Forgive for Good


April 2002

Gentry catches up with Frederic Luskin, the co-founder of Stanford’s Forgiveness Project and highly acclaimed author

Have you ever laid awake at night going over and over each detail and every angle of a hurt from the past -- a disagreement with a parent, a fight with your spouse, a slight at a party? Have you seen the eyes of your spouse or friend glaze over as you once again regale them with the particulars of that hurt? If so, you may be in the grips of a "grievance story."

A grievance story starts out as simply your version of what happened in a painful situation. But when you tell that story over and over again -- to yourself or others - it becomes a tale of helplessness and frustration. It can also raise your blood pressure, make your back ache, and cause your best friend to ignore your phone calls.

Grievance stories are at the heart of an artful method for learning to forgive outlined in a new book, Forgive For Good, by Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director and Co-founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. The program incorporates breathing and visualization techniques within a behavioral therapy that encourages people to take greater responsibility for themselves.

Many of the truths he talks about are simple-- things that we already know, but don't do, such as taking the time to count our blessings, to appreciate the child seated next to us at the dinner table, to see the natural beauty of our surroundings. But the process he has developed for getting past hurt and anger is a little more complex, requiring a step-by-step, fundamental recasting of the grievance story and the fashioning of a new response.

It's far more than self-help psychobabble. Participants in the Stanford Forgiveness Project, the largest such study ever conducted, reported not only decreases in stress and anger, but improvements in their physical well-being, documenting a positive impact on cardiovascular function and decreases in chest pain, back pain, nausea, sleep problems, headaches and loss of appetite. Subsequent studies have shown that more forgiving people are less likely to suffer from a wide range of illnesses and hint that holding a grudge can cause long-term health damage.

Two years ago, Luskin had the opportunity to put his methods to the ultimate test in the HOPE (Healing Our Past Experiences) Project. Together with Byron Bland, a Presbyterian minister and associate director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation, he began to work with victims of violence from Northern Ireland. The first HOPE Project brought together five women -- Protestant and Catholic -- whose sons had been killed in what the Irish call "the troubles." No one Luskin had worked with before had come to him from a place of such viciousness -- their children kinapped and executed, beaten to death, shot as they walked down the street. After a week, the participants showed marked decreases in their levels of hurt, anger and stress and they report continued improvement. The HOPE Project proved, once and for all, that the methodology worked.

Reared in the east, Luskin owned a health food store in Santa Cruz, until shortly after the birth of his first child, when he realized he might want to earn more money, and so returned to graduate school at Stanford. His interest in forgiveness began with a painful experience of his own -- a close friend who cut him off suddenly and without explanation. That experience was the springboard for his dissertation and the therapeutic program that became the Stanford Forgiveness Project.

Today, while continuing his research, clinical work and the HOPE Projects, Luskin also conducts workshops on his method throughout the state, including at Stanford. He lives with his wife and two children in Redwood City. Tall and rangy, dressed in sweats, his long hair curled over the back of his collar, his manner is kind and earnest, reflecting the beliefs that lead him to first study forgiveness. We joined him recently in his offices on Welch Road to talk about grievance stories, stress, and what the world needs now, since 9/11.

What did you have in mind when you began your research?

I wanted to figure out if I could train an aspect of spiritual practice and then measure its effect. I was convinced that people who showed more forgiveness, kindness, compassion, understanding, gentleness--that they would probably show better health and well-being. But I wasn't interested in just looking at it. I wanted to see if you could make people kinder. It grew out of the Dalai Lama's idea that his religion was kindness. And what a great kindness it is to forgive people. If you look at the state of the world and the level of hostility and resentment and grudge holding, and the level at which we human beings give ourselves permission to get furious at things all the time, forgiveness seemed like a good idea.

Is what you do considered therapy?

It's psycho-education. I teach people what forgiveness is and how you forgive, and then they practice. Let's say a memory comes up of someone that hurt you. I would ask you, "Have you thought of this before?" And if you said yes, I'd say, "Have you thought of it a few times before?" And if you said yes, I'd say, "You probably don't need to think about it again, unless you want to."
The two important things are: (a) deal with it in a way that works for you and then (b) find a way so that at this moment it doesn't disturb you. Forgiveness doesn't mean you don't deal with something, but that you deal with it and stop obsessing about it. If you practice one of the breathing exercises -- take a couple of deep breaths into your belly and think of someone you love or something beautiful or even kindness - then your body will not react to stress, and, if your body doesn't react, you retain your freedom of choice.

The only way your freedom of choice is taken away is if your body gets grabbed by the stress response. Your mind shuts down at those moments. One of the things that happens when your body is under stress is the blood supply and the electrical energy to the thinking part of your brain go down. That's absolutely a proven physiological process, and its very purpose is to prevent you from thinking deeply. You have to react. That's how it saves your life, because if you're in real danger, you want to be able to do something about it. But obsessing or arguing about the past or trying to change something that's already done are wasted efforts.

