Archive for gratitude

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

IMG_0508When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something.  It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties.  It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it?  Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day.  What did he have to be worried about?  Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot.  And what he had to say is true.  We can control the level of our worry by  focusing on being happy.

How can we do that?  Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom.   This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression.  These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax.  Since these pathways are key to our survival,  they get the most traction in our brain.

We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment.  With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future.  While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens.  It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.

The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good.  You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies.  Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them.  This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present.  For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.

Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body.  Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery.   Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges.  The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article.  I would recommend that you read their book.  Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring.  The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand.  Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting .  (http://www.rickhanson.net/)

So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune.  I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life.  I would suggest the same for you.  Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!

 

Surprise: A Gratefulness Practice

Most of us love surprises.  A beautiful box under the tree at Christmas time will bring exclamations of awe and joy.  A thoughtful card from a friend sent without any particular reason will elicit a smile on our faces.  But how many of us stay awake enough to notice all the surprises that greet us each day?  According to a friend of mine, it took his travel to a Scandinavian country for a year to notice upon his return the birds that sang all the time in his native India.  It is easy to habituate to those little things that surround us all the time.

Spring is a good time to become aware of such surprises.  For example, having more daylight each day as the sun begins its travels back to the northern hemisphere.  Yesterday as I left my office, I noticed that it was still light outside and just this little change lifted my spirits.  Taking a walk, I noticed daffodils starting to show their yellow heads and crocuses that added purples and yellows to the landscape.  These small but not unexpected occurrences can come as a surprise when we stop taking for granted the environment around us and just notice it as if for the first time.

The practice of gratitude involves a three step process that helps us to really notice what is around us.  The first is to wake up.  Just to ask ourselves several times a day, “Isn’t this surprising?” begins to orient us to being alive in our life rather than walking through our life in a hypnotic trance.  Surprise is not always good but even with pain or disappointment there can be a gift if we are awake to the experience.  Awareness helps us to see the opportunity in each occurrence so that we can respond fully to it.  We can also take the opportunity to respond in a grateful manner.  For example, recently I tore a ligament in my knee.  Through the pain of learning to walk normally again, I experienced how complicated this “simple” act truly is.  I felt like a baby learning how to take her first steps. Now I take joy in being able to walk without a limp.

David Steindl-Rast suggests this simple process in order to cultivate gratefulness in our lives:

“My simple recipe for a joyful day is this: stop and wake up; look and be aware of what you see; then go on with all the alertness you can muster for the opportunity the moment offers.”

We really do have as many things to be grateful for as we have to complain about.  It is just that we start to take those things for granted quicker than we do the ones that are irritating.  A good practice is to record in a journal at the end of the day all those things that surprised you that day and for which you are grateful.  If you follow these simple steps, you will find that you experience more happiness no matter what life gives you that day.

Resources:         David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings, Edited by Clare Hallward

                         A Blessing in Disguise,  Edited by Andrea Joy Cohen, M.D.

                        Sacred Necessities: gifts for living with passion, purpose & grace, Terry Hershey

Learn to Dance

        “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”  Anonymous

I just returned from a weekend yoga retreat  led by three wonderful instructors from Three Trees Yoga Studio. The retreat was held at Harmony Hill  on Hoods Canal.  Harmony Hill is a retreat center whose mission is  “to provide support for those affected by a cancer diagnosis including caregivers and health professionals.”  As I settled into this space for the weekend, it became more and more apparent what a sacred space it was.  It had deep healing properties.  The food, the landscape, the staff all contributed to this healing medicine.

Our yoga instructors led us in exercises focused on stretching our bodies and spirits using the ancient art of yoga.  Our first evening and morning was spent in a time of great silence. Gazing over the still waters of Hoods Canal with the fog settled gently around the feet of the Olympic Mountains, I heard the early morning cries of the birds as they called to the earth to awaken.  Walking in the paths sprinkled with dew, I noticed the many colors of the dahlias that graced the gardens.  I made my way to the labyrinth that is laid out around a huge evergreen tree that I later learned was called “She who knows.”  As I walked this path in silence, I could feel the spirit of the many participants who have shared their stories and received healing from their time here.  Reaching the center, I noticed the mementos that had been placed within the bark of this giant tree.  The pain and the healing that each of these offerings represented was palpable.  I was overwhelmed with tears and thoughts of those I have loved who have walked the journey of cancer.  Yet, I was not overwhelmed with suffering from the loss but with gratitude of having been a part of their journey: both during their lives and their surrender to death.

Life is a mixture of pain and joy, gain and loss, love and release.  I have heard it said that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” If we wait until there are no problems to seek the joy in life we will miss what each moment has to offer us.  Each moment we have the choice to focus on joy, beauty, and gratitude.  According to Pema Chödrön, in her book The Wisdom of No Escape, 

      “(A) sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, ever movement of  own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.  Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you  and complaining about your life is like refusing to smell the wild rose when you go out for a morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see the huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.”

Each moment we have a choice between noticing the beauty around us or  focusing only on the negative that we see in our lives.  And we each will have challenges and things that continually pull us towards resentment and suffering.  Yet we can live our lives in healing and wholeness if we chose each time to focus on the gratitude and joy that is also present for our eyes to see.  The more we develop our “gratitude muscle” the easier it will be to learn to dance in the rain rather than become a wallflower that waits for the storms of life to pass.

Resources:

The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, by Pema Chödrön

Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong, by John O’Donohue

Lenten Journey

Today begins the tradition called Lent.  Lent began as 40 days of fasting and repentance to prepare for the Easter celebration.  It has fallen by the wayside for many denominations even while the tradition of Mardi Gras continues.  Mardi Gras, or fat Tuesday, was a time to use up all the eggs and milk before Lent as these were not consumed during this time.  What would it look like if we moderns chose to enter into a time of intentional fasting?  Fasting from overeating, over-consuming, busyness, noise or other things that distract us from our spiritual life.  What would it be like if instead we took up a new habit that led us closer to health–physically, spiritually or emotionally?

I challenge each of us, myself included, to take up the practice of Lent.  In these 40 day until April 24 I will try to journal each day on things in my life that bring me gratitude.  I do this because by nature I tend to look at what is not right, what needs to be corrected and in the process miss the blessings in my life.  Today, I am grateful for the mild weather that blew a fresh smell my way as I walked my dog (even though it was overcast and rained a bit on the walk). I am grateful for my husband who is taking on the burden of completing our taxes.  I am grateful that my middle son has at least one acceptance to a Medical school so that he can pursue his heart’s desire. What are you grateful for this day?