Forgiveness during the Holidays

Red door with wreath

Forgiveness during the Holidays

This morning I had the good fortune of being a guest on Dr. Leon Dickerson’s radio show called Mental Health for Better Living on WHCR-90.3FM in New York (9 to 9:30am EST). The radio show focuses on family life, spiritual life, and the community and we spoke about forgiveness and its importance, particularly during the holiday season when family gathers and stress is often nearing a threshold of tolerance.

We only had a brief time together to discuss this important topic, so here are a few more thoughts about forgiveness to keep in mind as we enter the holiday season:

Why forgive?

Forgiveness is our birthright. It is our remembrance. Forgiveness expands our perception and heals our relationship with ourselves and others. When we come to the place of wishing to seek forgiveness, we seek that which we already are. This is the paradoxical nature of forgiveness. Our intense desire to be that which we already are can thwart our recognition that we already are that which we seek to be. I reflect back to a discussion about the essence of love  in the well known pages of Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates, having been counseled by the Oracle of Delphi, relates “You mean only that you want to have in the future what you have now.” The same can be said about forgiveness. If you rest for a moment in your heart and begin to feel a wish for forgiveness stirring, notice an emergent quality. There is no need to try to change anything or force something that is not quite ready to be pulled off the fire, but by simply accepting exactly where you are right now and leaning in with curiosity and compassion as you would with a small child in need, this intentional movement begins to create your own unique spiral pathway toward a forgiving stance. The energy of intentionality and the power of imagination cannot be overestimated. We can guide ourselves to include the past while transcending it.

Who does forgiveness benefit?

When even one person experiences forgiveness, all being are benefited energetically. Tangible benefits can be experienced consciously in the one who forgives. As one makes the often difficult, yet profound shifts toward forgiveness, one progresses toward a more complex and integrated developmental level that allows for a greater capacity for empathy, compassion, emotional regulation, mindfulness, immune function, and overall health.

A new study that came out in December 2013 in Frontiers of Neuroscience by Ricciadi et al. from the University of Pisa, tells us that the capacity to imagine is linked to the capacity to forgive, in the more we can use our imagination, the more we can step out of concrete, overly subjective references and we can expand perception and feelings to include others and to do so in an objective way. By being able to blend the subjective and objective, we can get out of the way of grasping at our own need to be right with a fixed story and we can open to what may be newly emerging right here, right now, in this body, in this moment. We can imagine what it might be like to be the other. Indeed, it has been shown that there are increases in frontal lobe activity to make room for pause and reflection/reasoning and there is more heart rate coherency and lowering of blood pressure with forgiveness. When these types of changes occur, it is easier to drop down into the feeling function and not feel completely overwhelmed by strong affect.

Try a little experiment here: Clench your fists and tighten your face into a scowl, raise your shoulders, tighten your abdomen, and hold your breath for a moment. Just stay there and notice the rigidity, the tension in your body and how it affects your heart center. Now release, exhale, shake everything out, and see what happens to your overall sense of well-being. (Without reducing forgiveness down to simply this small gesture, the gesture/exercise does provide a brief preview of what a lack of forgiveness versus what an embodied forgiving, compassionate stance can do to your relationship to yourself and others.)

Rumi said “There is a way of breathing that’s a shame and a suffocation. And there’s another way of expiring a love breath, that lets you open infinitely.” (p. 40, The Illuminated Rumi)

Why is it particularly important to consider forgiveness during the holidays when families gather together?

We can learn much from affective neuroscience and polyvagal theory, somatic psychology, our own relationship to spirituality, and existential/depth perspectives when it comes to the trauma around events that prompt a consideration of forgiveness. Trauma is on a continuum and we often think of trauma only in the context of cataclysmic events, car accidents, profound poverty and famine, medical emergencies and such.  Rape, molestation, high-conflict divorce, domestic violence, physical abuse, holocaust situations, and political/religious/military combat have been spoken about as some of the worst human moral wounding that can take place between individuals, families, cultures, and groups.  These are interpersonal traumas at their most profound, often taking on mythological proportions. However, we can forget about the seemingly small emotional woundings that can build up over time and that feeling dismissed or  invalidated by even one family member is a form of trauma, particularly if that person was/is in a caregiver role and was/is sought as a reflection back that we were/are loved and good enough just the way we were/are. This is also trauma of an interpersonal nature. There is an emotional wounding that is often invisible to the outside world, however, and it has a sneaky way of permeating thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. The late archetypal psychologist, James Hillman, spoke about forgiveness in the context of betrayal and made this wise statement “We are led to an essential truth about both trust and betrayal; they contain each other.” Our sufferings provide an opportunity for a re-consideration of meaning in the larger picture of a more expansive Self.

