Tax day is upon us and while many of us are feeling upset or resentful, I think it’s important we continue to look at the bigger picture.
I went to a great talk over the weekend by Max Strom. I was intrigued to see him because I had read his book A Life Worth Breathing while traveling around the shores of Goa, India this past January. It was held on the Plaza in KC and entitled “The Healing Power of Forgiveness”. The primary thesis of his talk was the releasing of Anger in our bodies. He believes that by simply not forgiving others or ourselves, we unknowingly harbor anger and resentment inside of us which causes us (and those around us) to feel pain mentally, emotionally, and will later manifest physically.
One solution was to be thankful before anything else. Gratitude is the highest virtue. The virtue where all other virtues come from. In any moment of anger, despair, or state of unhappiness, the virtue of gratitude can change everything.
He recalled a story of a man who seemed grumbly and annoyed at the beginning of a Yoga class. He was just upset and wanting to do some Yoga to help get over it. The theme of the class was Gratitude and the simple reminder of the gratitude he felt towards his 3 year old daughter brought him instantaneously to tears. The emotions from anger to sadness in an instant. It triggers something deep within us. A sort of catharsis from the trials and struggles of the world, a moment of gratitude centers us and brings us back to our meaning and purpose in life. Our accomplishments and greatness. Our goodness and compassion which resides in all of us, no matter how much it is covered by the baggage we carry around from our interactions in the world.
Anger was a primary topic in Max’s talk because he felt without forgiveness, some form of anger is always present. Sometimes we don’t even realize how our anger affects ourselves or those around us. A simple act of anger directed at one person could affects thousands.
He mentioned a story about a Yoga studio he was teaching at with a class of about 50 people and it was one of those peaceful classes you just got a sense of calmness after it was over; everyone was relaxing in the final corpse pose, letting all their worries melt away. Suddenly through the LA traffic outside the window, a man honks his horn, the loud kind, where he leans on it. And he leans on it 3 times and it sounds like someone yelling with a horn. At that moment, he noticed 50 people in the studio get jolted for a moment. 50 nervous systems that were in peace, suddenly in shock with a slight rise in blood pressure. Next to the studio, there were at least 2 other rooms with at least 20-30 people, and along that street, many restaurants where that sudden noise could have been heard. Above these restaurants were residential lofts with potential tenants and more families that may have been temporarily shocked for a moment. One man, stuck in traffic, venting frustration over a person in front of him; possibly the light had turned green, and the person in front was a second too slow in moving. This sudden burst of anger directed at this one person had the power to affect the bodies of others, without the driver likely even realizing it. We sometimes forget we live in a collective world experiencing our realities together. Our actions, thoughts, and even feelings have tangible effects on others even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. He made this point sink in especially to those who were mothers and fathers because this can have implications when considering your state of mind around your own kids. Are you unintentionally directing anger towards them? Can they hear you screaming/yelling at each other? Kids are also more sensitive to subtle feelings of negativity that we tend to lose as we get older.
In order to achieve true forgiveness in any situation, Max said you must release the anger within yourself towards that which you are attempting to forgive. By not forgiving you can only be holding some level of anger. Allowing it to reside in this state becomes a self-imposed prison. A prison of resentment and contempt. It’s akin he mentioned to swallowing poison and hoping another will die. You can only hurt yourself if you harbor that resentment against another. Continually brooding on the past in this way creates patterns in your mind of negativity. This negativity continues in a vicious cycle which soon spreads through your body in certain ways (high blood pressure, high stress, fear, etc.). We tend to focus on these negative moments, the drama, the gossip, rather than playing back our most precious and joyful moments. We for some reason choose to play back upsetting moments in our minds thousands of times in comparison to only a few times the moments that made us cry in pure happiness. He made the analogy that it was almost like everyday we would have 2 options of movies to play within our minds: a horror movie of events from our past or a movie about our greatest accomplishments or happiest times. We choose to place this horror movie in our minds and press play over and over again and the effects are simply reflected in ourselves. The people we resent or feel anger towards don’t feel this when you’re thinking about them. They could be living their own life of gratitude and maybe in a moment of regret they hurt you in some way which left you to hold that grudge. Even if they hadn’t, in the end you have no way of knowing and are literally hurting yourself.
He gave the analogy that it is almost like keeping a hot coal in your body, burning a hole inside of you slowly. This analogy he gave was the simplest way to explain it. Imagine your friend seeing you swallow a hot coal. He tells you “No! No! Don’t swallow it! You’re only hurting yourself!”. But you do it anyways; you tell him it’s not right and you shouldn’t have to forgive this act and so you will hold on to the coal. Without spitting the coal out, in the end, you simple continue to hurt yourself. No matter how terrible the act was.
He made it very clear however that while you forgive, you don’t give up your choices you make afterwards, your boundaries, or even your ethics or morals. You can always forgive a person but never condone an action that was committed. You can forgive the person and release your own anger while continuing to condemn the acts of the perpetrator.
He gave some examples of people who live their lives in this way. The Dalai Lama is a household name and is known for his jovial presence wherever he is. Throughout his life, he has much to be hateful for, to be angry towards; all the atrocities committed in Tibet which led to his exile. He could even hold resentment towards China today, but he doesn’t. He forgives China, but is an activist and speaks about the change he wants to see. He practices a religion of kindness because to feel any other way would be internally counter-productive to his well being.
Nelson mandala was known for saying he forgave his captors when leaving prison because he felt he would still be in a prison if he couldn’t do so.
Max then told a touching story of a father of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered by a serial killer who cried and forgave the killer at the trial. When the media asked him afterwards how he could forgive such a man, he said he couldn’t imagine the father he’d be to his other children if he held a deep seated hatred towards the killer. He did not want there to be any barriers for him to give pure love to his children. And so he cried and forgave a man that did the unspeakable because he wanted to release the anger from himself while never condoning the act itself.
Without even really thinking about it, I’ve had the above picture as my wallpaper on my computer since last Thanksgiving and coincidentally around the time I even wrote a post entitled “Gratitude”. I did it to remind myself to be grateful for even a moment every time I opened my laptop. One exercise Max mentioned during his talk was the practice of gratitude at the end of each day. I want to adapt this for myself and so am challenging not only myself but anyone else who wants to join in to do so. The task is simple.
For the next 30 days, in a small journal or notebook, write down 5 things you are grateful for before going to bed. They can be as simple as the air you are breathing right now. Just feel in your heart what makes you so thankful at the present moment and write it down. You will now be thinking for at least a moment every night about the happy and wonderful things in your life you take for granted every day. A small change can make a big impact. It takes 30 days to form a habit. I will be posting my daily entries the next 30 days to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtags “#30days of #gratitude”. Join me in this challenge either publicly or privately on your own and just objectively see the change it has on your life. I hope we can collectively become more grateful together.