The Soul of Forgiveness
If you are unfamiliar with Malynn Utzinger MD, you are in for the sweetest treat. She’s double board certified in Family Medicine and in Integrative and Holistic Medicine, is a certified yoga instructor, and has been exploring alternative medicine for years—working with the likes of Dean Ornish MD, Andrew Weil MD and most recently, Deepak Chopra MD.
She has joined creative forces with Louie on a few projects, including the Forgiveness film you see above, and the collective genius that stems forth from Louie’s visual expression and Dr. Utzinger’s heart expression produces a powerful journey towards forgiveness and peace, and ultimately gratitude.
Q&A with Malynn Utzinger, MD
GR: Malynn, thank you so much for talking with us today about Forgiveness. I have to admit I just watched the film before our call and found myself incredibly emotional! Of course I’d seen it before, but it just hit me in this very profound new way in that moment.
Malynn: Yes, it’s just incredible how you can have heard something before, know it cognitively, and then in another space, something just pulls a different heart string, and in an unexpected moment it can be such a release.
GR: It really was.
Malynn: That reminds me of a beautiful phrase naturalist John Muir was known to have said. I’m sure I’m putting him into a modern paraphrase but the heart and soul of it was, “The walk you want to take is the walk you have taken a thousand times.” It allows you to be present to ever deeper layers of experience, layers of sensation and meaning. I think there’s something to having heard it once but then returning and having something getting opened at a different level of presence.
GR: What was the inspiration and journey for selecting the thoughtful words expressed in the film? Which came first, the canyon or the poem?
Malynn: When I’m creating a guided meditation to share, I start with a really blank slate. I might start out with a theme I know I want to share, and then maybe I give it some space and I meditate and see what visuals or particular words might come up. Louie sent me a couple of versions of these canyons. I sat down and watched them, and watched them, and watched them. I just had a little notebook with me where I jotted down feelings that came up or images or associations.
When I was watching his video, suddenly the rock walls were like chambers of the heart. It was just right there in front of me. From there the words just flowed.
This process has repeated itself other times Louie and I have worked together. I’m so used to coming up with the theme myself, but with Louie’s videos, they evoke the words and all I have to do is watch them, and I usually fill up a couple of notebook pages with my impressions, and then I start to go back and weave them into a story. His video pulls them out of me.
GR: The Canyon I think is one of my very, very favorite. I’m not sure why, there’s just something about the light shifting, and I can never get tired of the colors and the passage of time standing there watching the shift from the beginning of the day to end of day.
Malynn: It was just a perfect metaphor to contemplate forgiveness. Most of us have practiced forgiveness sometime in our life, and yet we have to be reminded about how important it is. There’s got to be a little time where there’s hardness, where people have to remember and feel what it’s like to be in that hardened, contracted state before you’ve forgiven. So in the film there was this still pause for a little bit and a darkness in the music, and the light of the canyons froze. Those groove lines became like hardened lines, like things carved in and immobile. Because that’s exactly how you feel when you haven’t forgiven.
Then there came a next pause – I couldn’t have orchestrated it better – where the shaft of light came back in, and it was like my body took a breath and something expanded and then the light created and highlighted the movement in those groove lines again. It was really beautiful how there was a synergy between those two parts of the message, and the way the images themselves worked.
GR: So much of what you express regarding forgiveness seems to be the embodiment of a physical release and expansion. Can you say a little bit about how one might best receive this message of forgiveness within their body as well as their heart?
Malynn: Yes, exactly. I think you’ve really nailed something very important. It does have a physical aspect to it. Usually when I approach forgiveness with people I’ll initially guide them through paying attention to the tiniest little sensations of their body. Or just paying attention to their body, period.
As they do that, as they follow it inward, there starts to be all of these little perceptions of tiny movements, tiny twitches, little fleeting sensations of aliveness, especially in places in their body where they aren’t really feeling that way. People might be feeling pressured from work or heavy and burdened or tired in whatever way, and they aren’t really tuned into the little sensations that bring things alive for them.
When we get to the heart, the heart is such a rich place, because I can just say, “Stop and pay attention here. See if you can tune in to the way your heart is beating. Can you feel that? Can you feel how it speeds up a little bit just naturally when you breathe in? Can you feel how it slows down?” Sometimes I’ll say, “Just let yourself have a moment of appreciation for the way your heart is beating intelligently in this regenerating rhythm all throughout your day when you’re not even paying attention to it. It is doing this as a basic life-sustaining job that keeps you here.”
I work with a lot of scientists, a lot of people who know this stuff inside and out on a physiologic level, but being drawn to it on an intentional level like that can have such a powerful shift.
I’ll sometimes say, “Now, see if you can breath a little space around your heart.”
