"Gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can experience."
At the end of a 6-day silent gratitude retreat earlier this month, Ryan and I sat on cushions in a huge room with 54 fellow meditators and were guided through a compelling exercise.
The speaker told us to close our eyes for a moment, then open them, and look around the room – at the structure, the furniture inside, all of the people – and identify everything that was wrong. Then we were asked to close our eyes again, and reopen them, looking around the exact same room, except this time with eyes of appreciation – finding everything that was right. At the end, we were asked to reflect on how each of these experiences felt. Woah - what a difference. The main point was this:
What we choose to focus our attention on is powerful and shapes the world we see and experience.
Think about when you learn a new word, and all of a sudden, you hear it everywhere. Or perhaps you buy a new blue Toyota Prius, and the next thing you know, there's a blue Toyota Prius on every street corner. The more attention you shine on a particular subject, the more evidence of it will grow.* When we focus on flaws or obstacles, they only multiply and often compound our problems.
This is where mindfulness and meditation can really help. Our working definition of meditation is a training of the mind using intention, attention, and heart. When we practice meditation, we cultivate our awareness and strengthen our ability to choose how and where we direct our attention – towards the positive or negative, compassion or conflict. Study after study reveals that we can actually improve our health and live with more joy when we learn to focus our attention in a specific way.
One tool we've found especially helpful is a simple gratitude practice. Even a few minutes each day can help create a reservoir of appreciation and positive emotions that not only ground you when life's challenges arise, but also prime your attention to notice what's going right. What's good in your life, today. Right now.
Goodness knows we have enough daily reminders of what sucks, so a daily dose of gratitude can really help balance out the negativity. Honestly, we kinda need it.
To be clear – we're not saying we need to be cheerful or unrealistic about our problems. They're real, and yes, often they suck. Especially during the holidays –sprinting through airports, nursing colds, spending lots of money, overeating and drinking, entertaining extended family. Oofda. If we're not careful, it can all add up to a pretty stressful and draining whirlwind. And this is supposed to be the "most wonderful time of the year"...?!
When we’re faced with challenging situations, it's important to remember that while we can’t necessarily change our circumstances, we can always choose how we respond to them. In the words of Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This means honoring our feelings – sadness, disappointment, frustration, exhaustion –and the feelings of those around us, AND also challenging ourselves to choose a helpful response. Especially around family, it's easy to fixate on everything that everyone else should change or do differently. Keeping your own cool is a big contribution in and of itself, and with a little practice, you can offer compassion and patience, instead of fueling stress and negativity.
We hope you'll lean on the Gratitude Meditation above, and perhaps consider sharing it with your loved ones this holiday season. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way. For everyone.
And hey, remember, this is a practice, so if and when your inner Scrooge makes an appearance, that's a-okay. Leave some room for self-compassion. Each moment is an opportunity to start fresh, if we so choose. Remember how Scrooge transforms so beautifully?
Yeah, he meditates.
This is a meditation on gratitude.
Let yourself sit quietly and at ease.
I invite you to close your eyes and to take a moment to set your intention to be fully present for this meditation.
Giving yourself permission to let go of any concerns, worries, or preoccupations. Allowing yourself to be fully present exactly as you are in this moment.
Breathing in a sense of freedom from knowing there’s nothing to do, there’s nowhere to go for the next few minutes.
Inviting a deeper inhale. Breathing out nice and gently.
Allowing your body to be relaxed and open. Your breath natural. Your heart easy.
Noticing how the breath moves freely within you. Each breath a gift bearing oxygen, replenishing all the cells that make up the body.
Widening the lense of attention to feel the whole body. Noticing the sensations that are alive from the top of the head all the way down to the toes. Sensing the life and energy that is buzzing, pulsing, vibrating within this body.
Noticing any thoughts that automatically come up as you feel this body breathing. And appreciating the life that fills this body.
No matter what limitations or imperfections your mind is inclined to point out, this body is full of life, full of complexity, all systems in balance to support your life. And if you’re breathing right now, there’s more right than there is wrong with you.
Taking a moment to really express gratitude for this body. For all the ups and downs, joys and fears that make you feel alive.
Shifting attention to invite into the mind, images of family and friends that have loved and support you in various ways throughout your life. Seeing and feeling this circle of support around you. Sensing the connection you have with each person. And expressing thanks for their actions, thoughts, and presence that they have offered you to support you on your journey.
And now widening your circle of appreciation to incorporate all the people that you don’t know on a personal level but whose actions you benefit from.
Envisioning the farmer who grew the fruit and vegetables that nourish you.
The carpenters and architects who built the home you live in.
The people who maintain your internet connection.
The individuals who built the road you drive on.
The people who sewed the clothing that you wear.
Opening up and expressing gratitude for all those people who contribute from behind the scenes of your everyday life. Maybe someone who expressed kindness to you or perhaps opened a door for you.
Taking one more moment to really feel that sense of gratitude. Soaking it in.
Allowing yourself to relax right now and knowing that gratitude is one of the greatest gifts that you can experience.
*From The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander