If you are halfway through the scariest horror novel you ever read, your meditation is going to be full of monsters. So switch the order of events. Do your meditation first. Then read or go to the movies. Accept that anger, guilt, and fear may be making you ill (emotionally, physically, or both). Research abounds on this subject. Educate yourself on the myriad negative effects that chronic toxic emotions have on your well-being. Take responsibility for the fact that these impacts are, to a large degree, self-inflicted-- Well, we'll be better off, that's what--100 percent of the time. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness is viewed as essential. I don't think that's intended as a spiritual obligation as much as it is practical advice for lifelong health and well-being--and healing grace when we need a little help overcoming depression. Forgiveness is a blessing, not a burden. It's a source of the very peace you're looking for when pursuing lasting relief from depression. That's not just wishful thinking. It's amply supported by scientific research as well. In an article titled "Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It," researchers at Johns Hopkins University states, The good news: Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age. In a landmark meta-analysis of available research on the subject of forgiveness and mental health published in a volume called Handbook of Forgiveness, psychologists Loren Toussaint and Jon R. Webb discovered that nine recent studies had all concluded the same thing: forgiveness has a significant role to play in healing depression. The 2003 film Seabiscuit illustrates the essential value of forgiveness in a brilliant scene involving a troubled racehorse jockey named Red Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire). The whole story is a study in learning to let go of the past and forgive in order to reclaim a better future.

In the film's version of events, Pollard finally sees his luck change after many years in the world of Depression-era horse racing, where jockeys were often treated with far less care than the horses they rode. In fact, Pollard has been on his own in that hardscrabble life since his parents abandoned him as a young teenager when the crash of 1929 left them unable to support him. He's generally considered too big to be a serious jockey, is blind in one eye after one too many bar fights for money, and is violently opposed to anything that looks like charity. In other words, he's angry and bitter at the cards life has dealt him. But now, being in the right place at the right time has put him in the saddle of an equally angry and troubled young racehorse named Seabiscuit. In many ways, they are a perfect match. All Pollard has to do is bring out the "diamond in the rough" that the horse's owner and trainer believe is in there. And to follow instructions. In one of the first big tests for Seabiscuit--a midlevel race in California--hopes are high for a win. Trainer Tom Smith lays out a strategy that involves hanging back for much of the race and carefully choosing the moment for speed. However, soon after bolting from the starting gate, Pollard is cut off by another jockey. It reminds him of the kind of cutthroat racing he's grown up with. Incensed, he prods Seabiscuit to give chase, determined to get even. He abandons the race strategy and goes all out to act on his rage. Predictably, Seabiscuit loses the race by a wide margin. Commentators and spectators write off the horse and the jockey as too damaged to ever win anything. When confronted by Smith after the race, Pollard rages, "He fouled me! What am I supposed to do? Let him get away with that?" "Well, yeah, when he's forty to one!" Smith says. The truth is, there is nothing wrong with Seabiscuit or with Red Pollard's skill as a jockey.

Both have enormous potential to do great things, as the film goes on to prove. But in order to reach that potential, Red Pollard has to overcome a handicap every bit as real as his faulty eyesight: his inability to forgive and let go. When Pollard fumed, "He fouled me!" he was not just talking about one jockey in one race. His response was fueled by everyone in a long list that included his own parents, who had made choices that caused him pain. His inability to forgive and move on was like an anchor dragging behind his life, making everything he did many times more difficult and prone to failure than it had to be. He, like so many people who suffer from depression today, could not conceive of letting go. But it's not necessary to remain stuck there. You can break free. Much of our resistance to the idea of forgiveness begins with the fact that we don't truly understand what the word means. Many, if not most, people judge others by using stereotypes. A stereotype is a type of simplifying strategy, because when we use stereotypes we don't spend much time thinking about a person to decide how she will act. We just pigeonhole the person as a certain type, and immediately attribute a variety of characteristics to her.21 Stereotypes are then perpetuated because our confirming bias causes us to notice things that support the stereotype. So, if we buy in to the view that blonds are dumb, or that the Irish love to drink, we are more likely to notice those people who conform to our preconception and ignore those who don't. Our stereotypes are also reinforced because we typically label different groups, and by using labels we see them as being more different than ourselves. One study found, for example, that if we simply label short lines as A and longer lines as B, people think there is a bigger difference in the length of the lines than if no labels are given at all.22 Imagine what labels do to our subjective judgments of others. While stereotypes are simple to use, they can lead to many decision errors. People are very complex creatures. Remember the bell curve? There's a distribution around most things. Within a certain group of people, there will be very intelligent individuals and some that are not very bright, some that like to drink and some that don't.

In effect, there is often a much bigger difference in the traits and characteristics between two individuals within a group than there is between groups. Remember, the smaller the sample size, the greater the variability. Pick any one individual from a group, and you can get someone with characteristics that are very different from your preconceived notions of the group. As a result, we need to pay particular attention to our use of stereotypes--they can lead to a number of erroneous judgments concerning the attributes of others. Which do you think is a more likely cause of death in the United States: being killed by falling airplane parts or being eaten by a shark? Most people say shark, but you're actually thirty times more likely to die from falling airplane parts!23 Or consider the following pairs of potential causes of death: (1) poisoning or tuberculosis, (2) leukemia or emphysema, (3) homicide or suicide, (4) all accidents or stroke. Which cause do you think is more likely in each pair? The second cause is more common, but most people choose the first.24 In fact, we think we're twice as likely to die from an accident as from a stroke, when we're actually forty times more likely to die from a stroke.25 Our errors in judging these frequencies are due to a heuristic called availability. When using this heuristic, the estimated frequency or probability of an event is judged by the ease with which similar events can be brought to mind. For example, is it more likely that a word starts with the letter k, or that a word has k as its third letter? Most of us think that k appears more often as the first letter, even though there are twice as many words where k is the third letter. Why do we make the error? It's easier to search for words that begin with k, while it's tougher to bring to mind words with k in the third position.26 The availability heuristic often serves us well, because common events are usually easier to remember or imagine than uncommon events. However, sensational or vivid events are also easily remembered, and so availability can cause us to overestimate those events. Another influential factor is your own emotional state. If there is some real conflict in your life, that agitation will carry over into meditation. Try to resolve your immediate daily conflicts before meditation when you can. Your life will run more smoothly, and you won't be pondering uselessly in your practice. But don't use this advice as a way to avoid meditation. Sometimes you can't resolve every issue before you sit.

Just go ahead and sit anyway. Use your meditation to let go of all the egocentric attitudes that keep you trapped within your own limited viewpoint. Your problems will resolve much more easily thereafter. And then there are those days when it seems that the mind will never rest, but you can't locate any apparent cause. Remember the cyclic alternation we spoke of earlier. Meditation goes in cycles. You have good days and you have bad days. Vipassana meditation is primarily an exercise in awareness. Emptying the mind is not as important as being mindful of what the mind is doing. If you are frantic and you can't do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you. The result will be one more step forward in your journey of self-exploration. Above all, don't get frustrated over the nonstop chatter of your mind. That babble is just one more thing to be mindful of. It is difficult to imagine anything more inherently boring than sitting still for an hour with nothing to do but feel the air going in and out of your nose. You are going to run into boredom repeatedly in your meditation. Everybody does. Boredom is a mental state and should be treated as such. A few simple strategies will help you to cope. To correct that, let's examine misconceptions about forgiveness that keep people stuck in bondage to their angry and fearful judgments.