The season of gratitude is upon us and there are many, many things we all can be grateful for. But sometimes, the things in our life that are overwhelming, painful, stressful and hard overshadow the things we feel thankful for. Sometimes our stresses outweigh our blessings.
However, there are always two elements at work when it comes to our experience, there is what is happening around us and there is how much space it occupies in our lives. The amount of space we give something is influenced by multiple factors, but the ones that always stand out to me are how often we focus on that experience and how deeply we take it in.
The challenging and stressful parts of our lives are automatic space fillers. They are big and loud and can fill our field of vision. We don't have to exert much effort to notice or experience them. The supportive, comforting things in our lives tend to be quieter and can easily take a back seat. We have to bring a lot more mindfulness and intention to the nourishing parts of our lives to be able to experience them consistently.
By cultivating a practice of noticing, focusing on and deeply experiencing the good we can allow the pieces of our lives that support us take up a bit more space. Gratitude then, is not about overlooking the hard and challenging parts of life, it's about making space to see and experience the joyful parts as well.
Noticing and Directing Your Attention
In 1948 neuroscientist Donald Hebb discovered that “neurons that fire together, wire together” and this has become a foundational discovery in the world of self improvement. Simply, the more frequently you think a thought, or focus on an experience, the stronger it takes hold.
If we look further back, we can find this idea in ancient philosophy as well. The concept of Samskara from Indian philosophy also echoes this principle. Sometimes translated as ‘psychological impression or imprint’ it's the belief that every action or intention can leave an impression. The impressions that are set down, in turn, influence what is perceived and experienced in the future.
Both this ancient philosophy and this much more modern scientific discovery highlight a common truth - our thoughts and intentions are powerful. They can be used to further entrench already held beliefs or counter them. They can highlight and amplify any of the experiences we encounter in our day to day lives.
This all goes to say that the start of change in experience is change of mind.
Try an experiment...
Take a second, close your eyes if you like and picture a person in your life you interact with regularly. (Animals work too! I often use my dog for this exercise)
Start a list in your head of all the things they do that bother you.
The ways they’re frustrating.
The things they never do right or the ways they don’t support you.
All the times they peed on the floor. :)
Now...notice how you feel. Notice how your body feels.
Next...keeping that same person (or animal) in mind. Make a list of all the things you love and enjoy about them.
Their good qualities.
The ways they contribute to the world.
The comfort or support they offer you.
Notice again how you feel.
It’s not so much what’s around us, but what we choose to focus on, and the story that we choose to tell about it, that makes that biggest impact in our experience.
Taking in the Good
Once we begin to cultivate mindfulness around our thoughts and focus, we can shift to a practice of taking in the good. Too often, we starve ourselves of the very experiences we crave simply because we don't savor them and take them in.
Think about the last time you received a compliment. Maybe your partner said how much they liked the meal you made. Or your co-worker commented on the quality of your work. Or a random stranger said they loved your sweater. How did you respond? Maybe you said thank you. But how much did you really feel that little moment of appreciation? How deeply did it land in your emotional body?
If you're like most of us, the answers are not much and not deeply.
We bypass small moments of love, joy and appreciation all the time. Brene Brown discusses the idea that joy is the most difficult emotion to allow ourselves to feel. If we surrender to joy, we must also open ourselves up to the loss of joy. We tend to bypass our most nourishing, healing experiences because the fear of losing them brings up so much anxiety.
Try an experiment...
The next time someone offers you a compliment or something good happens in your day, notice your first response. What thoughts come to mind that limit your experience of that moment? How quickly do you move on to the next thing? Can you pause, just for a second, and really take in what's happened? Can you notice how it feels to be appreciated? Can you breathe in that nourishing experience, imagine it going deep into your bones.
How does that feel?
Noticing and working with how we respond to appreciation and validation can be transformative. If you can mindfully pause, be with the validation or the joy that comes, and take it in deeper, you can begin to access more of the nourishment you crave. This practice can also translate into touch. How often do you let yourself be held? How deeply do you take in a hug? A kiss? A handshake?
Gratitude comes when we focus our attention on the quieter, nourishing joy in our lives, and when we practice taking it deeply into ourselves.
As we move into the season of the holidays, may you nourish yourself with the joyful experiences, no matter how small, so that you have greater reserves to weather the stress that may come.