Our practice teaches us to become aware of our habitual thought patterns, noticing how often the mind contracts in judgment or expands with love. For many of us, myself included, the more I’ve gotten to know my mind, the more judgment and critical self-talk I’ve found. Mindfulness didn’t make me more judgmental, it just helped me to identify when those thoughts arose. So while it felt kind of discouraging to uncover a bossy, rude, loudmouth side of myself who has been lurking in my thoughts all along, it’s actually been an opportunity for positive change. Armed with this new self-awareness, I am better able to take positive action to be kinder and gentler in my head-space. But how does one go about being kinder and gentler in her head-space?
Today's blog explores one great way to do so: Gratitude!
Gratitude is a fantastic and scientifically proven way to re-route those negative neurons in our brains and actually bring about happier feelings and less negativity. Not only does mindfulness help us to notice when our mind is tight with negativity, it also helps us to notice so much of the richness of life. Mindfulness practice is the perfect gateway for cultivating gratitude because we begin to notice and take the time to experience all that which is here in our present experience, including levels of interconnection, the beauty of a flower petal, the cozy warmth of our favorite sweater, or the sounds of the birds singing. Not only that, but by steadying our focus on the breath, we’re aware of how precious each breath is, having a chance for gratitude with each inhale and exhale. Instead of living with contracted, judgmental, and negative thought patterns, we can cultivate gratitude in our lives to say yes to and thanks for the moment.
As Americans gear up for our national day of thanks, I wanted to share eight different ways that you can bring gratitude into your daily routine. This way we can continue to give thanks even after the turkey is digested.
1. Body Scan Meditation on Gratitude—Take some time to meditate with gratitude as your focal point. Starting with the breath, move through your body sending gratitude and awareness (ie-feel the sensations) to each body part. Reflecting on and sending thanks to my body, no matter how I feel about my aching joints or soft belly, always brightens my day. You can find a guided gratitude body scan here from October’s Sit With Me series.
2. Gratitude Journal—Keep a daily journal of your gratitude. See how specific you can get instead of just listing a couple of generalized statements. Think of one or two things you’re grateful for that day, and write five or six reasons for your gratitude on those particular topics. Studies have shown that this type of daily gratitude tracking can actually improve your mood. If you want to participate in ongoing research through UC Berkeley, you can track your gratitude through Thnx4.org. You’ll get a regular reminder to enter your daily gratitude as well as info on your mood/attitude and after three weeks scientists will give you feedback about how gratitude impacted your mental and physical well-being. I’m signing up today!
3. Gratitude Buddy—Connect with a friend (near or far) on a regular basis, 3-5 times a week, with an email sharing your daily gratitude with one another. Having someone to be accountable to might help you to keep a more regular tracking of your gratitude. Plus, since emotions are contagious, getting to hear about what makes your friend happy will likely bring a smile to your face too.
4. Stealth Gratitude—Quick! Think of ten things you’re grateful for! No, but really, do it! … … … How do you feel? I’m always surprised how quickly my mind can shift from dull, angry, or mildly perturbed to joy and gratitude when I do this exercise. It’s especially helpful while you’re waiting in line at the store, or generally tapping your foot anywhere. Heck! You can be grateful for the foot you have to tap, the shoes on your feet, the muscles in your legs. You get the drift. :-)
5. Food Gratitude—Before you take that first bite, take a moment to reflect on all that has happened, all of the helping hands, all of the natural wonders that have made your meal possible. Farmers, truck drivers, the water cycle, engineers, migrant workers, sunshine, bugs, dirt, a loving cook—all of this came together in one perfect combination to create your meal. How cool is that?! (You can look at my blog on gratitude webs for more fun like this.)
6. Thank You Notes—Never underestimate the power or importance of a thank you note. And not one of those lame “Dear xxx, Thanks for the gift, I really liked it.” thank you notes. But a solid thank you note in which you take a few minutes before you write to reflect on why the gift/blessing/call/visit meant so much to you. Not only does this practice make you feel good to reflect on how generous and great your friends and family are, it makes the receiver feel good too. You don't have to have received a material gift to write a thank you note. You can just send one to a friend for being your friend!
7. Noticing What’s Not Wrong—Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has this as part of his practice. Instead of spending all of our thinking noticing what’s wrong with a situation or object, orient the mind to think about what’s not wrong with it. This is all about the story we add onto our experience, changing it from one of complaining, contraction and frustration to one of opening, accepting and joy. “I had a killer headache yesterday, but I’m so glad it’s gone now!” as opposed to “I had a killer headache yesterday and it made me so mad and I’m angry just thinking about it today, in fact, ugh, there it is again!” Additionally, you could do an even bigger mind-flip and turn it into “Wow, this headache is such a clear reminder that I am alive! How lucky I am to have this life, headache and all.” This concept points back to how we can use our mindfulness practice to notice those negative mind-states and then work to transform them to more positive ones.
8. Stop! Look! Go!—This is how Catholic monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, describes his method of mindfulness as gratitude. On his webpage he says if only we would take time each day to “Stop! -- so that you will not hurry past the gift this moment offers you. Look! -- so you will recognize this gift: the opportunity available now. Go! -- that means: Do something with this precious opportunity!” You can watch Brother David speaking about this technique at February’s Wisdom 2.0 Conference here.
These are just a few ways to up your gratitude game. There are as many ways to be grateful as there are things to be grateful for--infinite possibilities! I'd love to hear how you bring gratitude into your lives. Leave me a comment below!
I hope that one or more of these practices calls out to you, and helps you to see that the more grateful you are, the more you have to be grateful for.