“Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you — all of the expectations, all of the beliefs — and becoming who you are.” — Rachel Naomi Remen
Forgiveness — an ancient practice shared by the world’s spiritual traditions — is much more than most of us think it is. It is not having to give in and absolve someone of a transgression. It’s not about having to accept the unacceptable. Mary Hayes Grieco — philosopher, healer, author, teacher, lover of God and ordinary things — is on a personal mission to help us understand that forgiveness actually is one of the most effective tools to heal the physical body.
It’s all about releasing discordant energy that we hold in our bodies. Resentments. Disappointments. Failed expectations. Judgments. Self-condemnation. The body doesn’t work well when these energies are carried around with us wherever we go. Thousands of new studies are revealing that toxic emotions are the root of stress-related diseases, and as Mary told us in an interview with The Edge, forgiveness reduces stress and improves our health.
Mary Hayes Grieco will present a four-hour workshop on Forgiveness on Saturday, March 28, at Spirit United Church in Minneapolis, sponsored by Ancient Mysteries / Ancient Wisdom, the Minneapolis branch of Theosophical Society – Adyar. She is one of the world’s foremost experts in the emerging field of forgiveness. She is director and lead trainer of The Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training in Minneapolis, and she is author of Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone and Everything, a book described by New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner as “a must-have manual for anyone interested in living a longer, better life.”
Mary served on staff at the Hazelden Treatment Center for more than 16 years, and she has offered workshops on her method of forgiveness in the United States, Ireland, Germany and Kuwait. She spoke at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in 2005.
A highly respected spiritual teacher based in Minneapolis, Mary Hayes Grieco is an original and expansive thinker who has inspired thousands of people since she first began teaching spirituality classes in 1982. She also works in private practice as a spiritual mentor and a forgiveness healer at The Well Healing Arts Center in Minneapolis.
The following is our conversation with Mary on forgiveness and her upcoming workshop at Spirit United.
When people have hard times in life, with one complication after another or having a constant chip on one’s shoulder, how does forgiveness play a role in changing the energies of what these people are experiencing?
Mary Hayes Grieco: It plays a huge role in that, and I think people don’t realize that when they are walking around feeling upset, resentful, exhausted, stressed out, and having physical symptoms from all of that. They don’t realize that they’re smack in the middle of a forgiveness issue and that they could open up and embrace forgiveness as a health habit, just like you would if you were trying to deal with a physical health condition with medicine.
Forgiveness is the medicine of the whole being in times like that, but most people don’t understand that forgiveness is a gift for us and our own well-being — and they don’t know how to do it.
They certainly don’t see it as a remedy to achieve wellness.
MHG: They don’t, and it’s just a mystery to me. A forgiveness issue is the problem. It’s the thing that’s bothering you. And you don’t realize that you have the medicine you need right at your fingertips. The key is to educate yourself on what forgiveness is and how to start practicing it. It doesn’t cost any money and it’s something you can do in 45 minutes in your house on Saturday morning with the phone turned off.
I have yet to practice forgiveness towards something in my life and not be astonished at how much lighter and clearer and healthier I feel immediately afterwards.
To prepare for this interview I went online and saw the talk you gave at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community. You described forgiveness as releasing an expectation that is causing us to suffer, and that was something I had never heard before.
MHG: That is my working definition of forgiveness.
I thought that was pretty interesting because it implies that our expectations are the source of our emotional stress.
MHG: That’s exactly right. I’m in the business of putting that out there as the new definition of forgiveness. There are so many misconceptions around forgiveness. The definition that I have used in my work for 25 years is that forgiveness is releasing an expectation that is causing me to suffer. It’s so user-friendly and it’s so non-religious, and yet it’s so specific to your situation.
We have life situations and we have relationships, and if they are not matching up with the expectations we have in our minds of how it was supposed to be or how they are supposed to act — and if we cannot cross the gap between reality and expectations, then we have this static inside. What heals the static is to see reality as it is and be willing to love it as it is, as you release this expectation that you have of what you thought it should be.
