Be mindful, forgive a political opponent

As a cognitive psychologist, I am naturally drawn to the potential beneficial impacts of mindfulness on the mind and brain: The possibility of fostering better attention, of improving children’s self-regulation, of wiring the brain in more sensible ways than the barrage of Internet and smartphone chatter will. But in the political mayhem of election season, I have been thinking more and more about the impact of mindfulness in less cerebral, more humanistic traits.

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs are designed to reduce stress – or more precisely, to reduce how we perceive stress by giving us tools to change our reactions to the stresses of daily life. This has its own value during the barrage of political ads and punditry, of course; we can recognize when we’re stressed, or modify how we respond to attack ads and the latest spin campaigns, making the election season a little less traumatic.

But it’s not just how stressed we are by politics that mindfulness can change; perhaps it can change something more fundamental, that if contagious could make politics much more palatable to everyone: Mindfulness might just make us more inclined to forgive.

The evidence comes from a study of college students, who were randomly assigned to complete either MBSR, a similar  8 Point Program, or who were put on a “waitlist”. The waitlist ensures that the students who signed up were interested in the possibility of completing the program, and so had similar interest in and positive attitude toward mindfulness as those who got the training.

All students completed a Heartland Forgiveness Scale, which considers how likely you as a person are to forgive – not for any particular transgression, just in general. For example, you can consider whether “I continue to punish a person who has done something that I think is wrong” or “When someone disappoints me, I can move past it” is always true or always false about yourself.  The college students who had been through either MBSR or a similar reported themselves as being more inclined to forgive other people at the end of the program, and this forgiving attitude remained even 8 weeks after the programs had ended.

It’s not clear just why the mindfulness programs enhanced forgiveness. It might have been directly, through the inclusion of “loving kindness” meditation; my own MBSR course back in graduate school included a week dedicated to this idea of accepting and empathizing with others, even those who have done us wrong.  My strongest memory of this was reporting to the group how I tried to apply it to bad drivers: thinking “I hope you get pulled over by a cop!….so you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else”. It was a small step, but certainly in the direction of forgiving the speeder for nearly causing an accident.

It’s also possible that people were just willing to forgive more because the MBSR course had done its work, and they were also much less stressed out than their wait-listed peers; it’s a lot easier to be considerate of others when you aren’t feeling burdened with events spinning out of your control.

However mindfulness does it, I can’t help but see a little forgiveness as being a very big thing, in American society as a whole and in politics in particular. Those statements from the forgiveness scale can apply to our attitudes toward politicians  (“I’m disappointed that Incumbent hasn’t done X…but I can move past it, and vote for him again”) and to our fellow voters (“I am so disappointed that my friend backed that other political party… but I’m not going to berate or punish them for it”).  As we seem to become more and more deeply, irreconcilably divided in our political beliefs, I can’t help but wonder if a simple step toward forgiveness, a recognition that I might not respect the vote or belief but I can still respect the human, might make the next election much more bearable.

This post was originally published on 5 November, 2012.

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