gratitude

Five ways to increase your joy

Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.

In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.

Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are a few suggestions for moving in that direction:

1. Smile

Remembering to smile has a potent effect on how we feel. It sparks off a whole chain of mental and physical events, and promotes a sense of happiness. We can even smile in the face of pain and fear. This reminds us that basically things are OK, right now. Yes, things are not “perfect,” but we can deal with it.

Rick Hanson, the author of The Buddha’s Brain, reminds us that the mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re more likely to pay attention to potential threats than to benefits — even benefits that presently exist. As he puts it, the mind “is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Smiling implicitly connects us with the positive.

2. Appreciate

Along the same lines, appreciation supports the arising of joy. This is true both in meditation and in our ordinary lives. When people were asked to write a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefitted them, they were measurably happier for weeks afterward. Explicit appreciation is the most effective. When we say words of thanks to ourselves, even in our own heads, it makes the appreciation more real — probably because it involves more of the brain.

So in meditation I have a practice I sometimes do of saying “thanks” for all the things that are going right. I notice that the climate is livable (even if it doesn’t fit my narrow conception of “ideal”) and say “thank you.” I notice the room around me, appreciate that it’s sheltering me from the elements, and say “thank you.” I notice that the electricity, gas, internet connection are functioning, and say “thank you” (I’ll do these separately, but I’m abbreviating the process here for the sake of brevity). I’ll say thank you in this way for:

  • Living in a country where there’s law and order,
  • The presence of other people around me, some of whom I have loving relationships with,
  • The presence of furnishings (this is unimaginable luxury for many people in the world),
  • Individual body parts that function, day in, day out,
  • Functioning senses,
  • Functioning utilities — internet, water, electricity, etc.,
  • A world round about me that’s filled with beauty.

This practice can be very detailed. In fact it’s best that it’s very, very detailed, so where I’ve said “individual body parts” above, you can in fact do a detailed body scan, identifying each part of the body in turn and saying “thank you” to each. Even where there’s pain, you can note that the body part is still struggling to function for you, and trying to heal. (This, incidentally, can free us from the tendency to blame the body for being sick or in pain.)

3. Imbue your experience with a sense of lovingkindness

To be loving is one of our deepest needs. The experience of loving is deeply beneficial to us, and helps bring about a sense of wellbeing and joy.

Jan Chozen Bays, in her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant, writes very beautifully about the practices of “loving gaze” and “loving touch.” You can simply evoke the experience of looking with love (for example, remembering looking at a sleeping child) or of touching with love (for example, placing a hand on someone who is in pain). By recalling those ways of interacting, we can bring a sense of love into our experience right now.

As you become aware of your body in meditation, for example, you don’t have to do that in a cold and clinical way. You can “gaze” (not literally, but in terms of being aware) inwardly in a loving way, and fill your entire body with a sense of love.

4. Feel loved

It can also be very helpful to feel loved. In one traditional form of the lovingkindness meditation, we begin by recalling someone (“the benefactor”) who has shown us kindness. By doing so we can recapture the feeling of being loved, which again is an important support for a sense of “everything being all right.”

If it’s hard to recapture that feeling, you can imagine being a baby in your mother’s arms, warm and loved and cared-for.

Sometimes I’ve found it useful just to imagine that there’s a source of light and love in the world, that I can tap into. I’ll imagine that I’m at the receiving end of a shaft of light, and that this light touches me in a loving way, flooding my being with lovingkindness.

I’ve also sometimes imagined that I’m meditating with the Buddha, not in an idealized and iconic form like you see in Tibetan paintings, but just as an ordinary man sitting beside me. And I’ll drop into my mind the phrase “feel the love of the Buddha.” What then happens is that I’ll feel a sense that the Buddha is radiating love, like an aura, and that I’m on the receiving end of his blessings.

5. Savor the positive

Notice and appreciate any positive experiences that rise, however ordinary they may be. It could be the simple feeling of a coffee cup warming your hands, or seeing the sunlight shining through a window. Or it could be a pleasant feeling that arises when you think of a friend. In meditation, this could be a pleasant sensation of energy in one part of the body, or the simple rhythm of the breath, or a sense that the body is relaxing, or moments of calmness beginning to appear in the mind, or a sense of light, or any spontaneous and pleasing imagery that may appear in the mind

Your attention may want to slide quickly onto something else, but this is just an instance of the mind’s tendency to take the positive for granted and to go looking for something to be troubled with. So notice anything positive in your experience.

Don’t grasp after such experiences though, and don’t cling to them. All experiences pass. In fact experiences are passing as we have them. So let them go, and don’t mourn their passing. Just appreciate them as best you can.

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A living web of gratitude

dew-covered spider web

What do you feel when someone thanks you for something? For a comment in a meeting, a task done at home, an extra step taken, an encouraging word.

You probably feel seen, appreciated, that you matter to the other person. Maybe a little startled, maybe wondering if you really deserve it, but also glad. Personally, this is how it is for me.

Turning it around, when you say “thank you” to someone, it’s a small moment with big ripples: a confirmation of a deep and wonderful truth, that we all depend on each other, that we are all joined – across dinner tables and across the world – in a web whose threads are innumerable acts of giving.

For example, often when I eat a meal I’ll take a moment to imagine the details of how that tomato or rice was grown and then transported onto my plate, including the people who walked the fields to plant and eventually pick it, and the man or woman who drove the truck that carried it to the store where I bought it. Those folks do not know me, but they’re real people, working hard, hoping for a good life, worrying about the people they love, extending themselves in their jobs, giving me something extra, all this woven into the food that’s entering my blood, my bones: thank you.

You can’t possibly say thank you to everything you’re given. No one can. So when you do say thanks, it’s a token of your appreciation for the larger whole, joining you with that whole. It will make you happy to open to the giving coming your way each day.

And in giving thanks to the people in your life, you open the door to receiving their thanks in turn. In your home or company, a nice circle, a step toward a culture of gratitude.

For starters, it’s hard to give thanks if you’re uncomfortable acknowledging that you have received something. Perhaps you don’t want to feel indebted, or don’t want to look needy. Maybe it’s simply embarrassing. These feelings are normal – but they can sure get in the way of being thankful.

To deal with them, begin by naming them to yourself: squirmy . . . embarrassed . . . resentful . . . awkward . . . don’t want to owe anyone anything . . . Hold them in a big open space of awareness, like dark clouds in a vast sky. Don’t fight them, but gently move your attention away from them, back to your breathing and to a basic sense of being alright as a body . . . bringing to mind a sense of being cared about by someone . . . recognizing some of your good intentions in life . . . knowing one or more benefits to you of saying thanks . . . knowing what the other person has given you . . . feeling a simple sense of appreciation . . . feeling that it’s alright to be thankful . . . making it OK in your mind to express thanks.

And then be straightforward and simple, and say “Thank you” in whatever way is natural.

Many thank you’s involve little things in the flow of life, like thanking someone for passing the salt at dinner. Let these small moments matter to you. Feel your thanks in your chest and throat. When you say your thanks, try to let them show in your eyes. Life is made up of moments, beads on a golden chain; what are you stringing together? As they say in Tibet: “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”

Also consider where you might have a backlog of thanks, perhaps for some big things. Like saying thanks to your parents or other relatives, to old friends and new ones, to teachers and coaches of all kinds. Thanks to lovers and mates, children, pets, neighbors – even people you’ve never met, even the whole natural world. A wonderful and powerful practice is to make a list of people you want to thank directly, and then gradually move through the list. You can also certainly offer thanks in your imagination, such as to people who are no longer living, to people far away, to groups of people, to specific animals or to nature in general, or to spiritual beings or forces if that is meaningful to you.

Throughout, it is very sweet to be thankful for the opportunity to give thanks.

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How to feel gratitude

carrot and measuring tape

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.

Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.

The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”

In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”

  • We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
  • Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
  • Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”

By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.

This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.

By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.

What about you?

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Mindful ways to get a good night’s sleep

Cat sleeping under duvet

Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to feeling energetic and making the most of our days. Some nights, even though we are very tired it is difficult to get to sleep because there is so much going on in our minds. When this happens, we feel stressed and that makes it even more difficult to get some rest.

Here is a list of techniques you may want to use to clear your mind before bed:

1. Write a list of what you need to do the next day. Having the list helps to let go of worrying that you will forget to do something.

2. Practice yoga. Practicing yoga takes concentration so it takes your mind off all the thinking that stops you from being able to go to sleep. Concentrating on the yoga asanas helps to quiet the mind and lying in savasana helps the body to relax.

3. Take a warm bath to relax muscles so that falling asleep occurs easily.

4. Read, but not in bed. Part of the reason we have trouble sleeping is because we work, check our cell phones, work on our computers and read in bed. In order to fall asleep easily, it is important to use bed for sleeping and sex and that is all. That way, when we go to bed, we associate bed with sleeping.

5. Listen to soothing music.

6. If you go to bed and cannot keep your mind from thinking too much,  get out of bed and do something (read, write a letter, fix a broken appliance) until you are very tired and then go back to bed.

7. If you are worried or concerned about something or someone, remember that worrying does not help the situation and think about all the times you worried and what you were worried about never happened.

8. Write down what has happened during the day that was troubling and what was positive – it helps to clear your thoughts about the day.

9. Write in a gratitude journal, a list of things you are thankful for.  Going to sleep in a positive frame of mind will bring sleep sooner and make dreams sweeter.

10. Visualize yourself on a beach, in the warm sun, listening to the waves of the ocean.

It is helpful to have a list of techniques that help to clear your mind before going to bed, so when you are in bed and cannot fall asleep, you know what to do rather than tossing and turning and feeling stressed because you cannot sleep.

I hope some of these techniques will work for you and you will sleep peacefully, have sweet dreams and wake up refreshed.

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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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“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda

Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?

Title: Beyond Happiness
Author: Ezra Bayda
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-825-7
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

In the very first sentence Bayda tells us there is no quick fix to unhappiness, and his title, “beyond happiness,” suggests that his interest is not in soothing our neurosis and giving easy answers. In some ways his message — which I found deeply inspiring — goes strongly against the current of our “instant rewards” culture.

The book is divided into three main sections: “What blocks happiness?,” “The Roots of Happiness,” and finally “Cultivating Happiness.” In the introductory chapter, he makes a distinction between “personal happiness” — based on our individual disposition or “set point” for happiness and the pleasure we gain from externals, success, praise and things generally going well for us — and what he calls “genuine happiness.” Genuine happiness is not dependent on positive conditions such as good health, promotions at work or being in love but on “being fundamentally OK with life as it is,” however that is.

One of the few Buddhist teachings he refers to is an early sutta called The Sutta of Two Arrows. This teaching spells out our deeply ingrained tendency to demand that life give us what we want and that it never deal up what we don’t want. Both these tendencies cause us suffering (the first arrow). Our habit of complaint and protest about this first arrow causes the second arrow to strike — the pain of our refusal to accept things as they are.

Baydas’ first section details the ways in which we cause ourselves pain — through our sense of entitlement (that things should go the way we want them to) and how we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. Our expectations, negative emotions, and judgements all prevent us from deeper happiness. Before we can be happy he says we have to see how we cause our own unhappiness. Not only that but we tend to have a distorted view of ourselves so we have to learn to see ourselves more clearly. The view in the mirror is not flattering but our work is to learn to look with kindly awareness.

The “Roots of Happiness” section encourages us to be curious and open to who it is we are. The quality of present moment awareness is the first chapter but its flavour permeates the whole book and gives a real beauty to the following chapters — which focus on generosity, loving-kindness and gratitude — helping create an attitude of freshness and tenderness towards experience, whatever it is. He gives us several tools, in the form of questions, meditations, reflections and stories from his own life and teaching career, to aid awareness and help cultivate genuine happiness. I particularly liked the suggestion to reflect every evening on what has happened during the day (increasing awareness) and noticing what we can feel appreciative of (increasing gratitude).

The section on meditation gives instruction in formless practice and developing loving-kindness, compassion and forgiveness. The loving-kindness practice may seem a little limited or lacking in guidance compared to the traditional practice, which explicitly includes cultivating friendliness to those we have no interest in or actively dislike. He uses the breath throughout various practices as an aid to breathe different people or qualities into the heart.

Bayda makes it clear that the spiritual life is not easy or cosy, at one point, talking about ‘the blue collar work of practice’. I was reminded of vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein who talks about “work days” (of which there are many) and “fruits of practice days” (of which there are few!). The most prized quality according to Bayda is the un-showy perseverance that keeps us steady through the unrewarding but vital ‘work days’.

The final section and last five chapters focus on how our growing self knowledge and sense of aliveness is expressed in the world through our work, relationships and the many ways we can express a “generosity of the heart.” Giving, or dana, he writes, confronts us with our own fears. This confrontation is necessary to for the heart to learn how to be free. Altruism is obviously strong in Bayda. Practice is not about increasing self-interest. Happiness, he says, ultimately comes from lessening our own grip on what we desire and doing whatever we can to benefit others.

This is a book about serious practice written in an accessible and engaging way. It would be easy to underestimate the value of it, due to the style and focusing as it does on the currently fashionable topic of happiness. To really put into practice what Bayda says, however, requires commitment, patience, faith and, yes, as he says, perseverance.

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Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Woman showing gratitude with a gesture of prayer

Research suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways. They’re:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have written about five things I was grateful for each day. I kept this journal on my computer in the form of writing an email to a friend each evening with my list of things I was grateful for. Many times I felt grateful for more than five things.

It is so easy to focus on circumstances or people whom we are disappointed in. Continually thinking about negative people and situations results in feeling depressed, angry, annoyed, irritable, and generally cranky. We talk to our friends looking for justification for feeling this negativity which just makes us feel worse.

The habit of writing in a gratitude journal each evening is a way of focusing our attention on what is positive in our lives. It also helps us to look for things to be grateful for during the day. Gratitude enters our consciousness and directs our minds towards positivity.

Some of the items in my gratitude journal are: healthy children, dear friends, a sweet cottage to live in, the pond by my cottage, freedom to explore creativity, work that I have enjoyed or not enjoyed but learned from, finding spiritual practice that inspires me, appreciation for beauty in nature and in people, a sense of aesthetics, enjoying simple pleasures, simplifying my life, taking time to really listen to people, cooking for myself and my friends, good movies, good popcorn to munch while I watch the good movies, instances which have been very difficult that have taught me about myself, kayaking, dancing, sunsets, small acts of kindness, strolling through museums, looking at a photograph of the Dalai Lama, availability of books, the ocean, pristine snow covered woods, giving and receiving gifts and especially gifts from the heart, observed acts of generosity and kindness.

Remembering all these things lifts my heart. It is easy to understand how gratitude is responsible for the positive and healthy characteristics of people who feel it. We spend so much time looking for things to make ourselves happy – and all we really have to do is appreciate what is all around us each and every day.

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