appreciation

Feed the mouse: using appreciation to generate inner nourishment

As the nervous system evolved, your brain developed in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Since the brain is integrated, avoiding, approaching, and attaching are accomplished by its parts working together. Nonetheless, each of these functions is particularly served and shaped by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it.

Petting your inner lizard was about how to soothe and calm the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. This article continues the series by focusing on how to help the early mammalian parts of your brain feel rewarded, satisfied, and fulfilled: in a word, fed.

This has many benefits. For starters, when you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving. The hungry heart gets a full meal; goals are attained and the striving for them relaxes; one feels lifted by life as it is. What a relief!

Feeling fed also helps you enjoy positive emotions such as pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease, and worth. As Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers have shown, these good feelings reduce stress, help people bounce back from illness and loss, strengthen resilience, draw attention to the big picture, and build inner resources. And when your own cup runneth over, studies have found that you’re more inclined to give to others; feeling good helps you do good.

Last, consider this matter in a larger context. Many of us live in an economy that emphasizes endless consumer demand and in a culture that emphasizes endless striving for success and status. Sure, enjoy a nice new sweater and pursue healthy ambitions. But it’s also vitally important – both for ourselves and for the planet whose resources we’re devouring like kids gorging on cake – that we appreciate the many ways we already have so, SO much.

So, in everyday life, draw on opportunities to feel fed – and as you do, really take in these experiences, weaving them into the fabric of your brain and being. For example:

  • While eating, be aware of the food going into you, becoming a part of you. Take pleasure in eating, and know that you are getting enough.
  • While breathing, know that you are getting all the oxygen you need.
  • Absorb sights and sounds, smells and touches. Open to the sense of how these benefit you; for instance, recognize that the seeing of a green light, a passage in a book, or a flower is good for you.
  • Receive the warmth and help of other people, which comes in many ways, including compassion, kindness, humor, practical aid, and useful information.
  • Get a sense of being supported by the natural world: by the ground you walk on, by sunlight and water, by plants and animals, by the universe itself.
  • Feel protected, enabled, and delighted by human craft, ranging from the wheel to the Hubble telescope, with things like glass, paper, refrigerators, the internet, and painkillers in between.
  • Be aware of money coming to you, whether it’s what you’re earning hour by hour or project by project, or the financial support of others (probably in a frame in which you are supporting them in other ways).
  • Notice the accomplishment of goals, particularly little ones like washing a dish, making it to work, or pushing “send” on an email. Register the sense of an aim attained, and help yourself feel at least a little rewarded.
  • Appreciate how even difficult experiences are bringing good things to you. For example, even though exercise can be uncomfortable, it feeds your muscle fibers, immune system, and heart.
  • Right now – having read this list just above – let yourself be fed . . . by knowing that many many things can feed you!

Then, from time to time – such as at meals or just before sleep – take a moment to appreciate some of what you’ve already received. Consider the food you’ve taken in, the things you’ve gotten done, the material well-being you do have, the love that’s come your way. Sure, we’ve all sometimes had to slurp a thin soup; but to put these shortfalls in perspective, take a moment to consider how little so many people worldwide have, a billion of whom will go to bed hungry tonight.

As you register the sense of being fed, in one way or another, help it sink down into yourself. Imagine a little furry part of you that’s nibbling away at all this “food,” chewing and swallowing from a huge, abundant pile of goodies that’s greater than anyone – mouse or human – can ever consume. Take your time with the felt sense of absorbing, internalizing, digesting, There’s more than enough. Let knowing this sink in again and again.

Turn as well into the present – the only time we are ever truly fed. In the past there may not have been enough, in the future there may not be enough . . . but right now, in what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Pure Land of this moment, most of us most of the time are buoyed by so many blessings. Falling open and into the Now, being now, fed by simply being, by being itself.

Being fed.

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The power of appreciation

It’s all too easy to focus on what’s wrong in our lives, and to overlook what’s positive. It seems almost that we’re pre-programmed to respond strongly to the things that threaten us, while things that are of benefit end up being taken for granted. There are certainly people who are continually acknowledging the positive, but they’re comparatively rare, and I’m not one of them!

And yet one thing that’s been demonstrated in studies is that appreciation makes us happy. There’s a well-known article in Yes Magazine, from a few years back, that discusses this. Two pieces of advice they give from the science of happiness are:

Savor Everyday Moments
Pause now and then to smell a rose or watch children at play. Study participants who took time to “savor” ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, “showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression,” says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.

and

Say Thank You Like You Mean It
People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons. Research by Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, revealed that people who write “gratitude letters” to someone who made a difference in their lives score higher on happiness, and lower on depression—and the effect lasts for weeks.

That last one is quite extraordinary. The simple act of writing a thank-you letter can leave you feeling happier for weeks. And yet I bet many of us are more likely to write a letter of complaint than a letter of gratitude.

We all want to be happy, and yet we don’t do the things that create happiness. And we all want to escape unhappiness, but we create unhappiness for ourselves by focusing on what’s wrong in our lives.