Of course, we have to make adjustments in life. We can’t just be victims. We can’t just put up with toxic people or people who are disrespectful or cruel. We have to draw lines and have boundaries and break up with them or adjust our connection to them. The old understanding of forgive and forget doesn’t work, and we all know that, but we need to forgive and remember, meaning: We do the healing and clearing work to adjust our understanding of reality as it is right now, and we remember what’s true about our life situations and what’s true about other people, and we make new decisions accordingly.
For instance, in a personal example from my life, my husband, who is my dearest friend and soulmate, has had a chronic illness for 30 years, so that’s a life situation. If I wake up in the morning and have an expectation that he will want to suddenly, energetically, run out to breakfast with me and play all day long, I will be disappointed, because it’s very likely that he does not have the energy to do that. But, if I have made my peace with my life situation, which is that my dear partner has a chronic illness and that day-by-day I have to meet him the way he is, then I have both peace with my situation and more love for him because I am able to see all the goodness that he is and has and brings to the table instead of thinking, “Oh, he can’t keep a full-time job. He can’t do this, he can’t do that.” I’ve released those expectations, because we have this situation of this illness, but I’ve opened up to the best and highest good that this can be. If I stay clear that way with my spouse, my partner, and with forgiveness, then I’m with a lovely guy all the time.
So the process begins by monitoring our sense of reality and our expectations?
MHG: The process begins with us being tired of being frustrated. We’re tired of being tired. We’re tired of not being happy. We think, “You know, I know I should be happy, but every day I’m just sort of ticked off all day long and I kind of growl at a lot of people, and I won’t feel good. Wahhh.” When we get tired of ourselves enough, then we ask the question deeply enough, “What’s going on? What do I need to make peace with?” And we identify something.
“Okay, well, I’ve got this kind of chronic irritation with my spouse and I’ve got this disappointment in what happened in my workplace this year, and my sister has got an illness and it’s causing a lot of stress in the family and some issues have come up.” Just stop and put the lens on to see what kind of emotional issues are afoot in your life, and you realize that you are actually carrying a lot of weight and baggage that has to do with unprocessed, unintegrated emotion.
Then you make the little short list and you start going to it. It’s kind of like if you join a gym and you think, “Okay, I’ll do a little aerobic, a little weights, a little this, a little that.” You decide to clear up your problems from the inside out. So, step one is being willing to move forward. Step two is taking the time and space to really go into your heart and your feelings and find out what emotions are there and let them out. Let them out freely. Then we move on to step three where we identify in a simple, but powerful, way: “What is the expectation I need to release right now in order to be at peace with my life day by day?” There are eight steps in the method that I use, and those are the first three.
To what degree does emotional stress play a role in the disease process?
MHG: I think it’s really pretty huge, and more and more studies have come out to support that. I think we all know that intuitively.
Intuitively, if we are emotionally distressed for a while, it affects our sleep, it affects our central nervous system, and it affects our ability to be resilient and respond to things in a lighthearted way. If you have enough of this going on long enough, you have too much cortisone in your body and you basically are wearing out your parts with stress hormones.
A lot of studies done in the last 15 years are making that link between emotional toxicity and disease, and they’re also making a link between forgiveness and stress reduction. If people are curious about those studies at all, they can go to my website Forgivenesstraining.com and find the research studies.
I think this is something that grandma knew — because grandma always knew. It’s basic common wisdom that resentments are harmful for us. I think we just haven’t been willing to do forgiveness because we’re afraid it means that we’re giving up on something that we need to hold on to, but things change once we understand that forgiving is not about excusing something, and it’s not saying that something is okay. It has nothing to do with justice or injustice. It really has to do with clearing up our connection to that so we are at peace. Then it’s just a whole different frame on forgiveness.
It’s incredible the way you are framing forgiveness as a healing technique. I don’t think that’s something the general public hears enough about.
