Gratitude II: Even For the Hard Stuff
Last month’s e-newsletter on Gratitude offered a lot of practical benefits for people who practice gratitude daily. We:
– experience positive emotions more consistently
– feel more alert, energetic, enthused, alive
– experience less of the toxic emotions of envy, resentment, regret, hostility, depression
– strengthen social ties, feeling more connected, less isolated and lonely
– improve self-esteem and self-worth
– reduce stress and resolve unresolved trauma
– sleep better
– lower our blood pressure
– live longer (7-9 years on average)
And some useful ways to cultivate/deepen a gratitude practice over time:
– keep a gratitude journal (and share our noticing with a gratitude “buddy”)
– take in the good: notice and savor the people and gifts we are grateful for
– unpack any achievement, any complaint, any day, and see the web of interconnectedness sustaining our lives
– acknowledge what’s right with what’s wrong
– recognize our indebtedness to all there is for all of who we are
Gratitude practice lifts up the heart, especially in a climate of uncertainty and malaise such as we are living through now. Whatever your personal stories and trajectories are in this moment, we are also directly and indirectly being impacted every day by the unraveling of the economy, the escalating devastation of global warming, the tragedies and traumas of poverty, illiteracy, oppression, terrorism around the shrinking world.
Many of us are heading into a time of formal gratitude practice this week. Thanksgiving is a time of reflection on the gains and losses, the hopes and disappointments, the connections treasured and the connections severed since last Thanksgiving. Whether we’re celebrating a season of giving thanks with extended family, chosen family, serendipitous family for the day, or a chosen retreat of reflection and prayer, Thanksgiving often evokes a poignant juxtaposition of gratitude and grieving.
This month’s e-newsletter pushes the envelope, exploring how gratitude practice still proves its usefulness “where the rubber meets the road.” We explore how gratitude helps us soften grudge, resolve trauma, and move through suffering with grace.
May these reflections be useful to you and yours in this season of giving thanks.
REFLECTIONS on Gratitude – Even for the Hard Stuff
Gratitude works its magic – to buffer us from falling into swamps of grudge, trauma and suffering in the first place, or pulling ourselves out of those swamps once we’ve woken up to knowing that we’re not in our right mind or heart space anymore – by bringing us to the experiences of loving awareness and loving presence from which we can respond to confusion, despair, fear, hurt, threat, more wisely.
There are many, many paths and practices to pro-actively calm the body, calm the mind, and then allow ourselves to safely drop into the well-being of simply Being. We’ve explored many of them in these newsletters: mindfulness, resonance-empathy-compassion, relationships, shifting perspectives, self-acceptance, forgiveness, equanimity, listening, touch, laughter. (All archived on www.lindagraham-mft.net.)
Gratitude is one of the most direct ways to find our way to a loving awareness of this Being-ness because it immediately brings us into the arc of presence – openness – connectedness with all there is that helped us become all of who we are – acceptance of all that is-ness, that leads to an inner peace and well-being that is the wellspring of love and wise action.
“Gratitude practice taps us into the energy field of life itself, from which comes all joy, compassion, forgiveness, etc.” (October 2010 newsletter)
From this energy field of life itself, we can move from being well to faring well in the world.
1. Gratitude to soften grudge
If you’re like me, or my clients, or my friends, the approaching holidays may be a mixture of anticipated delight and dread. You may have to re-engage with a parent or sibling who could still be shamingly critical or derisive, or even just negative, with no awareness or accountability for the pain they are inflicting. Some gratitude practices that might be helpful:
a. Read your own signals of when it’s safe to connect and when it’s not. I.e., knowing from within when it’s safe to be open and when it’s best to have a good boundary. After years of practice, I can finally, finally catch the wave in my body that says “uh-oh, this doesn’t feel safe, I’m outta here,” that has me walking out the door and around the block before I’m even aware I’ve left the conversation. Focus on your heart, your presence, your attitude, your behavior.
b. Find something to appreciate, right now, about the person you feel like clobbering with a frying pan. That they held the door for you as you walked into the house even though they didn’t pay attention to anything you said. Or they’re being attentive to their 4 year old even though they have no bandwidth for anyone else. Or remembering that a year ago they surprised the heck out of you by getting your daughter the poodle puppy she had so yearned for.
