On this day of Thanksgiving (officially in America, but then every day is a day to give thanks for the preciousness of life and love and learning), I’m passing on a very useful practice from Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and teacher of compassion practice at Stanford University:
THE WISDOM PRACTICE OF CREATING A BENEFACTOR LIST
1. Kelly: Make a commitment to start a list of people who have been a benefactor to you in some way, large or small. This list could include anyone who has ever shown you kindness or supported you or care for you, or in any way provided you help.
[Linda: I start with mentors, teachers, good friends, the helpful members of my family, colleagues. I can create a list of a dozen, two dozen people pretty easily.]
2. Kelly: As a daily practice, your goal is to add one person to the list. When this practice was first suggested to me, I thought, “Okay, I can come up with a few benefactors.” But what was most interesting to me is that over time, you’re forced to get a little more creative and you start reaching for moments in your life who perhaps people showed you a small kindness.
[Linda: over time, this practice requires me to stretch my memory in very positive ways. More friends who touched base at a critical time, teachers way back to the third grade who encouraged my love of music and reading; neighbors who have shared magazines and brought in the mail.]
3. Kelly: And every day, you actually think about everyone on the list.
[Linda: I have used this kind of benefactor list as a circle of support. I call my benefactors to mind when I’m struggling with someone or about to step into something new and a little apprehensive to me. With practice, the sense of support becomes palpable; I can feel my body relax and stand a little taller at the same time.]
4. Kelly: Or even if I think of a person that might not have been kind to me, they might have changed my life in a positive way, by doing something that put me on a new path or forced me to change or grow.
[Linda: this is the stretch of the practice that I appreciate the most. I have to re-frame the person or interaction in my mind to find the lesson or the growth in it, and that has widened my practice of gratitude considerably.]
5. Kelly: As that benefactor list got longer and longer, one of the things that struck me, through no instruction from anyone else, is that people started to move from my perpetrator list to my benefactor list. And not in the way of “thank you for harming me,” but in a sense of being able to see with wisdom that some of our difficult like experiences are often useful teachers as well. So that’s a practice that I often encourage people to do.
[Linda: the more I learn and teach about post-traumatic growth, the more appreciation I have for this step; of coming to appreciate a new life direction or new maturing of my self that would not have happened if it hadn’t been for an event or person that seemed difficult, even obnoxious at the time.]
6. Kelly: Then the flip side of it, which is not a traditional practice, is to start keeping a list of how you yourself have been a benefactor to others.
[Linda: this step was not so easy for me at first, but, in fact, it’s been part of my own growing up to perceive and claim that some of my good intentions and sincere practices have, in fact, benefited others in a positive way. That’s some very beneficial re-wiring of my brain’s sense of myself, and a way I can experience being my own benefactor as well as a benefactor to others.
7. Kelly: We often talk about how important it is to balance the identity that one has as someone who both has something to offer as well as someone who is open to receiving the kindness or support of others. That’s an important balance of this practice, too – to start to notice and savor how you have played a role in other people’s lives in which they might call you a benefactor.
[Linda: this balance is essential to our resilience and well-being. I wish you much success in this practice and in taking in the good of this practice. Giving thanks for the good others have offered you, and that you have made real for others.]