Our body is designed so that when we sense danger we reduce the energy to the thinking part of the brain and we boost energy so that we can take action. But it can't do that a hundred times. You wear yourself out. And the result of that is sheer helplessness, which is very damaging to one's health and well-being. We get so used to responding to the part of ourselves that is upset. And we think that part is like Moses coming down with the ten tablets, as if it's brilliant advice. It's not brilliant advice. It's just the advice of hurt. Once you're calm, you'll start getting different kinds of answers.

What if someone can't articulate what happened?

Then they're not ready to forgive. You want to know what happened, you want to know what's wrong, you want to know the consequences and you want to have told a few people. You don't want what happened to be a deep, dark secret. Forgiveness is not a substitute for all aspects of emotional well-being.

Although your program seems simple, it does take time to forgive.
It doesn't take a huge amount of time, but it takes some practice. We have found that with these Irish projects, we did it in a week, but it was a week of daily practice and intervention. The other studies were six weeks and we gave them homework assignments. If you don't go home and practice, it doesn't work as well. It's only when you get a taste of something else that you can choose.

So your method seeks to make people see that they have a choice?
The basic level of human empowerment is choice. In whatever way we're trying to heal people, all of us are trying to remind people that they have a choice. When you have a choice, then you're not trapped in reactivity. And once you have a choice, then forgiveness becomes part of the menu.

But isn't it very difficult to change behavior?

It's less hard when you look at it short term. The question is not whether you can entirely heal everything that happened to you. The important question is -- at this moment, how are you reacting? It's like the twelve-step programs which tell people they don't have to be sober forever, they just have to be sober now. You don't have to forgive forever, you just have to forgive now. And the more nows you have for forgiveness, the happier you are. And when you shift your attention to how many moments you're happy, then that becomes your life.

The Dalai Lama in his Art of Happiness talks about practicing the conditions of happiness. It's not what happened to you, but whether or not you're practicing the conditions of happiness. If you're complaining, you're not practicing a condition of happiness. Now, that doesn't mean you shouldn't complain ever, but if you have a tendency to complain, then you're not practicing a condition of happiness, and don't expect to be happy. People get stuck when they want to practice the conditions of unhappiness but not get unhappiness.

But certain things in life are simply unacceptable. How do we forgive the unacceptable?

If something is unacceptable to you, and you stay upset about it, in what way have you helped the situation? Let's say you had awful parents and you're 37-years old, and you wake up one morning and you ask yourself, realistically, for the first time, two things. One, even if I had awful parents, is it worth spoiling today over that? Second, if awful parents appear to be a normal part of being on this earth, how does it help me to constantly remind myself how awful it is? The only thing I can do to change it is to become a great parent myself. But, if I'm angry at my parents, and I become bitchy to my spouse because of that, or I'm uptight with my kids, then I've been another awful parent.

So forgiving is not condoning.

The only way you can forgive is if you don't condone, because if you condone, you're not forgiving. Forgiving is saying this is wrong, and yet, it still doesn't mean that I have to hurt anybody else or I have to ruin my day or I have to withdraw from my partner or my friends because I was hurt. Too many of us use the things that happen to us as a reason to not be fully present and loving.

Why does it feel so good not to forgive?

I think partly it's because people have not experienced how good it feels to forgive, and in comparison to helplessness, anger can sometimes feel better. Grieving is hard, and anything big that you have to forgive has great loss in it. That's harder work. Anger can give you a momentary sense of power in the face of powerlessness. But what we don't realize is that ultimately when you get angry at the same thing over and over again, it actually increases your powerlessness. Unless we're talking about the worst of tragedies, why do people take anger as a default response when they don't get what they want?

Do you have an answer for that?

It's a habit. If you get used to doing it one way, it feels really strange to do it another way. Partly it's training. You know what I suggest to people who have road rage? I used to do heart disease prevention work and many of the people who've had heart disease get really angry on the highways. So I would suggest to them that it makes sense to get upset with each of the people who violate the rules of the road, if you give thanks to all the people who don't. Then, you can see things clearly. So if a hundred cars pass you reasonably well and you thank each one of them, you'll have a much better perspective from which to judge right and wrong and how safe it actually is. And the fact that we don't do that is one of the reasons why we give ourselves permission to have such a hair trigger.

Also, we are biologically or evolutionarily programmed to be alert to danger. That's part of this. We have to, as animals, to ensure our safety, be scanning the environment for any threats, and we have to do that regularly. All animals won't cross the road until they see it's safe, and every animal will react with fright and something approaching anger when a car comes at them and almost kills them. But they don't carry it with them. They don't look back two months later and say to themselves, that *&%#* on 280.

So, don't go home and tell your husband how lousy the drivers were. That's another way to protect yourself. Stop complaining. You have to deal with it, but you don't need to ruin other people's days. Many of us create our whole life stories around all the inconveniences, all the troubles, all the traffic, all the rude sales clerks. That's what we talk about. How does that help?