c. Find something to appreciate, right now, about the connection, the dynamic between you and this person, which may simply be “I get to practice patience right now” or “I get to practice compassion right now” or “I am moving 20 minutes closer to sainthood right now.”
d. Find something to forgive right now. When you’re struggling to be tolerant rather than contentious with someone, imagine this person as a vulnerable one year old, or a greedy two year old, or a defiant three year old, or a full-of-life ten year old, or a confused sixteen year old, or a desperate to find a direction in life twenty year old. (Which may be who’s actually driving this person’s behavior in the current moment.) Allow your heart to open to the more vulnerable version of the person you are struggling with, seeing your grudge in this larger perspective, encompassing all of the person and letting the grudge soften.
Savor the gratitude for your own practice of softening the grudge and easing your heart.
(See Exercises to Practice below for more ways to soften grudge.)
2. Gratitude to heal trauma
I’m part of a clinical study group developing an integrative model for treating trauma; this past week my colleague Joanna spoke of “embracing the defensive structures,” meaning:
We all use our innate survival responses of fight-flight-freeze-collapse when our resources for coping through connection are overwhelmed or we perceive connections themselves to be unsafe. These survival responses are hard-wired into our body-brains in utero. They operate much faster than our adult conscious appraisals of yes-no, green light – red light could possibly operate. When one or all of those survival responses gets repeatedly encoded in our developing neural circuitry (my early-learned pattern of regulating the anxiety coming up in a conversation by walking out the door for fresh air still coming up, unknowingly, when I am perfectly safe in a conversation now) or when traumatizing events like betrayal or violence lock those survival response patterns into our body memory, our normal openness and expansiveness of resilience and well-being can be blocked by these contracted survival defenses.
Gratitude plays a key role in unpacking and re-wiring these trauma responses by de-pathologizing them. No shame-blame-weakness in normal responses to abnormal, terrifying, or toxic circumstances. In fact, we can be grateful that these innate survival responses did allow us to survive, even if they constrict us or cause their own suffering later down the road. By becoming conscious…and compassionate…and accepting…and embracing of those mechanisms that kept us afloat, even though they sometimes threaten to sink us now, we soften our grudge toward ourselves, or toward the traumatizing events, and deepen into the place in our hearts and minds that can resolve and let go of the trauma and the defenses against the trauma. Embracing our defenses as they are, even while choosing to use other more adaptive coping strategies now, does re-wire the brain, does change our conscious relationship to those habitual patterns now, does create conscious, alternative choices. (See Exercises to Practice below for examples of how to do this.)
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
– Carl Rogers.
An excellent exploration of resources to heal trauma, including gratitude, can be found in the current issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine. Not only for clinicians or subscribers, the articles are available free to anyone, easily downloadable, at www.psychotherapynetworker.org.
3. Gratitude to move through suffering with grace
Suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition and human conditioning. Gratitude helps us move through our suffering with more grace and peace of mind and heart:
a. Allowing us a respite from the suffering, even for a few moments. Gratitude drops us into a space where our survival patterns of responding to hurt, danger, life threat aren’t operating, at least for a few moments.
When my brother was in the hospital last month with life-threatening and painful blood clots, those moments he and I spent on the phone every day in gratitude practice gave him a much needed respite from the pain and fear, not because the gratitude was a distraction but because it moved him into a state of mind and heart where the pain and fear weren’t operating.[P.S. Barry is recuperating safely and steadily at home now. He is so grateful for the heartfelt thoughts and prayers sent him in response to my sharing his story in this newsletter. And I’m grateful to all of you who helped create what he palpably felt as a “welcome change in the negative energy.”]
b. “Waking up” to the larger perspective and learning the lessons hidden within the suffering.
One of my favorite teaching stories of all time is the story of the Chinese Farmer and the Horse, from the Zen tradition.
A Chinese farmer has a horse; his neighbor comes over to visit and exclaims, Oh, how fortunate that you have a horse!” The Chinese farmer non-committally says, “We’ll see.”
