By Stephen Burke, Director of Mindfulness
It was probably 10 years into my Mindfulness practice before a teacher introduced me to a daily Gratitude practice….and perhaps another four years before I actually gave it a go and incorporated it into my daily formal practice. The results I have experienced for myself, in my work and my life outside of work have been, well, spectacular! Not spectacular in a loud and flashing lights sense. But spectacular in how I perceive the life that unfolds moment by moment before me and how I show up to meet it. To give you a sense of the highlights in that – I credit this practice with a personal increased sense of well-being and resilience, reduced reactivity, a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude and a brain that feels re-wired to see opportunity and positive challenge in all things including adversity allied with a greater inclination to see the good in events and in people. I want more of this for me and I also want it for you. This is why I am writing.
First, back to the resistance. Why did it take four years for me to actually give it a try?? Well, you see, when I reflect honesty I realise that I had a bad relationship with the idea of ‘gratitude’. It simply didn’t resonate with me! That may sound odd but, believe me, I think we all have our own unique versions of this, so I am willing to out myself on this one. I grew up in a small Welsh market town where there were not many visible pathways to a ‘good’ career. I recall that whenever I voiced a desire to find more purposeful work I was regularly met with, ‘you should be grateful that you have a job’ and many other versions of, ‘you should be grateful that you….’. I know for sure that this advice was coming from a good place in people however I received it with a deep sense of constriction and some guilt in not actually feeling ‘grateful’. It was many years later - the tipping point when I committed to making this a practice – that the light bulb shone brightly to reveal the insight that a Gratitude practice was a turn off for me because the word itself was over coupled with lots of ‘shoulds’, guilt, dis-satisfaction and constriction. The practice as described below changed my perspective on Gratitude and will, I sincerely believe, change your view and your experience of your life in 2018 for the better. Read on….
Gratitude Practice (5-10mins daily, upon waking or before bed is recommended):
Sit quietly, either on a chair or the floor. Start by giving yourself permission to give yourself this few minutes and consciously put aside any other tasks. Setting a timer for five minutes will allow you to let go of any time concerns (I use Insight Timer app on my iPhone - https://www.insighttimer.com/)
Take some moments to take your attention inward. Take two or three deep, slow inhalations in through the nose and deep into the belly. Feel the body expand with those inhalations. With each slow exhalation, sense the body grounding into the chair or the floor and allow the body to relax and release any tension. Grounding the body through the chair or floor into the earth and then grounding the mind in the body. Then, let go of conscious control of the breath and allow the body to breathe itself.
Now for Gratitude - I want you to spend the remainder of the time reflecting and identifying three things – one at a time - that you are truly grateful for. The keyword here is ‘truly’. This practice only works when you are honest with yourself. Let go of all ideas of things you think or that you have been told that you ‘should’ be grateful for and look for those things that you really are grateful for. You do not need to share this with anyone so be completely and unapologetically honest with yourself. They don’t have to be grandiose things you identify or listed in any order or ranking – I have sensed a real gratitude for a new bar of chocolate I have savoured, the joyful lilt in the voice of the school kid I cycled past on my way to the office, the first sip of my favourite morning tea, the feel of a good stretch, the sound of my son shouting ‘Papa’ when he saw me approaching the front door. Crucial though is that they do need to be specific in order for you to get the full benefit. For example, ‘I am grateful that yesterday was nice’ has much more impact when we instead name the things that made it ‘nice’. This could be for example, ‘I am grateful for having the time to go for a walk at lunchtime yesterday’ or even, ‘I am grateful for having experienced that amazing view of the sunlight on the river during the walk yesterday lunchtime’. One more thing – although I would recommend looking for new things you are grateful for each day you can definitely name certain things on consecutive days. Be sure to check in with yourself that the gratitude feels authentic and be mindful to avoid this becoming a grey session of repeating mindlessly yesterday’s list in order to reach your three.
I cannot emphasize enough that being specific in the things you identify is really key to this practice. When you identify something that you are truly grateful for, you will feel the hit. Maybe for you that will be a felt sense of it landing in the body, or an emotional impact, a smile on your face, a sense of connection or fulfilment. You are developing a new skill and like any skill it will deepen with practice. And, you be learning more about yourself each time you practice. Deep Authentic gratitude is not something that many of us are familiar with. We have not been trained to do it! So, in committing to this practice you will also be literally re-wiring your brain to more ‘habitually’ grateful and to look for the good and the opportunity in the moments and the events in our days and in our lives.
At the end of five minutes: Stop where you are. Briefly scan your body, emotional state and mind. Notice what is present without judgement or resistance. Take a deep breath in. Exhale, open your eyes.
What if you reach the end of your allotted time and you have only identified zero, one or two things? One of the really cool things about this practice is that the effort to look for things that you are truly grateful for actually had the same effect of re-wiring the brain and creating a new ‘gratitude habit’ as actually finding the three things. So, even if you spend five minutes and do not reach three things then know that your practice has been time very well spent and your brain and habits are changing. And, this acknowledgment can also be one additional thing to add to your three things you are grateful for that day!
Commit to this practice for five to ten minutes each day for the next week or two. Then decide for yourself how to continue based on what you have experienced and discovered.