Unattachment – 50 years getting there

Today, at the age of sixty-eight, I think I’ve finally, finally, finally, learned the value of unattachment; have finally “got” why and how it helps us on a spiritual path. At last I comprehend that unattachment isn’t avoiding involvement or discomfort. It isn’t uncaring or distancing oneself. Rather it is the tool for experiencing life, especially difficult or complicated situations, with compassion and concern but without judgement of other people or oneself; and, thank God/dess, without soul-scorching pain.

Today I learned that no matter how compassionate and caring you are; no matter how calm and comforting; no matter how careful and precise you are with words; there are people who neither understand nor want to understand what you are doing for or saying to them.

Today, I let go of someone whom I hoped was a friend; whom I loved and supported; but who, now, several years after we met, neither needs nor wants what I offer. As usual, this sudden realization was a long time coming, and, as usual, it began with an incident that was mundane, surprising, petty and confusing. After a frenzied exchange of pretty much useless messages that lasted less than a day, I decided simply to drop it. To let it go. I felt completely and absolutely mystified, struggling to find words; she seemed irrational and unable to get what I was saying. It was pointless. The blinding flash in my brain late last night was, “Stop it. Just stop it.” So I did.

Today, this was the discovered lesson: Unattachment to outcome makes life changes bearable. Though the process had saddened me deeply (I had cried while writing e-mails), confused me, and frustrated me, when I accepted; when I sighed and said out loud, “This is what is supposed to happen,” as opposed to what I wished would happen, the pain and confusion stopped.

So today, finally, after fifty-four years, I observed myself letting go without could-haves, would-haves, maybes or any other self-recriminations. I say fifty-four years because, when I was fourteen –I remember this vividly– and stretched out on my bed weeping uncontrollably, my dad knocked and came into my room.

He asked, “Anna-Marie?”

I nodded. “She said she doesn’t want me to be her friend any more.”

Daddy looked at me for what seemed like minutes. He had warned me about her when he met her, but he didn’t say I-told-you-so. What he said was, “You’re too willing to help people. Girls who need someone find you and they take what you give. But they’re never really friends. You’ll be hurt a lot in life if you don’t learn to be more careful.”

He could have gone on to list about half a dozen girls who were my constant companions for a time, sometimes months, sometimes years; then just disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared. He could have told me stories of his own painful experiences.

But what he said was, “Most people never even have one true friend in life. If you find that one true friend, you’ll be very lucky.”

My mother was more practical and ruthless. “She hurt you. She rejected you. You don’t need her. You’ll meet a lot of people like her, and you’ve gotta’ learn how to spot them.”

It seems pretty pathetic that it’s taken me almost 60 years to learn this lesson. Mama would say that it’s because I’m hard-headed; I got that from my father. Daddy would say it’s because I wanted to help people, and I had no instinct for self-preservation.

What I say is that I am grateful for having finally learned the lesson. Grateful for understanding that unattachment fosters forgiveness. And grateful for my lifelong friends, riches beyond all imagining, because I have many, not just the one my dad hoped I would find.

I do wish that I knew how this episode was assimilated by the other person. What filled her messages were anger, fear, defensiveness, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, vengefulness, disappointed expectations. . .  But these are immediate and emotional responses. I wonder what the longer lasting effects will be. But I will never know.

Forgiveness – A Skill That Can Be Learned

©2008 Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

FORGIVE FOR GOOD, by Fred Luskin, subtitled, ‘A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness,’ is a striking combination research report, case study and handbook. The material is groundbreaking, fascinating and instantly accessible.

In the courses he teaches, Fred Luskin, Ph.D., Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, is absolutely authoritative and professional, without for a moment being dry and academic. His book breathes the same directness and expertise, written in a crisp, homely, very personal style. When the book was published, Dr. Luskin told me that, after he first submitted the manuscript, an editor handed it back to him with voluminous changes, putting everything into ‘proper’ English, taking the life out of it. Fortunately for the reader, he stood his ground and insisted that his own voice remain.

The ease of reading is crucial, because the material can be difficult. Most of us grew up hearing ‘forgive and forget,’ which in our minds connected the act of forgiveness with allowing ourselves to be hurt again and again. To forgive someone, we gathered, meant to ‘overcome’ the hurt, to ‘forget’ and be reconciled to the person who hurt us.

