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Forgiving the Unforgivable

Working with people who have experienced extreme trauma, I have become convinced that those who have suffered the most have the most to give, if they are only able to reconcile with their past and restore a measure of hope.
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"Mumbai did not leave deep scars; it healed deep wounds," writes Master Charles Cannon in Forgiving the Unforgivable, the true story of how he and his 24 associates from the Synchronicity Foundation for Modern Spirituality responded to terror when they were caught up in the 2008 attack on the 5-star Oberoi Hotel. Many might wonder how this modern spiritual teacher from Virginia could say such a thing when four from his group were seriously injured and two -- a father and his 13-year-old daughter -- were murdered.

For this reason I felt some apprehension when picking up the book to prepare for a scheduled podcast discussion with Master Charles on the subject of forgiveness. Whilst I wanted to learn how a group of people caught up in the 45-hour siege could instantly embrace compassionate forgiveness, I was not convinced it was true. To talk of the attack as a "peak" experience and for members of the group to say they were "grateful" for it, or describe being in state of "bliss" on their return, is a difficult and delicate message to communicate.

However, what makes this book entirely credible in my eyes, carrying the reader along so that there is never any doubt about the authenticity of the experience, is the very thing that first gave me the impetus to start The Forgiveness Project -- and that is the knowledge that it is based on the personal testimonies of those who bore witness and those who endured the most. Peppered throughout the 288 pages are the true stories of the survivors, which even include Kia, the woman whose husband and daughter both died. Kia, extraordinarily, from the moment she heard the news, experienced "the deepest grief and pain" at the same time as feeling "love, forgiveness and compassion" for the Islamist terrorists.

It seems that these real stories describe an intrinsic part of the human experience -- albeit one that is rarely documented. They illustrate how people who for years have practiced a holistic, meditative life-style when tested are capable of responding to trauma without capsizing fear or reactive anger. Instead, these people are able to accept what has happened to them and use the experience to grow into an "ever more evolved wholeness." As Master Charles puts it, "This is about being where your feet are," or to borrow from the Greek stoic Epictetus, "It's not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters."

If you have learnt never to have a "why me?" attitude, and always accept that life is not unfair, it just is what it is, then, when terrorists burst into your hotel dining room, shooting everyone in sight, you are able to glimpse humanity in the enemy. As Linda, one of the survivors, describes:

"I watched a young man turn the corner and what immediately struck me was that he looked the same age as my son. I thought 'ah, my universal son is speaking to me with a gun. How could I have let him get to this?'"

In the dozens of stories I've collected for The Forgiveness Project, although there are many victims of atrocity who talk about finding the gift in the wound, there are few who have responded to violence with love as quickly and spontaneously as this group of spiritual seekers. But one story that is featured on The Forgiveness Project website does draw parallels with the Mumbai experience. That is the story of Julie Chimes, who in 1986 was savagely attacked with a carving knife by a paranoid schizophrenic.

Julie explains:

"When the knife entered me, something exploded in my awareness and a part of me became detached from my body, calmly observing the mayhem with total understanding. I can remember shouting out that I loved my assailant, which, given the circumstances was as much of a surprise to me as it was being stabbed."

Just as with the Mumbai survivors from the Synchronicity Foundation, Julie found that in the aftermath of the attack, while the rest of the world focussed on blame and retribution, vengeful thoughts were for her never a consideration.

"As I blamed no one, there was nothing to forgive, but there was still a lot for me to learn and understand," she says. "So I went in search of teachings and people who had touched on the same loving perspective. I wanted to know if it was possible to reach this place of peace without some horrific trauma."

Working with people who have experienced extreme trauma, I have become convinced that those who have suffered the most have the most to give, if they are only able to reconcile with their past and restore a measure of hope. And so, in the same way that The Forgiveness Project operates, the Mumbai survivors have used their healing stories to reach out and help others understand how it is possible that those who have been most traumatized can ever respond to hatred with compassion.

To listen to the podcast conversation, click here

For more by Marina Cantacuzino, click here.

For more on forgiveness, click here.