I’m very aware of this tendency in myself. Often on Facebook or Google+ I’m about to post a link to yet another article about something that annoys me, and I catch myself and think, Do I really want to focus on this? (Often, though, I just hit publish without any self-reflection.)

So this week I’m keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve found it great for enriching my life and for creating more of a sense of joy and ease. I decided not just tto write a simple list of things I feel grateful or appreciative about, but to write about why these things matter to me.

I found myself really appreciating my local Buddhist center, and the people who go there. They give me an opportunity to experience a greater sense of purpose and connection. They give me an opportunity to explore myself and to discover my spiritual path. And they inspire me with the goodness that people can manifest.

I found myself appreciating my health: the fact that I’m not hindered by infirmity or disability. I’m able to flourish.

I even found myself appreciating the political system I live under — and politics is one of the things that drives me crazy. The political system where I live is far from perfect, but when I think of places like Sudan, or Somalia, or Burma, I’m relieved not to be living under a dictatorship, or in a place where armed thugs wage daily terror, or where I’m likely to be dragged away to prison without due cause. I have a relatively high degree of freedom — again the freedom to flourish, to explore a spiritual path, and to express myself as I wish.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing to ignore injustice. We have to look squarely at things that are wrong as well. But it’s a question of balance, and of mental health. Would we be better or worse off if politicians were able to appreciate each other’s positive qualities rather than demonizing each other? I think the answer to that is clear.

I’ve been moved by how much happier I am after even just one day of gratitude journaling. I’m surprised at how easy it has been to change my perspective. Even talking today with someone after meditation about how hot and sticky it was in the meditation room, I found myself realizing that this wasn’t a conversation I wanted to pursue. At least I have the health with which to meditate, people to meditate with, and a room in which to do it!

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Being an introvert in an extroverted world

solitary male figure seen at a distance, standing in a field with mountains in the background

Introverts can feel at a disadvantage when everybody else around them seems so comfortably extroverted. But Sunada feels that the world benefits from the influence of qualities that come naturally to introverts. She explores ways that quieter types can be more “out there” without having to compromise who they really are.

Are you an introvert? When you’re feeling tired or stressed out, do you prefer to be by yourself – and do things like curl up with a book, soak in a hot bath, or go for a walk alone? If you’re a meditator, chances are pretty good you’ve got introvert tendencies. I definitely do.

We pause and reflect before we speak … we’re conscientious and loyal … our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

But the world out there is mostly extroverted. I’ve heard that 75% of Americans are extroverts (though it varies from culture to culture). I used to work in business, where that percentage is even higher. Our world tends to reward extrovert qualities, like the ability to chat easily with strangers, be outgoing, and constantly on the move. If you look up “introvert” in a thesaurus you get the following synonyms: brooder, egotist, loner, narcissist, and wallflower. Not very flattering, is it? But the truth is, whenever we’re at big, boisterous parties with lots of people, the whole scene can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

My meditation practice has brought me to see things in a new light. Yes, we introverts may be fewer in numbers, and certainly less visible. But I now see that we naturally possess many qualities that the world could really use more of. We know how to slow down, take a deep breath, and smell the proverbial roses. We usually pause and reflect before we speak – so when we do have something to say, it tends to be meaningful. We’re conscientious and loyal. And though we may have small circles of friends, our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself … to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it!

So if you’re a fellow introvert, let’s stop seeing ourselves as outsiders or somehow “lesser” people. Let’s stop isolating ourselves because we’re “different”. The world has much to gain from us introverts bringing ourselves and our genuine strengths out there.

And how do we do this without having to fake being something we’re not? First and foremost, I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself, all alone, to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it! In the Myers-Briggs system of classifying personality types, the Extrovert-Introvert dimension is defined by where you draw your energy from. Extroverts prefer the outer world of people and things. They get energized by being active and engaged with others. Introverts prefer to focus on their inner world of thoughts and images. They regain energy through solitude. So it’s not about whether you like being with people or not. It’s a matter of energy, and where you get recharged. I know several people who seem quite social and outgoing, but would be considered introverts by this definition.

So it’s no wonder that we introverts can’t keep up with an extrovert lifestyle. We would burn ourselves out. To me, solitary time is as necessary to my well-being as food and water. I make sure I get some daily. My meditation time is of course part of this picture. If I’m traveling or attending a multi-day event with other people, I make sure to schedule some solitary time afterward to recharge. I’m now aware that any skimping I do is at my own risk!

It’s also very worthwhile to examine our own attitudes about our introversion. Being introverted isn’t a good or bad thing in itself. It’s the stories we’ve built around it that make it so. Do we see ourselves as inferior? Do we go to social events with a feeling of dread? Do we walk around with a self-image as someone who has difficulty talking with others? Are we constantly judging what we say? I have to admit I used to do all those things. And still catch myself doing them from time to time. But all these thoughts only serve to sabotage us even before we get out of the gate.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything. When I worked in business in the past, I learned that some of my natural but less visible inclinations were really valued by my colleagues. In addition to being an introvert, I’m also very intuitive and able to relate to people easily (I’m an INFJ, for those of you who know Myers-Briggs). Sure, I wasn’t among the socially active and “popular” ones. But I was usually the one who quietly figured out what was really going on behind the scenes. I might pick up on people’s unspoken needs, notice someone who was afraid to come forward, or play diplomat to patch up simmering disagreements among team members. No, these things weren’t part of my job description. But over time they became my signature strengths – and I came to be respected for my ability to keep a team running smoothly and congenially because of them.

