Forgiveness has been around for thousands of years. It is mentioned and/or discussed in sacred writings of many religions. So it is well grounded in the realm of spiritual teachings. Up until recently, the fact that forgiveness was a tenet of religion was enough for most people. One forgave because religions advocated forgiveness or it was the spiritual thing to do.
For many of our population, particularly those who under 30 years old, religious justification is no longer enough. In the eyes of many of them, religion is merely superstition and has no place in their lives. This is an understandable viewpoint since science and technology have become the dominant forces in many of our lives replacing the influence of the powerful organized religions,
So where does this leave forgiveness? Surprisingly for some, it is in an even stronger position than it was before!
As Dr. Fred Luskin of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project discovered when he started conducting research into the subject back in 1996, religion actually hinders the perception and acceptance of forgiveness! This occurred often because of semantics. If his statements were not couched in the specific language of a particular sect, they were rejected by the followers of that sect. In his failed attempts to incorporate spiritual teachings into his forgiveness research and training, he recalled receiving comments like “it would have been better if Jesus was in it,” or “the Buddha said it better.” He said that he soon realized that trying to fit forgiveness into a religious context would actually limit it. Instead he determined that it needed to exist within its own secular technology which people could then adopt into their own core belief system.
So what is this “secular technology” of forgiveness? Most simply stated, unforgiveness is a destructive physical force that only forgiveness can heal. Unforgiveness is most often expressed in negative emotions like irritation, anger, resentment, fear and anxiety. Our reptilian brain interprets these states as threats and generate the classic “fight or flight” or “stress” response within the body. Unfortunately for our bodies in modern society, this has become a chronic condition.
This stress or “fight or flight” response is a basic survival mechanism. It has existed for as long as humans have existed. Since it’s such a basic instinct, it acts automatically. It was a necessary function to keep us alive in a dangerous world of life threatening events. When confronted with a life threatening situation, the body immediately (in less than a second) generates a chemical cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. The adrenaline rushes to the heart, arteries, pancreas, liver, muscles and fatty tissue. The effect on the heart and arteries is that adrenaline increases heart rate and respiration. The effect on the pancreas, liver, muscles and fatty tissue, is that it stimulates the fusion of sugar and fat, which the body can then use as fuel in fight-or-flight situations. The cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles. At the same time, it inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, so it can be used immediately instead. It narrows the arteries while the adrenaline increases the heart rate to elevate the blood pressure. Adding to this supercharged chemical mix is norepinephrine. This chemical is to mobilize the brain and body for action. Norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention on the immediate now situation. It also stimulates an increased release of glucose from where it is stored in the cells, boosts blood flow to skeletal muscle, reduces blood flow to the digestive system, and locks up the bladder and bowels. In essence, your body is chemical genius at work when it comes to facing a life-threatening situation.
Trouble is, we don’t need to cope with the presence of sabre tooth tigers anymore. We need a more nuanced approach to life. The threatening situations we face today tend to be related to traffic conditions, financial worries, job issues or relationship conflicts. Additionally, these are not widely spaced situations. They happen one right after the other right after the other. The result is that we are in a constant state of threat vigilance, which is also known as a state of chronic anxiety or permanent stress.
Chronic anxiety keeps our bodies in a state of producing excess adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. While these chemicals are useful in emergencies, they are destructive in everyday life. They are the causative factors in heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, headaches, constipation, sleep disorders and chronic fatigue. One of the root causes of chronic anxiety is the buildup and retention of negative emotions brought on by the irritants that we live with everyday – traffic incidents, errors at work, complaints and/or misunderstandings by mates or bosses or coworkers. Doctors, healers, psychologists and others are now labeling this condition of chronic anxiety as “unforgiveness.”
Dr. Michael Barry of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America states that of all cancer patients, 61 percent have forgiveness issues, and of those, more than half are severe. He claims that the suppression of vital functions within the body as a result of the presence of excess stress chemicals deplete the production of natural killer cells, which is your body’s foot soldier in the fight against cancer.
The solution? Forgiveness. It is only through the secular technology of forgiveness as Dr. Luskin calls it, that we can defuse the potentially destructive effect of our overactive stress reactors. These reactors not only activate when we are faced with an anxiety producing situation, they ignite even when we think about an anxiety situation. So, unless we can relieve our minds that churn hurts and distress over and over again, we are basically self-destructing.
Practicing the process of forgiveness is not a spiritual practice. It is a lifesaving practice. Dr. Luskin labels it an Adrenaline Management System. Colin Tipping has created Radical Forgiveness. Dr. Robert Enright calls his process model, Psychological Forgiveness. I’ve developed a process that I’ve named Functional Forgiveness. The truth is that no matter what you call it, forgiveness is tantamount to the most powerful medication known to man – and it doesn’t have to be approved by the FDA!