Forgiveness is a core concept that runs through most modern spiritual practices.
The evolution of social consciousness through scripture clearly reflects this evolution between the two testaments. The character of God in the Old Testament is a version of a deity like those depicted in classical and primitive cultures—a powerful and vengeful father figure who rules his children with an iron fist.
Primitive morality, just like that of an underdeveloped moral compass of a child, is primarily rooted in fear of retribution. Children try not to do bad things not because they fully understand the value of being a good person in society but because they do not want to get in trouble with their seniors. Only later in life does an individual begin to comprehend morality as a personal responsibility and a building block of one’s agency and freedom.
Unfortunately, not all adults reach this level of moral growth in any society. Nevertheless, that is the goal of a civilized society. God’s word in the New Testament distinctly departs from pagan traditions, moving toward a more sophisticated moral teaching emphasizing compassion as one of the sacred principles of spiritual ascension and interpersonal relatedness.
Instead of “eye for an eye,” scripture evolves to “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” In this latter statement, we have an imbedded message that divine knowledge would prevent us from doing evil, and it is in ignorance that evil is allowed to fester. Traditional psychotherapeutic approaches also lean on the idea that awareness reduces unhealthy, amoral, and pathological behavior, and by increasing awareness, we evolve to become more compassionate and loving human beings and, thus, a more compassionate and loving society.
The progression from fear-based morality to integrated morality begets a healthier society, not only from a structural, mental, emotional, and spiritual standpoint, but it has a very concrete physiological impact on the evolution of our nervous system and brain wiring.
To operate from the basis of fear is to operate from a more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for fight-flight functioning, which requires a large secretion of stress hormones to alert the body to action, which, in turn, taxes our bodies.
Many studies have shown that cerebral cortex functions — which are higher-level executive functions in the brain — are compromised by excessive cortisol levels in the body. This is the stress hormone our autonomic nervous system produces when we are in a sympathetic versus parasympathetic mode of functioning.
In other words, when we are afraid, we produce chemicals that interfere with our ability to think, learn, integrate information, memorize, process information, and make rational decisions. In short, a fear-based society is, by default, a less psychologically evolved — and therefore, less humane — society and a physically less healthy society.
When we consider the scale of poverty, oppression, corruption, and decades of widespread violence in various cultures across the world and begin to comprehend the level of physiological impact this has on the psyche of its inhabitants, it becomes easy to understand why the transgenerational cycle of violence is difficult to break. Neither economic aid, military support, or any large-scale program can break the hardwired physiology of vengeance, violence, and chaos. A mind that is not at peace is not capable of cultivating peace.
Children who grow up in abusive households have atrophied receptors for empathy. Societies that have been at war for generations develop a “worrier gene,” which gets transmuted from generation to generation. Hence, war is not simply an outcome of a particular quarrel or circumstance but a transgenerational state of being.
The only way to cultivate the evolutionary process in the spiritual growth of a given society is to integrate a personal religion of forgiveness. This change must originate from the inside out, from each individual who consciously strives for personal enlightenment.
It is hard to watch the suffering and murder of loved ones and not feel murderous. But it is not impossible. Meditation and mindfulness techniques, talk therapy, music, creativity, and cultivation of empathy can all help enhance our ability to forgive and see things from multiple perspectives rather than polarized black-and-white ones.
Walking in someone else’s shoes expands one’s consciousness from solipsism to altruism. Without forgiveness, we are primitive beings simply surviving, not thriving. It is our moral obligation toward the evolution of our species to cultivate the practice of forgiveness.
Techniques like breathing exercises, focusing, and body tracking help slow down our nervous system and mammalian fight-flight reactions. By doing so, we engage higher-level brain functions, which help us transcend our animalistic instincts.
Without forgiveness, there is no humanity; without a humane society, we cannot claim to be a civilization. spt