Friday, November 25, 2011

On Gratitude - It's Not Just for Thanksgiving These Days!

Courtesy of
As we finish up the turkey leftovers and close the chapter on Thanksgiving for this year, I’d like to express my gratitude for discovering the practice and power of gratitude this past year – a practice that now brings joy into my life well beyond Thanksgiving.  

In the Awakening Joy course with James Baraz that I took this year (and the accompanying book), one of the key practices that we were taught to cultivate is Gratitude.   According to happiness experts like Rick Hanson, our brains are trained to focus extra attention on negative stimuli – a throwback to the days when we had to be primed each minute for potential dangers – after all, if we weren’t careful, giant Sabertooth tigers would chase us and eat us!  

Very useful back then – not so useful now in modern life.  Nowadays, all of that focus on the negative makes us depressed and anxious and unhappy.   We live longer and stay out of danger – but we carry our unhappy brains and moods with us all of our lives.

Before learning to focus on gratitude, my conversations with friends and family used to sound like competitions to see who would win the award for having the worst day - I’d grumble about the student I met with who was cranky or the bus that was late or whatever minor annoyance was highlighted in my consciousness.  My companions would complain about the bad weather,  the driver who cut them off and the friend who stood them up for dinner.

Since learning the power of gratitude, I am making a concerted effort to focus on what I am grateful for in my life and what has gone well in my day.  As a result, I feel more positive and am able to share the joy and happiness in my life with those around me.  

Here are some ways that I have worked gratitude into my life:

USF's Beautiful Campus!
When I walk back from lunch to head back in to work, I make a point to take in the beautiful campus surrounding me and cultivate a smile in my body and mind.  I also try to notice the positive atmosphere around me on the way into work in the morning, when I am walking home from the bus at night, and whenever I stop for a minute and take a breath.

When I am feeling anxious or frustrated, I’ve found that taking a minute to stop and run through a list in my mind of things that I am grateful for really helps me to break out of the cycle of samsara and get back to an open heart and mind – ideally before I tear the head off of my companion.

I also make a point to really stop and feel good feelings inside – to take in the good and soak it into my body and mind.  Happiness researchers like Rick Hanson say that by really emphasizing and noticing when we feel good, we can help to change our brains over time and discount the bad things that we notice day in and day out.   For instance, I had a really good phone conversation yesterday with my grandparents in Florida – who I am extremely grateful to still have alive and healthy in my life.  When I got off of the phone, I noticed that I felt really good – and I paused for a moment to feel that all the way through my body – and to remember how amazing it feels to be able to have them in my life to call on Thanksgiving.

My Mom and Me - An Old Favorite!
One practice that I am particularly grateful for is a gratitude email practice that my mom and I started earlier this year.  Each day, we trade emails back and forth sharing three things that we are grateful for in our life.   I look forward to reading my mom’s emails each day to find out what is adding happiness to her life; I find the practice of writing my own emails helpful to focus my attention on the good; and I am enjoying how this new exchange of gratitude lists has improved the flavor of our daily connection with one another.

I would be silly to claim that I bring the spirit of gratitude into my life all the time – after all, just like any of you, I have days and moments when I sound more like a whiny grouch than anything else.  Nevertheless, these past months of gratitude practice have been so worth it and so wonderful that I am convinced of its power.  Don’t believe me?  Try it for yourself – this year, instead of saving gratitude just for Thanksgiving, try keeping it in going in your life until next Thanksgiving – and see what you think!

As a parting gift, here are some videos on gratitude – to give you some ideas and get you started!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Surrendering Into Our Interconnectness

The past few weeks, I have been holding an intention to be more accepting of myself and others and reflecting on our interconnectedness with each other and everything around us.   Of course, doing so has been difficult for me to do because you can’t “will” yourself to do anything – approaching these qualities of compassion and lovingkindness with a desire for perfection is counterproductive.  

I had the opportunity to listen to a great talk by Tara Brach on Anxiety About Imperfection in October, and have also been reading her book Radical Acceptance during my lunch hours.  According to her, you can’t convince yourself not to be judgmental of yourself or others – just as you can’t convince yourself to change any habit through willpower alone.  Instead, by bringing gentle and loving awareness to your thoughts and actions and seeing how they resonate with your body and mind, you will begin to shift them naturally.  Also, by reminding ourselves of our loved ones and humanity, we become less likely to think in terms of me, my, and mine – and we are inspired to act with love and compassion.

These ideas also work well for dealing with difficult emotions – like anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, etc.  For many years, my approach has been to feel ashamed and distressed when these feelings arise and to try and get rid of them as quickly as possible.   I come from a family where we try to focus on the good and put a happy face on things.  I do believe that focusing on the positive in life is a beneficial thing and much research and teachings support that idea – gratitude practice has been more and more helpful in my life.  

Invite the Monster for Tea!
Nevertheless, having aversion to difficult feelings rather than approaching them with gratitude and acceptance often makes them harder to cope with.  Many of the Buddhist teachings that I’ve come across encourage us to lean into discomfort and lean into difficult emotions – to welcome the monsters into the room when they arise rather than running away scared.  While suffering is never pleasant, when we truly look it in the eye and take it in, it opens our hearts and humbles us. 

These days, when I feel anxiety arising or feel sad or angered about something someone said to me, I try to focus in on the actual sensations in my body, the raw feelings underneath – not the story about whose fault it is or what I should do about it or why it is happening.  I try to feel my heart and throat tighten or feel the heaviness in my body or feel my flushed face and hold those sensations with a loving heart, like a mother would hold her crying child.   In surrendering to the feelings moving through me, I feel a great sense of release and I feel strangely held by the universe. 