When families and old friends gather and stress is high already from traveling long distances, considerations of finances and gift giving, negotiating the who, what, where and when of a meeting place and such, it is easy for old emotional patterns to emerge, for unresolved resentments to surface, for small gestures or words to be taken as monumental injustices. Even if the gathering is joyful, one can feel overstimulated or experience self-punishing thoughts for not having more energy or not being able to contribute more.

These times give us opportunity to pause, to take a breath, to maybe take a walk for some fresh air, to find a place of inner sanctuary, to call upon spiritual role models and tried and true practices that foster self-compassion and compassion for others while also feeling strong and safe. It is all too easy to overindulge in the food and alcohol that flows endlessly during the holidays, to give in to nasty, sarcastic comments and silent sulks, and all other forms of going unconscious, as authentically being present to what it is that we truly hope for in our relationships gets pushed under the table, only showing up in the guise of blame and shame. Alternately, it can be a time of deep care and the expression of genuine love, appreciating the ancestors who cannot be with us in form, and the bittersweet remembrances of days past, the beauty of connection and presence, the hopes and commitments of future relationships and endeavors, and clarity of spiritual purpose.

Whether or not the opportunity for forgiveness is pressing, I offer the following phrases from age-old lovingkindness practices for you to say silently or out loud, starting with yourself:

May you be peaceful, healthy in body, mind, and spirit, happy and free from the cause of suffering, be safe, and may you have ease during this holiday season. May you remember your true nature and bring to mind, through the vast resource of your imagination, your larger Self and any spiritual role models who may join you by your side as you gracefully walk with gratitude into these celebrations of thanks, rebirth, and yearly renewal.

Forgiveness takes a courageous and steady effort, so there is no room for self-judgment. The greatest message we can all give ourselves for the holiday season and beyond is to pause, come back to our deep belly and heart breath, feeling our chest expand, our feet on the ground, our connection to what is most meaningful to us in our relationship to our own spirituality, pay attention to our dreams and to our own shadow material that we may be either projecting on to others and/or judging ourselves harshly for, take time in nature and recognize that we share a great mystery together, engage in rituals with art, writing, song, creativity, and see each other as not polarized beings, but in all our multifaceted/kaleidoscopic nature, recognizing the divine in all. This is not to say that it is always easy to come to this stance, just that it is a worthy endeavor to both accept exactly where we are right here, right now, while making the effort to engage in a compassionate and relational way, knowing that we are all  “in this together” on this fragile and ultimately unpredictable planet called Earth.

Here are a few resources to prime mindful reflection for the holidays:

The Greater Good Science Center

Spiritual Paths Foundation            (I will follow up with a proposed forgiveness ritual in this context)

In Santa Barbara area:

PGI Public Programs                              www.pacifica. edu

La Casa de Maria Retreat Center

For imagery practitioners in healthcare to work with:

Imagery International               

For mindfulness meditation support online:

The Mindfulness App

Insight Timer App


These are but a few resources for now.

Remember, one might say that forgiveness is a state of inner wisdom that deeply acknowledges that all of humanity, both oneself and other, suffer through desire. Thus, forgiveness resides in a calmness of mind that has come about from the relinquishment (not repression or denial) of the personal desire for punishment. Forgiveness involves a renewed contact with one’s core being, which brings about an attitude of love and respect for the dignity of all beings, including the offender and the self. It is about being a “free” agent, one who can experience the depth of suffering without attachment to such, and look with curiosity and compassion to oneself and others. I use the term “inner state of wisdom” to incorporate the view that wisdom is essentially the culmination of the integration of intelligence and creativity. Heart intelligence. One must use one’s feeling, thinking, imagination, body and heart to facilitate this integration, and to be able to have empathy and understanding.

Forgiveness is spiritual intelligence.

We are all in this together. Every one of us has either prompted the opportunity for forgiveness through a wrong doing, has hoped to receive forgiveness, to have accepted a gesture of forgiveness from another, struggled (or not) with the decision and choice to forgive, or offered this great gift.

Blessings for the Holiday Season!!











Trackback this Post | Feed on comments to this Post

Leave your Comment