I am writing this just after the emotions of USA elections. Amid recounts and dreams, other things continue to happen. A child gets sick. A loved one dies in gun violence. A flower blossoms. A birth. Fires rage and kill. For many, in this very moment, overwhelming pain. For others, in the same moment, great beauty. Series of sensations, emotions, thoughts appearing and disappearing fast as the speed of light. How do we receive any of these happenings? The voting results? Personal things? Changes at work? What shall we do with our perceptions and the complex responses they evoke?
Here is what we automatically tend to do: We lean into signs of certainty and pleasure. We resist uncertainty and pain. We look out for threats to our beliefs and bodies so we can better ensconce ourselves in the safe known of our lives. Gratitude? Not necessarily.
Evolution has hardwired our brains to be on the look-out for threats. It's natural. Although we think up ways to create self-driving cars, paint masterpieces, and imagine the architecture of cathedrals, an old part of the brain remains entrenched in the jungle, fearing for the body's survival. Tigers, snakes, arrows. The path of least resistance is to receive events through a negative lens.
Alertness to danger has gotten us to who we are today. Great. But...we have left the jungle behind. Not any longer is everything a matter of life and death. Our brains have had a chance to expand in this relative safety. A neocortex (literally "new bark.") has formed allowing new capacities. As a result, we can dream up possibilities, think ideas, write blog posts. The problem is, our old brain keeps telling us stories about lions, even though we know that logically that the stories no longer apply. It's quite easy to just run with the stories. No sense beating yourself up for this. It's natural.
But we can do better. We have a choice. We can choose to pause, step back from jungle-style reacting. We can observe and make better choices. Let the neocortex do its bit. How so? I think one key lies in cultivating gratitude.
Gratitude begins with a nod of praise for the very fact that as modern human beings, really, we do have a choice, always. And we can experience gratitude. Grateful for just this, we can pause just a bit longer to explore further choices. And for each subsequent choice we can dip into gratitude again.
It's not the path of least resistance. Not in the beginning. Deep gratitude practice requires work, especially when threats are present. It requires undoing decades of habits through the generations. What is great, however, is that the practice becomes easier, expanding upon itself, straight into deep well-being. It is worth it. The science of gratitude is solid these days. Gratitude can lead to a deep and all-pervading happiness. In other words: It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.
It may sound glib. How can we be grateful in the face of loss, pain, death? What do we mean, saying that gratitude is a deliberate choice? Here is how I see it: While part of me will always, naturally, scan for that which is about to kill me, in gratitude practice I scan for a positive seed within. Even the tiniest seed. A small gift, teaching, smiling, a tenderness, a door opening, supportive, a kindness. Even when the threat is real, what is the gift I haven't seen? We can ask. There is a story of a man falling off a cliff. A branch catches him. Above him a lion stares down. Below him, a wild ocean. He is hanging there, about to fall to his death. A strawberry dangles near. He savors it. Gratitude. "No circumstance is not apt, to the attentive mind, for spiritual growth, from abject poverty and tragedy to joy and surfeit," says the author Neil Gordon.
Gratitude begins as a habit to cultivate. Eventually, through deep practice, it wells up in our beings as a mindset. It becomes a lens with which we choose to view the world natural like our older lens. But so much sweeter. Clear, unconditional, allowing the flow of life's information to come in just as it is, without judgment. No gloss, no tar. Here is a spaciousness to assess objectively, to make choices, to recognize the positive. Here I can find nourishment and unfold, radiant. The spaciousness is specific, deliberate, aware, dynamic.
Gratitude as a mindset offers sustainable happiness. It’s not reliant on externals, nor complacent. The happiness it generates is “the joy we feel when we move toward our potential,” says Harvard scientist Shawn Achor. And the joy streaming forth from gratitude cares deeply about the world.
Achor has studied the brain on gratitude extensively. This is measurable stuff. Gratitude affects biology and chemistry. And it surges connected to the heart, the wild, curious heart. Brene Brown speaks of the wild heart as follows: “A wild heart is awake to the pain in the world, but does not diminish its own pain. A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world." I love that!
So how do you nurture your gratitude mindset? Gratitude, which really is nothing but a song, a song of the bards? (As a word, it traces its roots to the suffix gwere, thought to come from the Sanskrit grnati, "sings, praises, announces;" and the Old Celtic bardos, "poet, singer.") Two suggestions here. Create your own practice with them. Give it a try.
Gratitude journals. Popular advice is to write down three or five things daily for which you feel grateful. But studies show surprising results around these lists. In the beginning the activity increased participants' wellbeing, yes, but over time this positive impact would wear off. Researchers found that two ingredients are important for a sustainedhappiness effect. We must find newgratitudes each day. And we must take a moment to reflect on whywe are grateful. What is important about this that moves me forward? (You can do this while brushing your teeth if you can't always find time to write, but you want to search for newawareness.) For example: "My hands feel strong today. This moves me to keep on typing. And the text I produce may support others in their appreciation of their hands."
Involving others. How often do we say, consciously, "Thank you" or "I appreciate you." How often are we specific, mentioning why? How often do we ask for help, where we might have to say afterward, "Hey, thanks!" Most of us tend to deflect these opportunities. It feels vulnerable. We are trained to think that "each on their own" is the way forward. We don't want to feel indebted. But expressing our simple, genuine gratitude for help we have received, for something we appreciate - this can be infinitely more powerful than all of us going it solo. This universe is abundant enough for all of us to give and receive. Achor actually suggests starting each day's emails with a short, specific appreciation for someone. Turn the Inbox into something to look forward to! Have fun. Email me if you can't find any joy in your practice!
One of my favorite gratitude teachers, Brother David Steindl-Rast: “We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart.”
Thank you as always for reading. For the full November newsletter, click here. Or simply subscribe with the button below. And if the idea that you really can move deeper into your potential peeks your interest - right now, for that matter, with a lot of joy and peace of heart - contact me for a deeper conversation. Thank you, Sophia.