Biodanza "Nest"
In Biodanza class recently, our teacher Clara did a vivencia class focused on the concept of the nest – feeling supported and nurtured by everything around us.  I had had a particularly stressful week at work and was feeling pretty wiped out – so wiped out that instead of trying to be the perfect student and do every exercise “right,” I just released into the moment – when we walked through the space, I sank my feet into the ground and felt it hold me up; when I danced with one of my classmates, I just gazed into her eyes and felt an authentic, open connection; and when we gathered into the equivalent of a big group hold, I just relaxed completely and felt all of the bodies of my comrades around me.  It was truly a wonderful class – and really made me feel connected with the earth and the community around me.   I didn’t feel such a compulsive need to hold myself up. 

The Vast Sea of Awareness
In that talk about Anxiety About Imperfection, Tara Brach shared an image / idea which I’ve found very powerful lately.  She said to picture ourselves and the entire universe as the great wide ocean.  So many waves of emotions and stories and egos and everything run through us, but in the end we are just a vast ocean of awareness – awareness that has been here since we were born and will be here when we die.   When I feel triggered and think about sinking into the great ocean of love and awareness, I feel a wonderful sense of wholeness and completeness. 

I was also working with sound last night at a Sound Healing meetup at the Globe Sound and Consciousness Institute that I went to in celebration of 11-11-11.   There were several musicians there and we spent a lot of time using singing bowls and toning in as a large group on particular sound frequencies.  If you ever have an opportunity to do that sort of activity or sing along with a toning CD or use toning forks, I encourage you to do so – it is amazing how much can communicated by sound.  I have a similar feeling in Kundalini Yoga when we chant various mantras together  - something about joining together in sound really cues me in to our joint energy and spirit – where my body starts and ends seems to blur.  

Walk Into the Light, Patrick!
I also like picturing our unitedness in terms of light – when I was at the Sound Healing meetup, I found myself picturing an image similar to the ending of the movie Ghost, where Patrick Swayze finally joins up with all of the other beings in heaven after he saves Demi Moore from the evil person who murdered him.  As I remember it, you see him stepping into a bath of light and at first you can see him and see the outlines of other beings, but eventually it all just blurs together into one big ball of light.  Other movies with death have used this image as well – of walking into the light, etc.

I’m not sure what your specific spiritual beliefs are and I’m not inclined to try to change them – I think all religions in the world have something beneficial to share.  Most of them at their heart encourage us to bring love into the world and share our light and compassion with others.  As we learn more and more about science, it seems that science supports the idea of us all being interconnectedof us all being part of a giant energy field.   There are so many neurons that fire and connect to help us conceive our place in the world that I think it is entirely conceivable that this idea of a body and a self separate from the rest of the universal energy field is simply something created by our brain to help us make sense of the world – otherwise it is too abstract to conceive. 

The Rescuing Hug
Science also supports the idea of our connection with others being crucial to our survival – I’m sure many of you have heard "The Rescuing Hug" story or read one of the articles that circulated around the Internet a year or so ago about the benefits of co-incubating twins that have been born prematurely and aren’t ready to survive in the world yet.  Or of allowing premature infants to be held and hugged by their parents.  Our science world would suggest to keeping the environment sterile and free of germs is the most important thing (and it’s definitely important) – but it seems that there is support for the idea that touch and human connection is extremely important to our survival.  I’ve also heard stories of babies in orphanages who died or had health difficulties even though they seemingly every need taken care of – they were feed, clothed, given shelter, etc. – but weren’t held on a regular basis, and we as humans depend on that touch and connection.

Have You Hugged Someone Today?
In the documentary movie, Connected, which I mentioned in my last blog entry, there is a part where the narrator mentions that hugging for at least six seconds releases oxytocin and helps with our over wellbeing.  I’ve also heard that things like Cuddle Parties – which are parties basically focused on giving space for hugs and affection without all of the complexities of dating, relationships, etc. – are extremely helpful for single people.  Hugging and sharing affection with another human bolsters our immune system and can even help people lose weight – many times we try to fill out need for love and affection and connection by buying things or stuffing ourselves with food or other material things – when all we really desire is a hug – or some sort of basic reminder that we are infinitely connected with source and everything around us.  

When is the last time that you hugged someone?  Hopefully not too long ago – if it has been awhile – go find someone and give them a hug – and – extra credit – try to hold the embrace for at least 6 seconds – or at least a full breath.  So many times when we give someone a hug, we tense up and hold our breath instead of just relaxing into the embrace and feeling our bodies and souls melt into one another.  I LOVE this picture of two kittens snuggling up to one another – I keep it posted on my fridge, and it warms my heart every time I look at it. 

Anyway, these are some thoughts that I’ve been working with lately related to working with anxiety, imperfection, and difficult emotions and about finding such expansive peace in surrendering to the connections and shared energy around us.  I just came from an acupuncture session earlier today, and as I was lying on the table, I felt such a deep sense of peace – as if I was sinking into and through the table and was swallowed up by the vast energy, love, and light around me.   The feeling was fleeting, but when it was there, it was so incredibly powerful.  

As you tackle these same demons in your life, I encourage you to embrace your suffering and feelings with compassion, give yourself or someone a hug, and seek out practices like Biodanza and Sound Healing that assist you to let go and float into the endless sea of awareness of which we are all part.

To finish - I leave you with an old favorite song of mine that I got from watching Grey's Anatomy - "Infinity" - by Merrick.  The images in this video are moving and beautiful - enjoy!