I don’t know what it is about that phrase, I kind of accidentally found it maybe fifteen years ago while I was teaching, and I found that when I said that for myself, “Breathe a little space around your heart so that your heart can beat more freely,” something about that in me profoundly turned me to the idea that I have my own internal rhythms. If I can give them a little space and a little attention, it’s like this amazing moment of getting to know yourself a little more deeply, a little more intimately, appreciating something about yourself, and/or whatever you’ve got going on psychologically. I, for one, am one of those people that when I tune in and notice if I’m feeling guilt or I’m feeling fear about something, I can just feel how contracted I am in my heart area.
By saying breathe a little space in, it’s as if the body will lead the way to giving the psyche some space to make the shift, as well. Because it just never works to do it the opposite way. You know, to say to somebody, “You don’t have to feel so sad.” The psyche immediately defends against that. How do you know what I’m feeling? But you can say to the body, “Give this a little space. Just see.” It’s so phenomenal how that can lead the way to a deeper psychological shift.
GR: That’s so beautiful.
Malynn: I could have never really predicted two parts of my life that would come together to give me some passion around both sides of this, the poetic very personal connected side where I love to be able to let the imagery form, and medicine. There is this phenomenal series of responses that get mediated through the vagus nerve, through your parasympathetic system and the moment you take that deep breath, the split second you begin it, your whole parasympathetic system that nurtures and repairs and takes care of the restoration of the body, it just flies into gear.
The physiological ‘relax and restore’ response happens even more quickly than the physiological stress response that is triggered when we are afraid. Isn’t that astounding? Our body launches into calm very quickly if we ask it to when we take that deep breath or remember our common humanity. That’s important to know. We all think our stress response is easily triggered—and it is. But the healing response is triggered just as quickly in the body.
To begin to teach some of these scientific connections helps show people, “Here’s what happens to your heart rate variability when you feel anxious and afraid. Here’s what happens to your cortisol levels. Here’s what happens in inflammation in your body when you release and forgive.” If you can hook people with a balance between some of the medical benefit and some of the feelings they experience in their body, it’s just such a powerful combination.
GR: You just can’t really deny that with a simple breath and expansion, there is relief. It’s very emotional.
Malynn: I should be careful to say that I definitely believe in the long and sometimes slow and incremental process of the psychological work, seeking out someone who can help you to hold the story differently. I really want to be careful not to make anyone feel bad if their feeling doesn’t release instantaneously, because we’re all on a long, slow process. But the hope comes when there are all these punctuating moments, and hundreds of them in a day, where you have a little chance to call yourself back from a difficult place. A place of hurt, a place of pain.
GR: Can you just speak a little bit about that journey through forgiveness towards gratitude?
Malynn: Yes. The work of forgiveness connotes to people something they’re going to have to work hard at. Depending on that level of hurt, how long you’ve held it, it can just be something that makes people shudder a little bit to think about really working on.
It can sometimes be helpful to begin with a really small issue. Don’t take the biggest issue in your life that requires forgiveness, which by the way, is often of ourselves.
So often when you’re stuck in a place of anger or a place of hurt about something, even a place of anxiety about it all, you can spend so much energy wrapped up with the story about how it’s affecting you, replaying the events that went up to it, ruminating about how difficult it would be to change. It’s just an energy suck. If you can take a tiny practice of compassion, to imagine life through another set of eyes and imagine what might have been going on for the other person in that moment, I find the second that that happens, the moment that little human crack opens up and you realize that you both share together the human condition which includes suffering, then the forgiveness part is spontaneous.
It’s like it’s happened already, practically, the moment that you can feel that human connection about what the two of you might share, how that person’s life was hard in the same way, forgiveness sneaks in without conscious awareness.
There’s a little practice that I’ve done now in a number of settings, and it might sound ridiculously simple, but it’s one of two things that I find really works for me and really works for some other people.
One of them is a meditation called Just Like Me. I suppose you could do it on your own, it would work well this way, but I’ve often found that if you can get people into pairs and get them just to sit next to each other or stand and look at each other while a few of the following kinds of sentences are read, you’ll find this amazing thing happens.
“This person standing right across from me is a human being just like me. This person got up this morning, got dressed, perhaps had their breakfast, came to work just like me. This person has had many challenges already in their day, just like me.”
So it goes, you can make it as long or as short as you want, but starting with that really simple level of human act lets you see grains of common humanity. That is a really easy to step. Let’s not start with the hardest thing you’re trying to forgive, just starting with the basics of your shared human experience is quite powerful.
