spiritual practice & happiness

How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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Calmness as a revolutionary act

Extract from  "Reasons to Stay Alive" by Matt Haig.

I came across this extract from “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig this morning. I thought it was worth sharing:

The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

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Enjoy life

Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

What’s a great way to lower stress, strengthen your immune system, and help you settle back down if you’ve been stressed or worried? Taking time to Enjoy Life.

In my new book Resilient I offer practical strategies for growing the 12 inner-strengths you need for lasting well-being in a changing world.

In the excerpt below, we’ll explore one of those: Enjoying Life.

If a drug company could patent enjoyment, there would be ads for it every night on TV. Enjoyable experiences – such as petting a cat, drinking water when you’re thirsty, or smiling at a friend – lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system, and help you settle back down if you’ve gotten frustrated or worried.

As enjoyment increases, so does the activity of key neurochemicals, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and natural opioids. Deep in the brain, circuits in the basal ganglia use rising dopamine to prioritize and pursue actions that feel rewarding. If you’d like to be more motivated about certain things – such as exercising, eating healthy foods, or pushing through a tough project at work – focusing on what’s enjoyable about them will naturally draw you into doing them. Norepinephrine helps you stay alert and engaged. In a boring afternoon meeting, finding something, anything, to enjoy about it will keep you awake and make you more effective. Natural opioids, including endorphins, calm your body if you’re stressed and reduce physical and emotional pain.

Together, dopamine and norepinephrine flag experiences as “keepers,” heightening their consolidation as lasting resources inside your brain.

Let’s say you’d like to be more patient at home or work. To grow this inner strength, look for opportunities to experience some patience. Then focus on whatever is enjoyable about it, such as how good it feels to stay calm and relaxed. An experience of patience or any other psychological resource is a state of mind, and enjoying it helps turn it into a positive trait embedded in your brain.

Enjoying life is a powerful way to care for yourself. Think about some of the things you enjoy. For me, they include smelling coffee, talking with my kids, and seeing a blade of grass push up through a sidewalk. What’s on your own list? Not so much the million dollar moments, but the small real opportunities for enjoyment present in even the toughest life: perhaps feeling friendly with someone, relaxing when you exhale, or drifting to sleep at the end of a long hard day. And no matter what is happening outside you, you can always find something to enjoy inside your own mind: maybe a private joke, an imagined experience, or recognizing your own warm heart.

These small ways to enjoy the life that you have contain a big lesson. It’s usually the little things adding up over time that make the largest difference. There is a saying in Tibet: If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

What’s the most important minute in life? I think it’s the next one. There is nothing we can do about the past, and we have limited influence over the hours and days to come. But the next minute – minute after minute after minute – is always full of possibility.

Are there opportunities to be on your own side, bring caring to your pain, accept yourself, and enjoy what you can? Is there something you could heal, something you could learn?

Minute by minute, step by step, strength after strength, you can always grow more of the good inside yourself. For your own sake, and the sake of others as well.

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To be happier, think beyond yourself

It’s natural to assume that the more we focus on ourselves and our own problems, the happier we’ll be. But consider this: in a study of language used by poets, it was found that those who used the words I, me, my, and mine were much more likely to commit suicide than those who used we, us, our, and ours.

In fact, poets who killed themselves used self-referential words more and more often as they approached their premature deaths, while those who lived long lives used we-words more and more often.

This relates to the problem of rumination, where our own thinking acts to amplify our suffering. Many of our thoughts containing I, me, my, and mine are connected with feelings of distress: I’m worried about this, I don’t like that. No one cares about me or considers my feelings. And so on.

“I” thoughts reinforce our sense of aloneness. We see ourselves as broken, as worse than others, and therefore separate from them.

Thoughts of “we” connect us, reminding us of our common humanity. Our individual sufferings are seen as being shared by others, and as being part of the difficulties we all have in being human. Our sufferings are not a sign of us being broken, but of us belonging to a greater whole. Our sufferings connect us with others, rather than pushing us into a sense of separateness.

Cultivating compassion is one way of moving from I-thinking to we-thinking, and research in fact shows that compassionately considering and responding to the sufferings of others brings us many benefits, including becoming happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical, and more emotionally resilient.