MHG: I know. I keep trying to figure out how to get the word out there. I’ve been talking about this in my work for over 25 years. About 10 years ago there was sort of a shift in public attitude where it seemed like people seemed to know more about the why we forgive, that it’s for us, and it seemed like people were more ready to learn about the how — but there is still a hurdle to jump over when you start talking about forgiveness. People have an instant reactivity to the word, and they want to step back and kind of glare at you and say, “Oh, yeah! Well, why should I? Why should I do this?”
We just don’t understand what forgiveness truly is. I’ve often tried to seek a different word for what this is, because people hate this word, but actually what I think is going on is that we’re growing into it. We’re growing into this word. Jesus spoke about forgiveness and Buddha spoke about forgiveness, and Mohammed spoke about forgiveness. It’s a central truth of every great world religion. I think humanity is just now getting mature enough to handle it a little bit.
Maybe the reason people have an unwillingness to deal with the word forgiveness is because they might be viewing it as a religious practice, something that they aren’t willing to accept at that moment.
MHG: Yes, I agree with you, because it’s taught in religions. But strangely, it’s not really taught in the seminaries — and it should be. And stranger yet, it hasn’t been taught in psychology trainings. It’s not taught in graduate school. Psychology departments don’t offer courses on forgiveness.
You’re starting to see more information on forgiveness right now, and I’m seeing forgiveness now as a growing field. Suddenly there is a crop of forgiveness experts, but it’s really only started in the last 20 to 25 years. Most of my colleagues in psychology who are my age went all the way through school without ever hearing anything about forgiveness in therapy. Imagine, when you think about it, how many issues in therapy are actually forgiveness issues. But it’s still kind of a wonder to me why, when forgiveness is the center of the circle when it comes to healing, we’re just starting to go, “Well, what? What is forgiveness?”
You worked at Hazelden Renewal Center for a long time. What role does forgiveness play in the recovery process?
MHG: It’s absolutely central to the recovery process. In fact, if you look at the 12 steps, steps 4 through 8 are all about forgiveness. They are all about facing our resentments and how they are affecting us and the way they cause people to relapse from their sobriety. It’s all about self-hate and mistakes and messes that people have made of their lives while they are under the influence of alcohol and other drugs — and the critical need for self-forgiveness. That’s step 4. Step 5 is about getting another person’s support and compassion to speak of these things, to really get these things out on the table. Step 6 is about asking the Higher Power to remove these problems and defects and to forgive us for being so pathetically human in the way that we have been. And then the process goes to the possibility of making amends with other people we’ve harmed.
It really accelerates the recovery process to actively incorporate forgiveness as you go because once you have those resentments out on the table, there is actually something to do with them. This work has been taught at Hazelden since 1990.
I’ve worked in a number of treatment centers — overseas, too, as a guest teacher — and you hear some really big stories there because there’s a huge correlation between alcohol use and trauma, childhood trauma, and physical and sexual abuse. There is a natural association between the forgiveness work and the 12-step work.
How important is it to express our emotions, to express rage or anger or whatever we’re feeling during this process, because a lot of people have a difficult time expressing their true emotions?
MHG: In our process, we make it easier, because you don’t have to express it to the person, to an actual person. You do have to express it, however, because that’s what’s keeping it caught in your tissues — your issues are in your tissues. The way to get it out is to find a safe format in which you can put an empty chair in front of you and have your box of Kleenex nearby, with maybe a support person lending compassion to the process. Drop into your heart and your belly and your throat — not your brain, not your head, not your Spirit — and speak the words of emotional truth. That might sound like, “I hate you, I hate your guts, I wish you were dead, you’ve made my life miserable, I wish I never saw you again.” This is the language of emotion, and the purpose of this is just to thaw out and move this stuck emotion.
