The role Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) can play in forgiveness

small creeper on fig copySession Details - October 17th, 2016 - Exploring the complexities of forgiveness and how it plays out within our unique stories of pain and struggle. Can MSC put the wheels in motion towards opening to a different relationship with forgiveness? 

I woke up this morning to a divine sweetness in my mouth.
In the night, someone had forgiven me.
Or, perhaps, it was I who had forgiven.” – Jane O’Shea

We know that forgiveness requires us to first validate the pain, tend to it. We then need to manage the risk regarding lot letting it happen again. So how does MSC assist us to open to the wounds / pains that are associated with forgiveness? Unpacking the three component of self-compassion, being with them, finding our way to that point of balance between wisdom and compassion.

1. Mindfulness, courageous presence – as opposed to auto-pilot and dismissing the pain
2. Common humanity – as opposed to feeling like you are alone in your pain
3. Kindness – as opposed to criticism, judgment

The opposite to this kind of loving, connected presence continues to keep the fuel the pain.

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”– Martin Luther King Junior

In the MSC program we feel our way into developing a greater sense of warm, accepting awareness and experience how this allows for the gradual dropping away of resistance. Forgiveness starts to also gradually bloom with this dropping away of resistance. As Jack Kornfield said, “Forgiveness is letting go of wishing the past were different.”

Below is an exert from Noah Levine on the topic of forgiveness

Like many other primates, such as chimpanzees and macaques, humans have strong motivational tendencies to retaliate after being victimized. After any slight, insult, act of aggression or infraction, we seek retribution against those who transgress, committing additional wrongdoings in response. These reactions generally don't put an end to misdeeds and encroachments; revenge creates a cycle of vengeance, as most acts of retaliation are perceived—by the original transgressors who receive the retribution—as disproportionate, far more painful and harmful than the first offense. Consequently a back and forth, tit-for-tat series of retaliations and counter-retaliations ensue.

Forgiveness is more than a nice idea; it is an essential ingredient to peace of mind. Multiple studies have documented a direct correlation between forgiveness and health and mental well-being. An inability to forgive is related to depressive cycles, low self-esteem, anxiety and anger, whereas those who develop the capacity to forgive show lower incidents of depression, paranoid ideations, psychotic lapses. Research has shown that pardoning personal offenses results in a greater degree of satisfaction with one's life over a significant period of time. Additionally, mentally re-enacting previous woundings has detrimental results on the cardiovascular system and needlessly triggers the fight-flight-or-freeze response. Developing an ability to forgive others is correspondent to the practice of forgiving oneself; the less we can let go of rumination over the misdeeds of others, the less we can reduce our own self-belittlement.

Below are some basic, preparatory steps towards forgiveness. Remembering that letting go is a process that can take years, but worth it, given the alternative of obsessive resentment.
1) Remember that forgiving doesn't let a transgressor off the hook; they still have to live with the legal and psychological consequences of their actions. We forgive so we can move on; those who have injured us have to live with their actions.

2) Start with oneself. Bring to mind times we've acted unskilfully, especially in letting ourselves down, feeling the disappointment somatically and allowing it to pass. A mind that pardons is a mind that is free to embrace the present and define life by many experiences, rather than a single, narrow story.

3) To forgive has etymological roots in the word 'unbind.' Harbouring resentments ties us to the worst and ugliest acts of others, rather than the many skilful actions they've produced during a lifetime.

4) Forgiveness does not mean allowing someone back into our proximity or interactions; letting go of resentments does not mean letting go of boundaries, even staying away entirely from another. It is possible to forgive and to keep a safe distance. Again, we forgive so that we can let go of retaliatory obsession and move on with life.

5) When 'The Story' of the breach arises, try to envision the events through the eyes of the transgressor, creating a full backstory and life events, understanding how isolated acts do not define entire lives. Viewing events from another perspective takes a great deal of effort, but the long results are worth it.

“Happiness is closer to the experience of acceptance and contentment than it is to pleasure. True happiness exists as the spacious and compassionate heart's willingness to feel whatever is present.”  - Noah Levine

We are imprinted by the suffering we have caused others. Opening to this pain, often felt as guilt or shame allows us to meet the heart’s need to come back to our interconnection. Aware of all the causes and conditions at play – nothing in isolation. The following letter and story of an American Vietnam veteran show his painful, slow journey to self-forgiveness. He placed this letter at the Vietnam Veterans's Memorial in Washington in 1989.

Dear Sir, for twenty-two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I'll never know . . . Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained . . . So many times over the years I’ve stared at your picture and your daughter. I suspect each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters of my own now. I perceive you as a brave soldier, defending his homeland. Above all else I can now respect the importance life held for you. I suppose that is why I am able to be here today. It is time for me to continue the life process and release the pain and guilt. Forgive me sir.

Years on the veteran who wrote this letter decided to find the daughter in the picture, and return the photo to her. He travelled to Vietnam, found her and her brother, and introduced himself through an interpreter. “Tell her this is the photo I took from her father’s wallet the day I shot and killed him and I’m returning it.” With his voice breaking, he asked for her forgiveness. The young woman burst into tears and fell into Richard’s arms, sobbing. Later her brother explained that he and his sister believed that their father’s spirit lived on in Richard, and that on that day, it had returned to them.

Comments from participants

“I have found mindfulness a key to coping." 

“Learning to be still and kind to myself." 

“Tina, you create a safe, warm, kind and comfortable environment."

“I could not think of a better way to start my week." 

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