But Dr. Luskin’s work leads us in a different direction. Forgiveness is not condoning unkindness, or forgetting pain, not excusing bad behaviour, denying or minimizing your hurt. Shame, guilt, redemption, reconciliation— those things we learned about in Sunday school, are not necessarily connected with forgiveness. In fact, holding on to those ideas can actually prevent us from moving into a healthier state of mind and body.

His research and practice as a psychologist show that forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the offender. It is, essentially, a decision not to let past pain continue to hurt in your present and future life. It is taking back your personal power, taking responsibility for your emotions. Most important, forgiveness is about healing yourself and not about the people who hurt you. What’s more, and most promising, Luskin’s research shows that forgiveness is skill, one that can be learned just like tying your shoes or doing sums.

The book, throughout, is sprinkled with real life examples drawn from Luskin’s active counselling practice and his own life. His story of how he ‘got into’ studying and teaching forgiveness is at once a self-revealing recount of deep hurt, and an effective lesson in learning how to move past the pain and stop giving it room in one’s life.

Part One of Forgive for Good sets out the elements of grievance, blame and our tendency to take things personally that were never meant that way. The fine art of nursing a grudge is examined, as are the physical, emotional and psychological implications of doing so.

Moving to Part Two, the elements of forgiveness are presented, along with the medical evidence and a dramatic example of the effectiveness of deciding to forgive. In chapter seven, ‘The Science of Forgiveness,’ Luskin distills key research from a number of scientific studies which show that forgiveness improves physical as well as emotional and mental health. Then he gets specific and, in addition to detailing his earlier research, tells us about his work, aptly named HOPE, with mothers from Northern Ireland who lost sons, and a second programme for both men and women who lost family members in ‘the troubles.’

The positive results of the Northern Ireland programmes were deeply gratifying, and, Luskin admits, surprising even to him. He was not confident that his methods could work with people so deeply wounded. But, he concludes, ‘I marvel at the implications of these results. They demonstrate the incredible power of human beings to heal from even the most blatant of horrors. They reinforce my belief that people can learn to forgive.’

Part Three of Forgive for Good is a clear, practicable handbook on the process of forgiveness developed by Dr. Luskin. He is sublimely articulate and complete; the exposition of the material is logical, specific and practical. By working the exercises and techniques in the book, the reader can virtually complete the course Dr. Luskin teaches.

To cite one example, PERT (don’t be misled by the cute acronyms; this is serious work)– Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique. Through it, he says, ‘We gain tremendous confidence when we are suddenly faced with a painful situation or memory and are able to sustain our positive focus. Practising PERT helps us stay calm so we can make good decisions.’ Then Luskin gives detailed, simple instructions for the technique, which is essentially a relaxation and refocusing process that can be learned in less than half an hour.

The final chapter summarizes the process with ‘Nine Steps to Forgiveness.’ The first step is to know what happened, how you feel about it and be able to articulate it.’ Other steps include making a clear decision to do what you need to do to feel better; to give up expecting things from people that they do not choose to give you; and to understand your goal.

Luskin says, ‘What you are after is peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that come from blaming less that which has hurt you [and] taking the experience less personally.’

Ironically, the final manuscript was ready for publication ten days after the September eleventh debacle in 2001. Luskin’s ‘Note to the Reader’ at the back of the book is alone worth the price of a copy. In part:

To help make sense of the relative importance of forgiveness at this time, think about the balance of a scale. . . On one end, there is vengeance and on the other forgiveness. At first the forgiveness end is up in the air, as it carries little weight against the strong desire for retaliation. . . Forgiveness, not forgetting, not condoning and not reconciling with offenders, is one of the powerful tools that we can use.

Is Violent Anger “in a Normal Range of Emotions?”

©2008, RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Recently I happened to meet a psychiatrist who believes that violent anger and violent behaviour are  “in a normal range of emotions.” Her view was that people who do not lash out violently are actually somehow lacking in their range of emotional responses; that the absence of violence is abnormal. As usual in this kind of unexpected encounter, I thought of half a dozen things to say in reply afterward.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since then. I’ve been thinking what an unlivable world we would live in, if what she says were true. People who lash out, hit and kick and stab and shoot and carry out countless angry violent acts would be acceptable. If her assertion were correct, it would be those of us who eschew violence, who try to find other ways of expressing and dissipating anger, who were considered odd, and the wanton bullies who were considered normal. I wonder, would murder be considered normal in this world?