GR: What I love about what you just shared, is that when I think of certain hurts or wounds, and I “prepare” myself to heal or forgive, sometimes there’s this resistance. Like maybe I don’t want to forgive. Maybe I don’t want to let go of this wound. [laughs] Yet, what you just did actually sort of tricked me. I wasn’t consciously trying to be compassionate or empathetic, but there was an ease to going through the exercise, being guided, (and this is where I think you were suggesting the value of being led by someone who knows how to guide you through this stuff), somehow magically compassion and forgiveness did sneak into my heart.
Malynn: Exactly. It’s starting at such a simple, tiny, granular level of shared commonality. My sense is that a very large fraction of us have at least had a fleeting thought like this, and if it can be deepened it may be the most powerful “opposite human trick” I can think of, to approach forgiveness from “behind.”
I settle in and I just think about the complexity of our human lives. The way most of us are dealing with limited resources of one kind or another. We have to earn a living, we have to figure out how we’re going to make it through. If we are parents or children or relatives or close friends, we may also be trying to help others that are dear to us with the complexities of their lives.
Sometimes when I telescope out and I think about all of humanity, working through the complexities of our lives, I will be able sometimes spontaneously to bring myself to this point of feeling how amazing it is that any of us ever takes time for a moment of kindness, for a moment of reaching out, for sharing in an altruistic way, for laughter. But no, there’s this wonder within us human beings and seems to be common to most mammals that we have this ability to mirror each other and want to take care of each other. It’s able to emerge sometimes even in the midst of difficulty and scarcity.
When you see yourself as part of that whole big chain, there’s just this melting moment for me. Like I said, that’s where the compassion and connection leaps over into forgiveness without my having to force it there.
GR: That’s perfect.
Malynn: I’m struck by this story, that of all of the practices, the various kinds of meditation that an influential person like the Dalai Lama could do, he has apparently made the choice to spend multiple hours on all or most of the mornings of his life doing Tonglen, or a compassion meditation. In this Tonglen meditation, you basically breathe in the difficulty that you see in the world or in a person, the pain or a challenge or a difficulty they’re going through, and you breathe out to them your deepest intention that their suffering be eased, in whatever way, specific or general that you can feel it.
Then you can widen it out. You can imagine yourself being the person whose pain you need to breathe in and to whom you need to breathe out compassion, well being, ease, and then you can spread it out to others.
You can spread it out to all humanity, you can spread it out across time and do this practice for all beings who will ever live. I’m sure his time is precious, and if he travels the world, the fact that he chooses to engage in this meditation, which to me is the absolutely necessary link to forgiveness, I find really notable.
I had given a colleague of mine two strategies. I said, “Either you can do this problem solving thing or you could try this compassion meditation.” He said, “I’m probably going to try the problem solving thing, because it just seems more practical and doable and likely to work.” He said, “This compassion meditation, it seems a little counter intuitive to me.” But he went home and he said to himself, “Well, I guess I don’t really have anything to lose,” and he decided to try it.
He came back and he said,” I would have never ever guessed that I could sit in an otherwise frustrating situation and actually breathe out my intentions for other people in the room to feel better, to feel good, to feel satisfied and at peace and have that shift my own inner terrain so much. I just could have never imagined that practice would bring me a sense of peacefulness.” I’ve been really moved by that story lately.
GR: Well, gosh, I feel like you’ve just shared so much and we are all so appreciative of your time and the thought that you put into our conversation. Thank you for everything.
Malynn: Thank you for the really thoughtful depth of your questions and the appreciation. I’m so grateful to have been asked to be a part of it and it’s such an uplifting experience.
Malynn Utzinger, MD is a physician and teacher of contemplative practices at Promega Corporation, Usona Institute and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work began in nutrition and Integrative Medicine and has grown to focus on the development and wellbeing of the Mind. In the early 1990s, she was launched in this direction through her work in San Francisco and Tucson with pioneers in mind-body medicine Dean Ornish, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Andrew Weil, and later, after residency and fellowships in Family Medicine, Preventive Oncology and Integrative Medicine, she returned to San Diego and then New York, where she was the Director of Women’s Health for the Chopra Center and consulted at the Eileen Fisher world headquarters on mindfulness, Ayurveda and other mind-body practices for cultivating wellbeing. Drawing on her studies in human development, Malynn’s work has moved steadily into a focus on practices that can bring vitality and aliveness to the people who make up the heart and soul of business. Teaching the fundamentals of emotional and social intelligence along with basic practices for physical health—most importantly mindful or “contemplative” exercise, which nourishes mind and body together–are the cornerstones of her work. Always using everyday life as the greatest of teachers, Malynn delights these days in being the mom of a four-year-old boy, which calls her into one of life’s most lively dances. She is on the path, with all of humanity, learning to be present with humor, love, discipline and purpose at work and at home.
You may look forward to visiting Dr. Utzinger’s new website, Malynn.com, launching April 8, 2016.