In my current line of work, I need to be out networking and meeting people to promote my business. Sales and marketing are probably the things introverts hate doing the most! But this is doable in introvert-style too. I never do any “cold calling” or selling to total strangers (even extroverts have a hard time with that!). If I’m meeting somebody new, I usually establish contact first by email. The next step might be a phone call. For a face-to-face meeting, I go with an agenda in mind, with specific items I want to talk about, rather than leaving it open and freeform. I’ve also learned that if I talk from the perspective of what’s meaningful to me personally, my enthusiasm catches on – and my self-consciousness doesn’t have room to creep in. In fact, I think that it’s my low-key style that brings people to believe in me and what I have to say. I’m not pushing anything on them, so they feel free to decide for themselves.

So if you were born an introvert like me, I would urge you to make the conscious choice to live as an introvert, and be proud of it. On the one hand, it means respecting some very real limits we face. We need to preserve our energy through lots of solitude, and know how not to put ourselves into situations that make us feel tongue-tied or overwhelmed! But at the same time we can bring out our natural strengths in our own quiet way. I’ve learned that when I allow what’s authentic in me to shine through, people notice and really appreciate it.

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Jean Antoine Petit-Senn: “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate.”

Jean Antoine Petit-Senn

The words “abundance” and “spirituality” may not seem to go hand in hand but, Bodhipaksa argues, mindfulness, properly seen, is inherently enriching.

Once, on retreat, I was in a discussion group in which we were discussing the metaphors that encapsulated how we saw our spiritual practice. We all had very different ways of seeing what we were trying to do with our lives.

One person thought in terms of becoming a kinder person, shedding compassion like the sun sheds light; another in terms of really seeing how things are. One saw himself as a spiritual warrior; another as a tree taking root, aspiring to provide fruit and shade for other beings. I was impressed both at the variety of the personal myths expressed, and by the spirit of harmony with which they were shared. We all seemed to recognize that there was no “right” myth and that all these metaphors were valid and useful to the people that held them.

One moment that particularly struck me was where one man said that he saw his spiritual path in terms of richness, while another saw his spiritual life as a quest for simplicity. It struck me that although those aspirations — richness and simplicity — might seem to be contradictory, they were actually both expressions of the same underlying truth, perfectly exemplified in an aphorism often attributed to the Swiss poet, Jean Antoine Petit-Senn*:

It’s not what we have
That constitutes our abundance
But what we appreciate.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing. We’re materially rich but emotionally poor. I know children like this, who have a plethora of toys and gizmos, all the latest computer equipment and games, but who are unable to pay attention to any of them, and who are perpetually bored.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing.

Appreciation is one of the qualities of mindfulness that most resonates with me. When I’m at my most mindful I’m at my most appreciative; I notice the fine details of my experience, I really look at things, I really taste my food, I notice and enjoy the ordinary sensations that arise in the body as I walk, lift a cup to my lips, or brush my teeth.

It’s possible to conceive of mindfulness as a cool or even cold state, one in which we have a detached and uninvolved gaze. But that kind of mindfulness is purely cognitive — involving the mind — and lacks heart. It’s a form of mindfulness that’s alienated. True mindfulness involves the whole being — head and heart — and we don’t simply notice but appreciate. We notice the fine detail of our experiences, and we also notice ourselves — our feelings, our physical responses, our emotions, the effect that our experiences have on the mind, our thoughts.

Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

Abundance lies in this richness of response. Poverty is when we encounter experiences in an alienated way. We have sensory contact with the world but we don’t have any depth of contact with ourselves, and so consequently our responses are flattened, deadened, and monochromatic. We’re bored and restless. Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

To be appreciative through mindfulness doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rosy and sunny in your life. Suffering is inevitable. But even painful experiences are richer and more alive when we pay attention to and appreciate our pain.

Another poet, Ryōkan, who died six years before Petit-Senn was born, is said to have returned to the hut where he lived as a simple monk, only to disturb a thief who was ransacking his few possessions. In his haste to escape, the thief left behind Ryōkan’s meditation cushion. Ryōkan picked up the cushion and chased after the thief to give it to him. Afterward he sat in his hut, looking out of the window at the moon, thinking, “I wish I could have given him the moon as well.”

This was no idle thought. Ryōkan was famous for expressing simple appreciation and gratitude in his poetry. He could find joy in the simplest things — the sound of the wind, the dripping of water from his roof on a rainy day, children playing, the taste of a berry. Ryōkan knew that if the thief had been able to appreciate the moon as fully as he himself could, he would have had no need to steal.

Ryōkan, sitting in a bare hut looking at the moon, was materially destitute but had such spiritual abundance that he had riches to spare.

*2023 Update: Since I wrote this piece, 15 years ago, I’ve found no evidence that Petit-Senn is the actual source of these words. It’s possible that they’re an adaptation from another writer.

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