Friday, November 25, 2011

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

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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!

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