A group of friends gathered around the kitchen island chatting and laughing after dinner when Pam announced, “I used to say a prayer of thanks every day that I didn’t live in a country where I had to eat bugs.” It seemed like an odd thing to be grateful for.
Then someone told about Thich Nhat Hanh’s gratitude for no-toothache. I recalled a time several years ago when my lower back was in the grips of debilitating pain. Now I am very grateful for no-backache.
At night as you’re settling in for sleep, look back over your day for one pleasant event that occurred. This is an activity used in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Allow yourself to visualize this in as much detail as possible, think about the way your body felt. What were your thoughts and feelings? Pay attention to what is happening inside of you as you recall the event.
The vast majority of people who practice this never mentioned earth-shattering, life-changing experiences. Instead people tend to notice things like, “I stopped and listened to a mockingbird’s amazing repertoire,” or “I watched this tiny bug lugging this huge piece of fruit,” or “I just spent some time snuggled up with my kids.” These are everyday life experiences; things that are always there and available, we just seldom take the time to notice.
Our brains are wired to have strong reactions and memories around negative events. This was originally a survival mechanism, but it now causes great amounts of stress and anxiety. The man who snarled as he passed by you in traffic is likely to cause the same response as a lunging tiger; a strong physical reaction, and thoughts and images that keep the memory alive.
Our brains sort our experiences into positive, negative and neutral. The negative has a strong impact; the positive has a weaker impact, but we can strengthen the impact of the positives by having more of them. The more we notice the wonder in our lives, the stronger the positive centers in the brain become and the happier and more connected we feel. We begin to notice the vibrant colors in the sky and the twinkle in our children’s eyes. We remember the person who said a kind word. We feel the warmth of the sun.
These little things that are right there in front of us each day are mostly dismissed by our brains as neutrals. But when we begin to notice them our bodies relax. We smile. We feel connected to others and to something larger than ourselves. Our oxytocin (bonding chemistry) levels rise. Our serotonin (feel-good/ regulatory chemistry) levels rise. Our cortisol (stress chemistry) decreases. Our breathing slows. Our racing thoughts slow. Our bodies become places where healing can occur.
As we enter our season of Thanksgiving, we can become more aware of the things that surround us each day that fade into the background. We have the opportunity to be thankful for our places of no-suffering and to be compassionate toward places of suffering in ourselves and others.
Gratitude can leave you with more than turkey sandwiches at the end of this month. It can leave you with a healthier brain, and a richer experience of this life.
Happy Thanksgiving and Namaste.