair or unjust. When you stop expecting the world to be perfect at the surface, forgiveness becomes a whole lot easier. When you stop expecting yourself not to make mistakes, you lighten up. When you stop expecting others to be perfect, you are freed from what holds you and others back. When you stop expecting life to be perfect, it becomes a much more peaceful experience. (Neil Douglas-Klotz The Hidden Gospel-Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus.)

Forgiveness and Consciousness

Forgiveness takes place in the human brain, the Cingulate Gyrus to be precise. Cingulate means belt in Latin. So you could think of Gyrus as the belt buckle, as it partially wraps around the Corpus Callosum. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate after assessing all the social evidence. The Cingulate also adjudicates when there is conflict between rational thinking and emotional responses. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator, as well as collector of sensory information about what is going on in other people and in events.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research has shown that activity increases in the Cingulate (amongst other parts of the brain) during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness, able to consider the other person’s intentions, their emotional state and the forgivability of their actions.

If the brain wasn’t so busy with competing demands and stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. That’s why meditation is such an effective tool for forgiveness. In meditation, you can train your mind to allow your highest consciousness to rule your life, rather than allowing your base survival instincts to rule your life.

Mark Nepo tells this story about forgiveness in “The Book of Awakening”:

A spiritual teacher grew tired of his student complaining, and so, one morning, sent him for some salt. When the student returned, the teacher instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it.
“How does it taste?” the teacher asked.

“Bitter,” said the student.

The teacher chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake, and once the student swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”

As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the teacher asked, “How does it taste?”

“Fresh,” remarked the student.

“Do you taste the salt?” asked the teacher.

“No,” said the young man.

At this, the teacher said, “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. . . . Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

Bottom line? Loosen the belt of your consciousness. Stop expecting the world to match your expectations and become a lake of forgiveness. Absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. Come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile.

Try this forgiveness exercise.

Say to yourself-

May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness-

May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus-

May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus-

May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

As Marianne Williamson said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”

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  1. Denise says:

    Thank you. I have two daughters whom have been distant for a time. One is about to be married and I’ve tried to tell her to call her sister and let things rest. I will forward this article to them. It says things so much better than I.

  2. ian says:

    hi Denise. Its hard to see people you love in conflict. No doubt whatever is keeping them apart feels bigger to them than it does with your perspective. Keep loving them, and modelling acceptance and they will eventually put their differences aside. Life is too short to hold grudges.

  3. one can argue that it can go both ways

  4. [...] thought of this today after reading the Soulseeds blog post about the Power of Forgiveness. This article resonated greatly with me, as I had been struggling to forgive someone who was once [...]

  5. […] Today I’m sharing a brief thought from my friends at Soulseeds: […]

  6. […] “Oh, Mrs. Neely, would you please come down in front and tell us all how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?” The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I outlived the lot of them.” (Lawton, 2010) […]