“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we are doing what God does. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we are participating in something truly sacred.” – Fred Rogers
What happens when we choose to live our lives consciously, fully awake and aware of the many blessings around us and within us?
We don’t turn a blind eye towards suffering or injustice. We don’t ignore the greed and hatred around us and within us. We see these things, and then we remember, we have a choice for how to be with them.
When we notice the guitar strings are stretched too tightly or too loosely, we can re-tune them. By being attuned to when things are resonating harmoniously and when they are out-of-tune, we can recalibrate our instruments. That is, we can re-align our thoughts and feelings, our actions and our relationships.
We can become swept up in fear (of pandemic illness, of loneliness and isolation, of failure). We can become swept up in anger (at injustices, perceived wrongs, threats to our views and ways of life, at just not getting what we want). We can continue to want more than what we have. We can continue to resent others who seem to have more.
Or we can notice the inherent misery in getting stuck in negative thoughts. We can notice that our daily lives are out of tune – being filled with angry or fearful ruminations.
We can choose love, instead. We can turn towards the light that seeps in through the cracks of imperfection. In the darkest of times, we can look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers encouraged us. We can appreciate the goodness in others, the gifts we have received, and the gifts we have shared.
We can practice gratitude and generosity – the yin and yang of heartfulness practices – that reconnect us with one another. That reconnect us with God and the natural universe. That reconnect us with our true selves.
The brain has a built-in negativity bias. We naturally pay attention to and remember negative, threatening experiences more easily and more often than positive ones. It’s hard-wired into our nervous system to help protect us from danger, to help us learn from close-calls, and to help us survive.
Yet we also evolved to have higher-order attention and thinking capacities. As far as we know, we are unique in the degree of consciousness and volitional control we can have over our thoughts and actions. We have the ability to purposely direct our attention to what we choose.
And in fact, when we choose to attend to the good more than the bad, we feel better and we act better. When we recall things in our lives we’re grateful for, we tend to be more generous towards others. And vice versa! When we focus on and practice helping others, we feel more grateful and happy in our own lives.
With mindful attention and aligned action, we can transform the downward spiral of fear and loathing into an upward spiral of courage and care. We can practice being thoughtful and caring, wise and compassionate. We can choose love.
In modern neuroscience parlance, we can use positive neuroplasticity practices to rewire the brain. We can move from momentary states of peaceful satisfaction towards creating the traits or tendencies towards loving-kindness. When we savor the good, regularly and authentically, the good grows.
[To learn more about this, see the good works of my friend and colleague, Dr. Rick Hanson.]
“Patient and persistent practice = progress, not perfection.” – Yours Truly.
We’re not talking panacea. We’re not talking cure. We’re not naively talking about think happy thoughts and you’ll always be happy.
We’re talking about building up daily habits of care that can gradually transform your life. It can transform how you relate to the toxic stress in your life (and your children’s lives). It can help you ride the waves of stress with more ease and balance, less being thrown off and drowning.
I invite you to pause for a moment, and reflect on one thing in your life that you’re grateful for, right now. Reflect on this person, place, or thing – whatever it may be – and say out loud to yourself, “I’m grateful for… (this) right now.” Repeat it softly, several times, “I’m grateful for…”
Then ask yourself, “Why?” And answer, why you’re grateful for this thing in your life. What about it do you really appreciate? Take that in. Say it out loud to yourself, to the world. Name it to claim it. Savor it.
Gratitude practices are a powerful way to heal our hearts and, done regularly, even strengthen our immune system.
Keep a gratitude journal for the next month – from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Why not?! Give yourself, and others, the gift of gratitude this holiday season.
At the end of each day (or some other scheduled time when you’ll really do it!), sit down for 5 minutes. Write down 3 things you’re grateful for today, no matter how shitty the day was. Write down what you are grateful for, and why you’re grateful for that.
Reflect, remember, and write. Bullet points or simple sentences. Nothing fancy. On paper or computer or phone. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it matters that you do it. Regularly (not perfectly).
Or you could say it out loud, to a friend, loved one, or gratitude buddy. Each of you share several things you’re grateful for today. Maybe make it part of your family dinner ritual or bedtime ritual with your child.
Create a gratitude tree. Cut out many different colored construction-paper leaves. Each day you and your child write something new that you’re grateful for on a paper leaf. Hang the leaf on the tree branches (indoor, real, artificial or made up tree of any kind). Literally watch the gratitude and love in your family grow.
Go for a gratitude walk. Get outside and take a 10-15 minute walk. Gotta walk the dog anyway? Turn it into a gratitude practice.
As you’re walking, begin quietly naming out loud some things you’re thankful for. Yes, talk out loud to yourself; it turns on different circuits in the brain that make it more likely to stick!
Maybe reflect on different parts of your day – your activities, your belongings, your relationships. Your own thoughts, your strengths, your body, your deeds.
Maybe start looking around, just noticing and naming things along your walk that you could honestly say, “Yeah, you know what, I’m grateful for that…!” And notice why, what about that is something you appreciate?
Where do you find the beauty, the simple gifts, in your life? Pause and notice. Savor them. Name them. Share them with loved ones or with yourself. Let them seep in. Create a habit of re-discovering the good all around you and within you.
It’s always there. We simply need the eyes, the mindful attention, to see it. And to appreciate it.
Perhaps this poem by John O’Donohue will inspire and encourage you along this path, as it does me.
May the beauty of your life become more visible to you, that you may glimpse your wild divinity.
May the wonders of the earth call you forth from all your small, secret prisons and set your feet free in the pastures of possibilities.
May the light of dawn anoint your eyes that you may behold what a miracle a day is.
May the liturgy of twilight shelter all your fears and darkness within the circle of ease.
May the angel of memory surprise you in bleak times with new gifts from the harvest of your vanished days.
May you allow no dark hand to quench the candle of hope in your heart.
May you discover a new generosity towards yourself, and encourage yourself to engage your life as a great adventure.
May the outside voices of fear and despair find no echo in you.
May you always trust the urgency and wisdom of your own spirit.
May the shelter and nourishment of all the good you have done, the love you have shown, the suffering you have carried, awaken around you to bless your life a thousand times.
And when love hides the path to your door may you open like the earth to the dawn, and trust your every hidden color towards its nourishment of light.
May you find enough stillness and silence to savor the kiss of God on your soul and delight in the eternity that shaped you, that holds you and calls you.
And may you come to see your life as a quiet sacrament of service, which awakens around you a rhythm where doubt gives way to the grace of wonder, where what is awkward and strained can find elegance, and where crippled hope can find wings, and torment enter at last unto the grace of serenity.
May Divine Beauty bless you.