We’re not actually using our words to hurt anybody. We’re using them to move a piece of stuck energy that’s inside us. So step 2 in the forgiveness process is where we are really all about saying our emotions the way they are, like, “You broke my heart, you have devastated me.” You can be judgmental. You can be violent in your words. You can kick a pillow or smash a cardboard box. You can do whatever you need to do. It doesn’t hurt another person to get that disappointment, sorrow, rage, sadness out of you.
At a certain point, and it usually only takes about 10 or 20 minutes into the process, you feel a shift. You feel like, “Oh, okay. Well, that said it. I’m tired of crying about this now. Now what do I do?” So you feel it shift and move to step 3 where you start identifying and releasing that expectation.
What can those who attend your workshop on March 28 expect to experience?
MHG: I want to talk about some of the things we have been talking about today, Tim. It’s about stripping away the myths and the nonsense that surrounds this really important spiritual principle and offering this new view that I have, which basically says that forgiveness is for you. It’s something that can be accomplished in less than one hour, and it’s something that permanently heals the distress that’s inside you and helps you to move on.
So at the workshop I’m going to take apart some of these myths that get in people’s way and cause resistance to the forgiveness process. We’re going to talk about how it’s not hard and it doesn’t take a long time, and that it’s not the same as reconciliation and working things out with people. I’m going to share that even the biggest stories can be resolved through forgiveness.
My work is to take forgiveness apart, in terms of what’s in your way of embracing this. And then I will talk about forgiveness as an amazing tool for those who are serious about their enlightenment, for those who are serious about traveling their full human journey that is theirs to do and becoming connected and full of God’s light and energy.
That’s what I’m all about. I’m doing forgiveness because I want to be full of God’s light and energy. I want my soul to be grounded in my body and shining and serving the world. Forgiveness helps me to be that person. It helps me to be a light. We’ve been invited by the Great Ones, by the Great Masters to become a light unto ourselves and others and forgiveness is part of that pathway.
What led you to this path of forgiveness in your life?
MHG: I was wishing to find my purpose. I was a very serious spiritual student and wanted to find my best pathway to enlightenment. I was praying about this back in 1986, when I was 32, and I was really asking to be shown my way — my way of healing myself and becoming myself and my way of serving others. About six months after I said that really earnest prayer, I met my mentor, Edith Stauffer, Ph.D., and instantly recognized in her a life teacher and a masterful person, a masterful soul. When I took her forgiveness workshop, I felt how clear and light I felt after I did my first forgiveness work, which was to forgive the Catholic Church, I felt like a million dollars after that. I had really dropped a load. Then I thought, “Oh, this is it! This is it! This is my healing tool. This is my pathway.” So, I asked Edith to train me in this work and then I worked beside her. Then she passed it to me and I took the lead in taking it out to the world. It became my work and now I’ve been training other forgiveness teachers around the world for the last 15 years.
Thank you for speaking with me, Mary. Do you have a final word for our readers, perhaps something we haven’t spoken about that you’d like to share?
MHG: I would invite the readers to approach the gift of forgiveness like you would approach being given a gift certificate to a day at the spa, in which you are going to look forward to feeling refreshed and lighter and clearer and more beautiful, and like, “Wow, thank you! A gift certificate to the spa. I can’t wait to do this.” It’s really kind of parallel in my experience that when you enter into the space of forgiveness with the strong intention to clear out this heavy, stuck thing that’s been inside you, you emerge fresh and beautiful as a rose, and glad to be alive.
Mary Hayes Grieco will present a four-hour workshop on Forgiveness from 2-6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at Spirit United Church, 3204 Como Ave. SE, Minneapolis. The workshop cost at the door is: $35 adults; $55 couples and families; $30 for students, seniors and members. Reservations may be made at the door or in advance with check or money order by March 26 to: Minneapolis Theosophical Society, 1034 Dayton Ave., St. Paul, MN 55104.
For more information on Mary Hayes Grieco and forgiveness, visit Maryhayesgrieco.com or Forgivenesstraining.com.