So many of us operate on such a high level of tension most of the time that we don't relax enough to really get the goodies that life has to offer. We don't have enough intimacy, enough friendship, enough quiet, enough beauty. That's really what life offers at its deepest level. If we're hung up on the wrongs that happen to us, we'll never get those goodies. We have a culture that's more supportive of the expression of anger than the expression of forgiveness or compassion. And forgiveness requires us to practice something different. It is taught -- in every religion, every stress management group, every anger management group. We just don't do it. It takes effort and time, and other people don't always cooperate, which makes it even harder.

Since September 11, we have all been thrust into a world with a lot more stress and uncertainty. Any advice for us?

How do you cope with life is what you're asking me. We did before September 11, too, but this has refocused our attention on the vagaries of life and the dangers of it. There's nothing more powerful for people if they're looking at how to cope in their life than to learn to pay more attention to counting their blessings, and the adjunct to that is to complain less. It's one thing to know that we as the United States face this possible danger from terrorists and from people who hate us. It's another thing to wake up in the morning and complain because your kids aren't perfect or argue with your spouse. Those are all wasted effort.

If we spend more of our time being thankful, if we take a look at the people we live with and give them honest appreciation for being in our life, if you look outside and notice it's beautiful even if you are in traffic, it lowers the thermostat very well. And it forces us to pay attention to what's really important. One of the things that I hope comes from this is that it forces us to do that. When there's uncertainty in the bigger picture, in the little picture you can always give your child an extra hug and you can always give your partner an extra hug and you can always be thankful that you eat and are clothed and have a house, because all over the world, many people don't. And, particularly in a materialistic area like this, that would reduce stress dramatically, because we all have more than we need.

But does that advice work for people who have so much?

It works for anybody. There's no moment that you can't improve by taking a really slow deep breath and looking around you for something to appreciate or find beautiful. One of the major failures of our education is that we haven't been taught to realize how precious love and care are, that we tend to take them for granted, that we don't realize what a choice anybody who's kind to us is giving us. They don't have to be that way, even if they're married to us, even if they're our parents. They don't have to be good to us -- as you can see, because there are so many who aren't. We haven't trained ourselves to really slow down and thank the people who are kind -- our friends, our neighbors, our community. And that kind of thankfulness helps people want to do it again. And I think that is a major stress reducer.

Another simple stress reducer is simply to slow down. If you rush by things, it's very hard to notice them. But if you slow down and learn to take some deep breaths and learn to manage the body a little bit, then there are a lot of nice things to notice. That doesn't mean that we're not in a very unstable world, but for every minute that somebody's not bombing us, there's that minute of possibility, which also doesn't mean that you don't have to prepare yourself for the danger.

I was once with a group of people who were complaining because their vacations didn't turn out perfectly, and I said to myself, 'These people have lost a little perspective. I'm sorry their luggage was lost, and I'm sorry the plane was a little crowded, and I'm sorry they had an extra layover somewhere, but in a world where hundreds of millions of people starve to death, then the fact that your luggage was lost is not a… well, you can cope.' Yes, it's fine to have the nicest car and the nicest house, but those don't substitute for the quiet appreciation that comes from deeper connections.
I think to a degree that we would hate to admit that the wealth that we saw here made it easier to forget that we're still part of this planet, and that we still follow the same rules, even though, like in Bonfire of the Vanities, the "Masters of the Universe" kind of thing can make you forget. This attack has made us remember that the laws still apply, which doesn't mean that our abundance isn't incredible. It's just I don't think we appreciate it enough.
Are there lessons we can learn from the people of Northern Ireland about living with terrorism?

What has happened in New York is very different. There's no question. Much more threatening. And much more vicious. It's not just aimed at sending a message and keeping a conflict going. It's designed, it seems to me, to escalate to something enormous.

When people ask me if we can forgive these terrorist acts, my response is that that's not the right question to ask. We can forgive them, but that's not an important question now. Forgiveness is down the road. Our safety is the important question.

How do we maintain our safety? What do we do to protect ourselves? How do we unite? Those are the important questions. If you're filled with too much vengeance, you won't be able to take care of yourself well enough to even ask the right questions. If you're filled with anger and you do stupid things because of it, you make your situation worse.

What I saw at the beginning of this conflict, in particular, was that the people at both ends of the spectrum were trying to not feel. The people who just wanted peace didn't want to feel what it really meant to be in a world with this kind of violence, and they adopted a Pollyanna-ish viewpoint, which is out of touch with the ways things are. The people who wanted to bomb the terrorists back to the Stone Age were in the same position. They didn't want to feel the incredible complexity and horror of this and the challenge of responding appropriately, both as a country and as individuals. That is hard work. You have to think about your response and you have to reflect upon your life values. Oooh, that's hard.