Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Stop Complaining and Whinging: A Mindfulness Approach

When we complain, we are expressing dissatisfacion with someone, something, or some event. When we whinge we are involved in repeated complaining. Complaining and whinging can become habituated behaviours that are difficult to change. Left unattended, these behaviours can become toxic for ourselves and those around us. However, they can be successfully addressed by a mindfulness approach.

Michael Dawson explains how he attempted to stop his own complaining and whinging behaviour. He decided that he would attempt to stop any form of complaining and whinging over an extended period of 21 days but found that it took him six months to achieve the targeted period. He found that the process of complaining and whinging pervaded his life – at work, at home and en route to various places. The first benefit of his focus on his behaviour was a growing awareness of how often he indulged in making a complaint or whinging – the beginning of mindfulness.

Why is it so difficult to stop complaining and whinging?

Complaining and whinging can very easily become an unhealthy habit. It can be reinforced by others around us. We can use it as a conversation opener – there is nothing surer to generate a response than to articulate a complaint about something. This behaviour is often unconscious and can become a constant part of our life without our being aware that it is happening – unless someone tells us that is what is happening. We can end up complaining about every aspect of our life – the weather, our boss, our life partner, our work, our location, our colleagues, and a former associate or partner. This fault-finding behaviour can become pervasive and very difficult to stop.

Another reinforcing factor is that complaining and whinging activate the negative bias of our brain. The result is that we see only the dark clouds, rather than the “silver lining”. We can develop an unconscious, negative bias that can be further reinforced by social media comments and caustic criticism. It can become hard to resist the temptation to participate in the negative commentary.

The effects of complaining and whinging

The preoccupation with what is negative in our lives can lead to depression. It creates a mindset that is unbalanced and blinds us to what is good, joyful and beautiful in our lives. It can become a deep grove that is difficult to shift because the associated neural pathways have been continually strengthened by reinforcement.

Complaining and whinging can negatively impact our relationships at work and at home. People around us will come to resent our negative bias and, where possible, avoid us or act aggressively towards us. Our negative mindset and its effects on others can lead us to slip into cynicism where we begin to distrust the motives of others, and this, in turn, can drain the energy of other people. So, we end up with a vicious circle, compounded by our lack of internal and external awareness. To avoid self-analysis, we will then begin to blame others for our deteriorating relationships.

A mindfulness approach to stop complaining and whinging

Michael described his mindfulness exercise to stop complaining and whinging in his life. However, any mindfulness activity designed to increase our awareness of our undesirable behaviour in this area can be a useful means to stop this habit.

If you regularly write a diary, you can make complaining and whinging behaviour a focus of your diary entries – recording how often these behaviours occur and what the catalysts are for your repeated behaviour. You might also reflect on an incident where someone you interact with regularly makes an observation about you such as, “you are always negative”.

At other times, you might meditate on a recent conflict that has occurred and explore whether you had engaged in expressing a complaint or whinging about something the other person has done or failed to do. The aim is to firstly raise your awareness of what you are doing and its effects on yourself and others and then progressively stopping yourself from engaging in complaining or whinging. You can begin to move from reflection-on-action to reflecting-in-action, developing the skill to stop yourself in the course of engaging in this negative behaviour.

If our complaints are directed at the clutter in our life, we can learn from Marie Kondo’s philosophy of developing a mindset focused on what brings joy to our life. In her book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, she identifies ways to develop a joy-oriented mindset through our approach to tidying our house. This requires reflection on what brings joy to us from amongst our collections of clothes, books, papers and miscellaneous items.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, self-observation and guided sorting, we can become more aware of our complaining and whinging habit and develop the motivation to change our behaviour to improve our own quality of life and the richness of our relationships. By adopting a mindfulness approach, we can develop self-regulation, a sense of self-control and calmness.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.