Every morning when I wake up, my mind does not start with thoughts of gratitude. If you’re anything like me, your mind starts thinking about what went wrong yesterday, what could go wrong today, and what might go wrong tomorrow. This is not a great way to start the day.
What I have learned from my mindfulness training is that I cannot stop the thoughts that come up in my head. These thoughts are based on conditioned patterns from years of living in a world that trains us to be worried, anxious, and afraid. We worry about all kinds of things. What we did, what we could have done better, what someone else did and how that impacted us, and what we would like to change so we could feel okay.
Of course, feeling okay never happens if we keep listening to the automatic thoughts that arise in our minds throughout the day. In fact, it is estimated that we have between 50-80,000 thoughts a day and most of them are negative, useless, and repetitive. Sit in meditation for a few minutes and you will see what I’m talking about. This incessant litany of thoughts is why most people find meditating so challenging and decide not to do it. One study even demonstrated that some people would choose to be given electric shocks over sitting in quiet contemplation in order to avoid being left alone with their thoughts! This is unfortunate because meditation has been shown in numerous studies to significantly reduce the intensity of both physical and emotional pain.
While meditating taught me to sit with my thoughts without struggling with them or buying into their narrative, I have also long practiced replacing the repetitive, negative thoughts with thoughts that are more life-affirming. This practice is not about painting pink paint over the conditions in my life, but as a way of shining the light on what is also true. There is much good in our lives but it tends to get drowned out by the bleak, worrisome aspects. Balancing out the truth of my life is very affirming without negating what might feel painful.
This approach has been supported by the Buddhist teaching found in the eight-fold path called “skillful effort.” The most basic definition of skillful effort is to exert oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. In other words, you train yourself to recognize what is harmful to you and let it go, and then cultivate what is helpful and practice it until it becomes habitual.
The key is awareness and practice. Aware that we are creating our own suffering through negative thinking and projection, we acknowledge it and let it go. (Simple, but not easy!) Then we cultivate what is helpful and healing. For me, gratitude is one such practice. When I turn my thoughts to gratitude, I don’t have as much room for harmful thoughts. And gratitude puts me in touch with the enormous servings of blessings I have every day that can often be taken for granted.
Take a moment to reflect on what you are grateful for. Do this for two minutes and notice how you feel. Do this every day for the rest of the month, and your life will have changed. You will be expanding your ability to see the good in your life and leaving less room for the alternative. Even be grateful for the difficult. It has a lot to teach us. Be grateful for all of it. Embrace it all and it will embrace you back.
For example, I had two times in the past two days when my speech was reflected back to me as less than skillful. I had my moments of regret and wished I had spoken differently. Then I became grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be more considerate and kind. I used a challenge to grow and for that I am grateful. I forgave myself and didn’t get stuck beating myself up about what I could have said differently. I just hope the other people involved can forgive me and let me be another imperfect human, but there is only so much I can do about that.
Also, last week I had COVID. There were things I would have rather done than quarantine after a week of being on a beautiful retreat in Costa Rica. Gratefully I had a mild case. I lived the moments of the COVID week, as they were, and was grateful that my body responded with resilience. I was able to spend time catching up with friends and letting my body rest, as well as cleaning out my closets (a much-needed task). It was like a forced retreat and taught me about how I want to return from future retreats. Instead of packing my first day back with appointments and activities, a day or two (or more) of unpacking and settling back in is definitely the way to go.
When and where can you use the circumstances of your life to be more grateful? How would that change how you feel? “The simple act of practicing gratitude, consistently, is your invitation to a new life. Accepting the invitation is now up to you.” ― From The Gratitude Jar: A Simple Guide to Creating Miracles
This month in my Energy Medicine yoga classes, I am encouraging people to focus on gratitude. We started last week with gratitude for our bodies, and we will continue for the rest of the month with heart-opening practices and gratitude reminders. Particularly in this difficult world we live in, it is imperative that we learn to marinate our hearts in love and kindness. Gratitude is the seasoning that helps us live our lives in these challenging times and still be able to savor what is good and true.
Please feel free to join us on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. Central Time. It is live, online, or by recording afterward. Here is the link to sign up. No experience is necessary. All are welcome.