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No Forgiveness Without Mindfulness 

How mindfulness can help us control our emotions to access higher cognitive processing and find some peace. 

Forgiveness is an inherently mindful practice as mindfulness allows space for forgiveness to occur. This process begins by confronting our pain directly. When thinking of what we need to forgive in our lives it is important to remember that we are still, in our flesh and bone, animals. I say this because when certain emotions arise they are often instincts that are trying to protect us. An example of our emotions trying to protect us might be if we were betrayed and subsequently isolated from our primary social group. As an animal, our body intrinsically knows that it cannot survive without a social group, or at least not well. These feelings that well up in us, and can even overwhelm us, often come from the sympathetic nervous system that controls the body’s fight or flight response.


Mindfulness begins with slow and controlled breathing. This intentional breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system redirecting brain activity away from the amygdala. In simpler terms, this calms down your brain and tells it that it is safe. The parasympathetic nervous system conserves our energy as it slows the heart rate and increases intestinal activity which is the opposite effect of the sympathetic nervous system. When the body is in a relaxed state the mind can be calmer and higher cognitive processing can occur.

“Our body intrinsically knows that it cannot survive without a social group”

Higher cognitive processing takes place when we take the wealth of knowledge that we have and apply it to solve problems and control our impulses. It can allow us to interact with our emotions in the abstract and understand where they are coming from. In the example that I provided earlier of betrayal, the use of higher cognitive processes allows us to empathize with the labeled offender and not to act in violence. When we are able to understand, the situation that offended us and our emotional response to it, we can accept it.

 Accepting our emotions allows room for forgiveness. This is because if we can truly understand the emotions that were stirred in us, we can decide to let go of our expectations of the other person. We can then move forward with the wisdom of experience that shows us that we are in control of our feelings and expectations. Forgiveness, like mindfulness, gets easier every time we practice it. Every time we sit and focus to control the mind and breath we get better at it and a little more of our pain transforms into strength. We inevitably create more space within ourselves as we are mindful to forgive more; then as we forgive more there is more room to be mindful.

“Forgiveness, like mindfulness, gets easier every time we practice it.”

There is a story that someone shared with me that is reflective of using mindfulness to expand our capacity to take on our troubles. It helped me and I hope it helps you too.

One day a young man was very unhappy with his life. He was overwhelmed by pain and troubles. He decided to seek out help and sought a zen master in a town nearby. When he found him, he said “I have so many problems in life that I am always sad. Please tell me a solution. How can I be happy?” The master listened quietly then got up. He left without a word leaving the young man confused and anxiously waiting. The master returned with a bowl of water and another of salt. He then asked the man to take a handful of salt put it in the bowl and drink it. Bewildered but obedient the man did as the master asked. 

The master asked, “How does it taste?” The man replied. “Terrible...All I could taste was salt.” The master silently grabbed a handful of salt and gestured for the man to follow him. They walked down to the lake whereupon the edge of the water the master handed the man the salt. 






















He said, “Now put this salt in the lake.” The man threw his arm out, sending the salt into the lake. The master then asked him to drink from the water, saying, “how does it taste?”

The man replied, “It tastes good.” The master then asked. “Were you able to taste salt in this water?” The man answered “No.” They sat near the lake and the master grabbed another handful of salt. “The pain of life is pure salt. The amount of pain in life remains the same but the amount we taste depends on the container we put it into. When you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Become a lake.”  We are able to eventually move very peacefully through the world and this foundation of peace can then inspire great joy. I hope that today you at least become mindful of what you can forgive. 

On the next page, you will find several mindful forgiveness techniques so that you can make your bowl bigger and forgive. 


Sierra Johnson  last edited November 1, 2019

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