The next day the horse runs away. The neighbor comes over to offer his sympathy. “Oh, how unfortunate that you’ve lost your horse.” The Chinese farmer again says non-committally, “We’ll see.”
The next day the horse returns to the farmer, bringing a new mare with him. The neighbor rushes over to congratulate the farmer. “Oh, how fortunate! Now you have two horses!” The Chinese farmer replies as before, “We’ll see.”
The next day the farmer’s son is out riding the mare to break it in; the mare throws him and he breaks his leg. The neighbor comes over as before, “Oh, how unfortunate. Your son has broken his leg!” The Chinese farmer replies, “We’ll see.”
A month later the army comes through the area recruiting soldiers. They can’t accept the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbor again comes over to sympathize, “Oh, how fortunate! Your son doesn’t have to go into the army!” The Chinese farmer again replies, “We’ll see.”
The story continues on. We learn to keep an open mind about any particular event; we don’t always know how fortunate or unfortunate any particular circumstance is. But the equanimity that comes from being grateful, at least accepting of every experience, every moment, no matter our initial view of it, brings us to the larger perspective that we often don’t know in the moment the opportunities hidden in what appears to be monolithic tragedy or trauma. We often say, as my friend Paula did after suddenly losing her job of seven years in an unforeseen downsizing of her company, “ I wouldn’t wish the pain and suffering of those days on anyone, and there’s no way I could have known at the time how things would turn out, and things don’t always turn out for the better, but losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never would have found my deeper dream of having my own photography studio if I had stayed there another 10 years out of being scared to leave.”[See the story of my neighbors star-crossed trip to Australia in Stories to Learn From for this same lesson]
c. Maturing ourselves through the suffering itself. From three of my favorite wisdom teachers:
Gratitude in our darkest times is more than a matter of remembering our blessings so we can hold the hard stuff in a bigger perspective. With understanding, we see that often it is the suffering itself that deepens us, maturing our perspective on life, making us more compassionate and wise than we would have been without it. How many times have we been inspired by those who embody a wisdom that could only come from dealing with adversity? And how many valuable lessons have we ourselves learned because life has given us unwanted challenges? With a grateful heart, we’re not only willing to face our difficulties, we can realize while we’re going through them that they are a part of our ripening into wisdom and nobility.
– James Baraz
The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.
– Pema Chodron
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
– Melodie Beattie
Gratitude is simply one of the most effective tools we have over the long haul to reliably soften grudge, resolve trauma and move through suffering with grace.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
The Guest House (the gold standard of gratitude practice)
This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness come
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you
out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
* * * * *
If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.
– Pema Chodron
* * * * *
For Someone Who Did You Wrong
Though its way is to strike
In a dumb rhythm,
Stroke upon stroke,
As though the heart
Were an anvil,
The hurt you sent
Had a mind of its own.
Something in you knew
Exactly how to shape it,
To hit the target,
Slipping into the heart
Through some wound-window
Left open since childhood.
While it struck outside,
It burrowed inside,
Made tunnels through
Every ground of confidence.
For days, it would lie still
Until a thought would start it.
Meanwhile, you forgot,
Went on with things
And never even knew
How that perfect
Shape of hurt
Still continued to work.
Now a new kindness
Seems to have entered time
And I can see how that hurt
Has schooled my heart
In a compassion I would
Otherwise have never learned.
I have begun to glimpse
The unexpected fruit
Your dark gift had planted
And I thank you
For your unknown work.
– John O’Donohue
* * * * *
Blessing the Space Between Us[especially when love and hurt are simultaneous; written by my friend Bette; title adapted from John O’Donohue To Bless the Space Between Us]
May the presence and power of spirit surround, support and guide us and keep us safe.
May we remember the deep love we have for each other.
May we greet our emerging differences with tenderness and tolerance.
May we call on our courage to speak our truth, and reveal our vulnerabilities.
May we reflect back to others without blaming or shaming.
May we hear the truth others speak with compassion.
May we have patience with their process and emergence.
May we pause, breathe, and let ourselves settle.
May we stand in love and strength together.
May our rough edges be doorways to healing.
– Bette Acuff
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
To soften grudge:[a modern-day version of the Chinese farmer and the horse:]
My neighbors Barb and Bob visited their new in-laws in Australia this fall; very excited to spend a month touring a continent they had never seen before. The plane took off from Los Angeles late at night; about 45 minutes over the Pacific Ocean one of the engines caught fire, which my neighbors could see out their window. The flight crew announced the emergency return to L.A. pretty calmly, not a lot for the passengers to do but pray. The plane made its emergency landing at LAX safely, but far too late in the night for there to be any other flights to Sydney that night, or even all the next day. So my neighbors made the best of their stay in a hotel until they could catch a different flight more than 24 hours later for the 14 hour flight to Sydney.
All had turned out well in terms of a safe resolution of an emergency, but Barb and Bob missed two days of their Australian vacation. They did work skillfully to soften any grudge (gratitude for being alive at all goes a long, long way in deflecting suffering.) By the time they picked up the thread of their itinerary, Qantas had come through with the free-round trip airfare, of course, but also enough bonus compensation that my neighbors found virtually their entire vacation paid for. The rest of their month in Australia had the same this-flight-got-delayed-so-we-missed-the-Ocean-Highway-from-Adelaide-to-Melbourne, but-that-meant-we-had-an-extra-day-to-visit-the-Blue-Mountains-near-Sydney pattern to it. By the end of the month, deep gratitude on both of their parts for enough safety, enough adventure, to make the most memorable vacation of a lifetime.
To heal from trauma:
In my early twenties I was diagnosed with temporal mandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), an inflammation of the muscles in the jaw from clenching my teeth, not only when I was awake (and suppressing my own voice, my own truth?) but even while I was asleep. (Managed for decades now through diet and learning to speak up for myself.) In learning to “embrace the defensive structures,” I eventually visualized my clenched jaw as a dinosaur-sized ferocious bronze sculpture in the American Natural History Museum in New York, where I could visit it any time I wished in my imagination, even curl up inside of it, grateful for the safety it once provided in an environment where keeping things to myself was the wisest strategy.
To move through suffering with grace:
Sylvia Boorstein told a lovely story at the last class in the 2010 Awakening Joy course on the Joy of Simply Being. She was visiting her dear friend of many years, Martha, in the hospital – a poignant end of life visit as Martha was dying of pancreatic cancer. As Sylvia walked down the long corridor toward Martha’s room, she could peek into the rooms where other patients lay very ill, often being visited by their circle of friends and loved ones as Sylvia was going to visit Martha. The sense of common connection in a common humanity, the archetypal tableau of human beings comforting each other at the profound threshold between life and death, became for Sylvia a moment of grace and gratitude in the midst of universal suffering.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Gratitude – Even for the Hard Stuff
1. to soften grudge
As Fred Luskin says in Forgive For Good, we hurt people and are hurt by people because we are people. We are all capable of causing harm to ourselves or to others out of being hurt, confused, frightened. (See May 2010 newsletter on Forgiveness for more.) When I struggle to forgive someone else, I call to mind the dreadful things I’ve done myself, out of my own confusion, fear, hurt; things horrifying to remember. (Then I get to turn down the volume on the inner critic and practice self-forgiveness, too.) Then I start with something small – they put the salad fork on the “wrong” side of the dinner plate, and work to let go of any grudge so that I can to keep my own heart open.
As you notice contention rather than tolerance arising in the moment, start with something small you can forgive to strengthen those muscles (neural circuits, really) of softening grudge. They brought chocolate ice cream instead of the vanilla we asked for; not the end of the world. They are twenty minutes late – again! Well, I was late meeting to a business meeting last week, too. They parked in such a weird way they’ll block other cars; I wouldn’t have, but there’s more than one way to do anything in this world. They are taking up all the oxygen in the room; I don’t even know all of the pain that would cause them to do that, can I relax and give a little here.
Soften any grudge that arises within you about how difficult or slow this practice is at first. Softening grudge is the practice of a lifetime, and we can begin right now.
2. to embrace the defensive structures
Finally, finally, on my way to yes, I bump into all the places where I have said no to my life. All the unintended wounds, the red and purple scars, those hieroglyphs of pain etched into my skin and bones; those coded messages that sent me down the wrong street again and again – where I meet them and lift them up one by one, the old wounds, the old mis-directions; I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say: HOLY, HOLY, HOLY.
– Peshe Gertler
The first time my friend Marcia shared this poem with me, I went into a bit of shock. Could I really do that? Say holy, holy, holy to the deepest fears and shames and derailments of my life? But working to let into awareness, let into being, let into acceptance my own versions of coded messages, through meditation retreats, through trauma therapy, through poetry workshops, through long walks with friends, through reading and journaling did, in fact, over time, allow me to fully say “holy, holy, holy” to what had been painfully unallowable before.
Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
– Rabbi Abraham Herschel
Again, starting with something very, very small – a small poor judgment based on old patterns of surviving that had small unfortunate consequences. A small meanness based on a very automatic, very unconscious self protection that ruptured a good relationship temporarily. A small reaction of contempt or hostility based on being reminded of a similar behavior that was dangerous in the past but actually isn’t operating now, and thoughtfully, graciously say thank you for how you’ve helped me survive and become who I am (striving to be) now. See if even this lace of neural swamp or neural cement can be acceptable as part of the journey that got you here now, noticing, allowing, accepting, thanking. Experiencing an easing of the contraction even once, can make it easier to try again, and again, and again, until we can truly honor the fullness of our being.
3. to move through suffering with grace
M. J. Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude, has a brilliant practice, a spiritual alchemy, to turn straw into gold, suffering into resilience and well-being. It’s called Find What’s Right with What’s Wrong. Find something particular to appreciate in the moment, even if most of the moment is terribly wrong. A breath without pain. A moment of clarity about how this awfulness actually came to be. The integrity of the person you are in a terrible disagreement with. The care and compassion you witness among other people facing death.
Again, being with something small enough that you actually experience success at the practice shifting your state. You’re stuck in traffic on the way to Thanksgiving dinner and find some beautiful music to listen to on the radio. You realize you forget the dressing for the salad and take in everyone’s kindness about no problem. You spill red wine on the white carpet and work quickly to clean it up, but notice you don’t go into a lot of self-criticism about it. As with any gratitude practice, the important thing is to make the practice a steady new habit so that becomes the new default.
Attitudes of Gratitude by M.J. Ryan. Conari Press, 1999.
A delightful and timeless collection of quotes, poetry and essays on gratitude: the key to living with an open heart. A gift to yourself and for others.
Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Put You on the Road to Real Happiness by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander. Bantam, 2010.
A masterpiece, really, of practices that deepen our experience of joy: setting intention, mindfulness, gratitude, dealing with suffering, letting go, integrity, loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, and simply being. The chapter on Grateful Heart, Joyful Heart, is especially inspiring.
Registration is now open for the 2011 Awakening Joy course based on the book, www.awakeningjoy.info. The live course includes guest speakers like Dacher Keltner of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Fred Luskin author of Forgive for Good, Kim Rosen, author of Saved by A Poem, Rick Foster, co-author of How We Choose To Be Happy, Joanna Macy, Phil Moffitt, author of Dancing with Life, and many stellar others.
A great resource in general for the magazine, tele-courses, webinars, annual Symposium.
The November-December 2010 issue on The Wounds of War: Returning Vets Are Challenging Us to Rethink Our Approaches to PTSD has many excellent articles, some of which include the importance of resourcing with gratitude, relationships, and positive emotions to heal from trauma:
It Takes A Community: Therapy-as-Usual Can’t Serve the Needs of Our Returning Troops
The Puzzle of PTSD: Does the PTSD Diagnosis Do More Harm than Good?
Rules of Engagement: A Civilian Therapist’s Guide to the Military Mindset
A Smile After the Storm: Energy Psychology on the Front Lines
The Language of the Nervous System: the ive Trauma Resiliency Model Self-Stabilization Skills
All freely accessible and downloadable to anyone.
www.lindagraham-mft.com will now lead you to my updated website on Resources for Recovering Resilience: www.lindagraham-mft.net. Monthly e-newsletters and weekly e-quotes are archived there, as before, and information about the 2011 Deepening Joy groups is now available. Many of the clinical trainings, dharma talks, and articles published elsewhere are also available for easy downloading. Enjoy!