Several years ago I put my energy into learning about the psychology of forgiveness. This search led me to the research of Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University and Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Both Drs. Worthington and Enright have published extensively in this area, both in the scientific and popular presses. Both of them also appeared in the powerful film “The Power of Forgiveness,” released in 2007, which you can still find on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1-BDwAqaPg).
In The Power of Forgiveness Dr. Enright’s wife, Jeanette Enright, while working with children and educators in Belfast, Ireland, described the mindset of the forgiving person as “being tough minded but tender hearted.” That phrase really struck me at the time I first heard it in 2007 and has stuck with me ever since. Working with people as a Pastoral Counselor over the years I’ve heard stories of horrible perpetration, sometimes sitting with the victim/survivor of perpetration, sometimes with the perpetrator. Except for rare instances, the people I’ve spoken with have grown tired of seeking justice through punishment or compensation for their losses. Even people who have been compensated or seen their perpetrator punished have told me that it’s an empty outcome, that there’s no real payoff. What I’ve learned is that healing comes when the heart grows tender once again, and punishment or compensation does nothing to soften one’s heart.
I believe in being tough minded, though I prefer to say strong minded. I believe that a mind that is strong is one that can withstand disappointments, tolerate emotional and physical discomfort, bend but not break. I believe that a strong mind sees each person and each event as worthy of attention and acceptance. I believe that a strong mind is able to respond with compassion whether witnessing the consequences of suffering or the causation of suffering. I believe that a strong mind is able to be as compassionate to the perpetrator as to the survivor. The strong mind sees through what is most easily apparent to what is beneath, never judging, always ready to love. The strong mind is able to notice the current of emotions as they flow, make space for them and honor them, and then respond in ways intended to resolve strong feelings and restore loving relations.
A participant in the MBSR class I’m leading along with my teaching partner Shannon Ayres asked us what having a mindfulness practice is all about. It was a good question, and not one with any sort of standard answer. Actually, it is a question that can be answered any number of ways, largely depending on the need and intentionality of the questioner. But it seems to me that what we’re developing when we practice mindfulness, both in a formal sense and in an informal, moment to moment everyday sense, are strong minds and tender hearts. We strengthen our minds through the cultivation of steady focus, the mindful gaze upon our breath, our bodies, and our minds. We soften our hearts through our acceptance of each moment, never judging our thoughts, our distractions, our sensations, our selves. Each time I sit with the intention to be mindful I am exercising the attention and compassion muscles of my mind. My intention is to bring this capacity to be fully present and compassionate, cultivated within my own mind, out into the world and to the minds of each person I encounter.
One final thought arises in me. Another person who is just learning to be mindful complained about her “monkey mind;” that is a mind that is filled with all kinds of distractions. “I just can’t get it to stop!” We processed this a bit, and then I wondered if there was a great benefit to having monkey mind sometimes when we sit to meditate. When my mind is so active, so wandering, it gives me so many chances to notice the wandering mind, thus becoming mindful again, and forgive myself for not being able to focus on my breath. Over and over I’m able to say “that’s OK Jim, that’s OK” as I gently escort the wandering mind to the simple breath that keeps me alive. When I have monkey mind I have to exercise those focusing muscles so many times, they have to be getting stronger. And each time I lose my focus is another opportunity to speak gently to myself in my mind’s voice. Yes, the power of forgiveness cannot be understated. Sometimes it is so difficult to forgive ourselves for the dreadful things we imagine we do. Just think of how your life, and someone else’s, would change if you could easily say to yourself “that’s OK, that’s OK,” and easily say the same to another. As Louis Armstrong sang so beautifully, what a wonderful world!
PS If you want a treat, here’s a link to listen to Louis sing about that wonderful world: