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The Role that Forgiveness Plays in Health and Healing

” . . . and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us . . .” How many times have we, who have grown up in the Christian tradition, recited these words from the Lord’s Prayer?

How often do we stop and contemplate what it really means, “to forgive” or consider the ramifications if we do not forgive. To some, these words are only words, said by rote, without any substance. To others, forgiveness is conditional on their judgment of another’s actions. Since forgiveness is often interwoven in religious dogma, those who have been or are alienated from the church avoid it.

What is the definition of “to forgive”, the root of the word forgiveness? For starters, it is a verb, which implies action. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines this verb as “to give up resentment against or the desire to punish; excuse.” If we follow the meaning of “to excuse”, we come up with “to release from an obligation; to permit to leave; to liberate.”

In Roget’s Super Thesaurus, our current vernacular offers “wipe the slate clean, let off the hook, and let bygones be bygones” as synonyms for “to forgive.”

Forgiveness, then, is a process of releasing our hold on past emotions, thoughts, and deeds. If these emotions are negative and full of resentment, we are, in essence, trading pain for peace. In this process, there is an inherent catharsis – in the release, there is liberation. Samuel Clemens so appropriately summed up forgiveness as “The fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

What is the importance of forgiveness – is there anything to this beyond its religious implications?

For starters, modern medicine has proven that forgiveness plays an important role in our health. The Simontons’, in their ground-breaking cancer research, (Getting Well Again) have demonstrated that an individual who harbors resentment towards another increases their stress level each time they recall the source of their resentment. When the individual recalls the event, they “relive” that moment, reviving all the emotions and feelings surrounding this event.

Chronic stress places an unnecessary strain on the human body, releasing excess adrenalin and placing the biochemical system in a state of imbalance.

Often, individuals direct anger or blame towards another person, perhaps feeling that the “other” is responsible for a certain wrong, i.e. a boss overlooked a person for a promotion. Or, the individual may have responded to a situation in an unsatisfactory manner.

These initial incidents probably involve stress; however, if the stress is not discharged and the individual holds onto the negative emotions associated with these past occurrences, resentment develops. Each time the person replays the scenario, they experience the same stress originally felt with the past experience. Resentment is a “long-term re-stressing process.”

As the Simontons’ discovered, stress has a direct, debilitating effect on the immune system. If the past wrong is not released, or forgiven, the individual continues to bombard his limbic system with tension and stress, further depressing the body’s defenses. If the immune system is sufficiently weakened, serious illnesses, such as cancer, can develop.

It is therefore important to let go of grudges and make peace, if not directly with the other individual, at least with the memory. If you hold a negative internal representation of another then you are affecting your own internal processes and emotions. The release of guilt is in alignment with one of the prime directives of the Subconscious Mind: Since the Subconscious Mind is a highly moral being, if it thinks it needs to be punished it will create disease. Therefore, a regular purging of guilt via forgiveness promotes the health of the body and the mind.

Often, forgiveness may appear to be a very difficult thing to do, even though it may benefit both physically and mentally. It is easier to say that the “other” is bad rather than to clear up that part of you that feels bad. Blame, guilt, and self-hatred are all symptoms of unreleased anger towards others and one’s self. Another barrier to forgiveness is the belief that what we did was so special that it is unforgivable. What we must realize is that when we forgive, we are forgiving the person, whether it is another or ourselves; we are not condoning the actions involved.

When we continue to engage in resentment, it is as if we are playing tug-of-war with what was. The past holds one end of the rope and we are pulling on the other end in the present. As soon as we let go of our end of the rope, all tension disappears.

Forgiveness works in the same manner – as soon as we forgive, we immediately release all tensions, guilt, hurt, and negativity. In essence, we have transformed the past, as forgiveness is the great release from time. When we forgive, what was disappears.

When there is unwillingness to forgive, memories are kept alive that no longer exist. These memories act, then, as punishment for something that is not real.

Essentially, it is the ego that wants us to feel separate from our true selves, as punishment is a form of separation and judgment. Perhaps we need to find out if there is a part of us is willing to forgive – if there is some part that is willing to release the past, then that part can be cultivated. Often, through hypnosis or self-hypnosis, we can rescript the past by imagining a different response and outcome to that situation.

One of the best exercises we can perform is ”Forgiveness – Free Yourself Now” exercise: “Ho’oponopono” is a Huna technique of letting go of personal history and releasing emotions specifically. The Hawaiian Kahunas, or priests, used it for Hawaiian family therapy. “Ho’oponopono” literally means, “To make right times two.” This ancient Huna technique offers a paradigm for contemporary therapy as it addresses the release of guilt in a powerful and effective way. It is also an active way to forgive others without condoning their actions.

The Kahunas