I think she is wrong. I completely reject her premise. To me, any violence is an unacceptable way to express anger. Violence is not only physical, but also verbal and emotional. In fact, the latter are potentially more psychologically damaging, and often have longer-term and more debilitating effects than physical violence.

I felt this way long before I became a Quaker, and it is one of the reasons that Quakerism appealed to me. Quaker faith and practice have become the core of the way I choose to live. My husband isn’t a member of a Quaker meeting, but he learned Quaker ethics when he lived in Friends International Centre (London) while he was a student. In fact, even earlier, in his teens, he had learned the yogic ethical code and chosen to live by it. The yogic code holds the view that violence in any form, physical or otherwise, is proscribed. The Quaker Testimony is that we work to remove all occasion of violence, including anger. So my husband and I put these precepts into practice.

If you know anything about the Religious Society of Friends (doubtful in itself as we do not proselytize much), it would most likely be something about the Testimony of Peace. People generally understand this to be opposition to war. But it is much broader than that. It also encompasses more than the well known passive resistance taught and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (although both were aware of Quaker thought and practice).

The Peace Testimony is an all-enveloping concept which imbues all aspects of ethical living. It means that we choose in daily life, in every instance, to try to avoid violence. Since Quakerism is a non creedal religion, individuals commit to various levels of living the testimonies, but virtually all Friends commit themselves to live the Peace Testimony.

So screaming matches, door slamming, threats, withdrawal of affection, the silent treatment and other fairly common acts of emotional/psychological manipulation and domestic violence are rare in Quaker homes. Quakers avoid confrontational behavior and instead try to make a habit of simply expressing anger, then moving on to ways to dissipate it.

Expressing anger, that is, saying outright, “This makes me angry,” and then letting go of it, is completely in the spirit of a non violent life choice. It is the way we try to handle anger. Of course we don’t always completely succeed, but neither do we commit frequent acts of violence–verbal, emotional or physical.

Several years ago I learned a method of dealing with anger called the Peace Empowerment Process© (PEP), including the Blueprint of Emotional Wisdom© and can now teach these techniques. This process reveals that anger is virtually always a mask or an outward manifestation of a deeper, hidden emotion. People learn the techniques to look under the anger and identify the underlying emotions: fear, disappointment, grief or guilt. By finding the true emotion and dealing with it, we remove the reason for the anger.

When the process is learned, it can become almost automatic in moments of anger. The PEP demonstrably reduced violence (including bullying) levels in classrooms where it was taught to children, especially ages nine to fourteen, but also through high school age. I practice the PEP whenever I need to deal with anger. (See Creativity in the Lion’s Den: Releasing Our Children from Violence, by Carolyna Marks for more details.)

I have also been interested in forgiveness studies for many years, and before I left  California I completed the intensive forgiveness seminars at Stanford University.  Dr. Fred Luskin, founder of Stanford’s Forgiveness Project, gave me permission to teach Forgive for Good© workshops in the UK.

The catch phrase for his seminars is  “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” That is, we cannot change the past, and in order to move forward and grow emotionally, we must let go of it. His research shows that holding on to resentment, pain or anger is literally bad for physical as well as psychological and emotional health. (See  www.learningtoforgive.com.)

My personal feeling is that anger is wasted energy; and stewing in anger, resentment or revenge fantasies only serves to make people unhappy.

Selfishness and Self-Sufficiency

©2008, RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Note to a friend:

Self sufficiency is selfish, in that it denies friends the opportunity to care for you. Independence is good, especially for women. But when we try to do everything for ourselves, we get too self-focused. Not only do we become preoccupied with our needs that are not being met, but we also shut people out by denying to them that we have a problem and need their help. Being a friend is a gift, but allowing someone to be a friend to you is an even bigger gift.

Friendship is never a burden if it’s true and deep. Sometimes it might be a test, or a difficult passage that friends get through together, but not a burden. I do know what your teacher means, though. It is very much a part of your insight right now that you need to be out in the world. Start with your friends, the people you know, and then fan out. Your friends love you no matter what, and will make a bridge for you into the wider world where people might not be so kind and caring.

The thing about a bridge is that you can move across it in both directions— outward into the world, but also back across into the homeland with your friends. You can visit both sides anytime you want.