A few weeks ago, in discussion with a friend, Saybrook School of Mind-Body Medicine doctoral student Deborah Gray found herself bemoaning the idea of aging. She explained that she is not afraid or saddened by death but instead is grieving the loss of youth. In the process of explaining her sadness, Deb realized what grieves her most is the loss of firsts. “The first day of school, the first date, the first marriage, the first baby, etc.” Deb further explained that, “As always, life has a way of challenging my beliefs.”
Last week Deb had a wonderful opportunity to realize that her worries were for naught. She was blessed with the opportunity for a number of new firsts; visiting Inuvik, Canada in the Arctic Circle, being a co-presenter with Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, tasting caribou stew, flying Canadian North Airlines (tagline, “Seriously North”). Lastly, she got her first marriage proposal from a homeless man while visiting the local homeless shelter in Inuvik.
The forgiveness training was requested by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, a non-profit organization working with local natives and the Canadian government. The training was provided to counselors, educators, and the elders who provide support and programming to former students of the residential schools attended by many Canadian First Nation children for many years. Two of the schools were located in Inuvik with the last one closing in 1996. The schools began in the early 1940’s and were in existence for over 50 years. Many of the young students were victims of severe abuse; many were beaten, molested, emotionally abused, raped, and even murdered during their stay. Many of the children were taken against their will and the will of their family, and they and their families were threatened with harm. They were not allowed to practice their native culture, speak their language, or see family members while there.
The forgiveness workshop was intended to provide the participants with an opportunity to experience first-hand the power of forgiveness, so that they could go forth and invite others in their families and communities to join them utilizing their new found skills.
The forgiveness training was based on Dr. Fred Luskin’s book, Forgive for Good. It began with an introduction of what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness as Dr. Luskin defines it is “being at peace with the word no.” He explains that often in our lives there are things we want such as a faithful spouse, to be loved in a way that feels good to us, and for traffic to not be in our way, and just as often as not we get a resounding no back from our lives. We have to learn to accept and move forward when life hands us a “no.” Luskin explains that many of us create a grievance story in which we create an enemy and then hold on to grudges for much longer than is necessary. Deb explained to the group that as Dr. Luskin taught her forgiveness means two things. First, that even though bad things happen, she can still be at peace. Second, that she doesn’t have to put herself in harm’s way just because she has forgiven someone.
The rest of the workshop focused on becoming more skillful at handling life’s disappointments. These skills were taught through a number of lectures and experiences, including learning how to reduce the impact of the adrenaline rush that comes when the sympathetic nervous system is aroused by our grievance story. Utilizing meditation, “soft-belly breathing,” and guided imagery exercises, participants had the opportunity to take control of their own reactions while remembering their own grievance stories. Participants also engaged in an activity of challenging their thoughts, using the work of Byron Katie and an exercise where they noted all the thoughts, feelings, and actions they had engaged in to resolve the grievance story and identifying those that were ineffective in resolving the issue. They were reminded to use the skills of gratitude, finding the noble intention, and noticing the beauty as well as the ugliness in experiences.
Near the end of the training, participants were asked what they had learned that they hadn’t realized before. Two responses stood out to Deb. One elder stated “that forgiveness is all about me, that they (those who harmed me) don’t have to do anything.” Another individual said, “I didn’t realize that I could hold both parts” (the good that came from it, the positive intention of the other, and the good qualities of the other individual along with the hurt that was done).
Upon Deb’s return home to Maine, she experienced feeling deeply blessed, as she was reminded of the many new firsts in her life. She came away from her Arctic experiences with a deeper understanding of the power of forgiveness. If anybody is wondering, Deb declined the proposal but only because when she moves, it has to be someplace warm!
If any readers would like to learn more about approaches to forgiveness or about the First Nation residential schools please check out the links below.
www.learningtoforgive.com – “Forgive for Good.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qS6BL9AONNk — “Fred Luskin: Wanting Yes and Getting No.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zkUKbAaff0 – “Sleeping Children Awaken,” part 1 of 6.