If it seems paradoxical that taking on board others’ sufferings can make us healthier and happier, this is simply a reflection of the fact that we forget that we are intrinsically social beings, that we are therefore more fulfilled when we connect with others, and that we also gain a sense of meaning and purpose from helping others.

Compassion can be cultivated. And it’s a simple thing: compassion is simply kindness meeting suffering. In compassion meditation we first connect in a kindly way with ourselves, and then extend our concern to others.

Practicing in this way trains us to take into account not just our own well-being, but that of others, too. This has the effect of reducing the amount of self-focused rumination we do, decreasing our tendency to freak out, and increasing our happiness.

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Mindfulness leads to appreciation of entertainment’s little moments

Mary Ellen Wright, Lancaster Online: Everyone seems to be practicing mindfulness these days.

They’re trying to live in the moment — taking time to pay attention to, and be grateful for, the everyday things that can enhance our lives if we let them.

One of my perpetual, unofficial New Year’s resolutions is to practice mindfulness in my consumption of entertainment.

I strive to benefit from the little things others might not notice — and, in the process, squeeze every bit of pleasure possible from a performance or event.

I thought of this concept recently at the end …

Read the original article »

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Meditation brought us back together, say couple who traded in corporate lives to meditate

Sarah Catherall, Stuff: They gave the impression of having it all but Sally Lewis and Greg Hopkinson were stressed and cynical. When they broke up, they felt as though something was missing, both in their lives and in their relationship.

Today, they radiate happiness, frequently breaking into laughter. Lewis reaches over and touches her partner’s arm lovingly as her face beams.

Sitting in a Wellington cafe, they attribute one thing to their joyous connection. “Meditation saved our relationship,” smiles 57-year-old Lewis.

A decade ago, Hopkinson was a stressed out businessman who ran the Animates pet store …

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Happiness is not a choice

42111675 - coffee latte art in cofeee sbop vintage color toneThe saying that “happiness is a choice” is extremely common. There’s a book by that title, as well as a gazillion articles. They all say that you can choose to be happy.

It’s not true. Happiness is not a choice.

Or at least it’s not strictly true that happiness is a choice. There’s a grain of truth here; we can influence our happiness. But happiness is a feeling, and we can’t directly choose our feelings.

What is true is that happiness is the result of our choices.

We can choose actions that will bring long-term happiness. We can choose what we say. We can choose our attitudes. We can choose to have thoughts that increase our happiness.

You might be thinking, “So, tell me what these choices are, so I can go and make them and then be happy!” as if they were major life decisions, like choosing the right home or the right job. But it’s more fine-grained than that. It’s a case of looking at what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and making choices about the nature of each of those actions. It’s a question of making moment-by-moment choices, not big, once-in-a-lifetime choices (although those can be important too).

We need to be aware of what we’re doing physically, and how that makes us feel. So, for example, when I’m chopping vegetables I often find that I’m clenching my jaw for some reason. When I’m working on the computer I often find that my breathing is a little tight. These things contribute to a general sense of emotional tension that inhibits my happiness. As soon as I relax my jaw or let my breathing go back to a normal pattern, my being moves more in the direction of happiness. Relaxing promotes happiness.

I’ve often recommended that people watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our posture influences how we feel. Stand or sit in an open and expansive way, and you’ll feel more confident. Confidence leads to happiness. Stand or sit in a hunched, defensive, closed way, and you’ll feel more fearful and unhappy. This is a great illustration of my point. We choose our actions, and those actions change our level of happiness. We don’t just simply “choose to be happy.” If you try to choose happiness without changing the conditions that are undermining your happiness, nothing much is going to change. You’ll probably just get depressed.

We’re always going to have thoughts arising that contribute to our unhappiness. When you make a mistake it’s natural to think, “Man, that was stupid!” You can make a choice not to buy into and believe such thoughts, however. When we buy into our thoughts we magnify them. We take “Man, that was stupid!” and elaborate and expand it into a story about how useless we are and how we’re never going to be good at anything. And that proliferation of thought makes us unhappy. Simply letting the thought “Man, that was stupid!” pass through the mind without engaging with it makes us happier. Encouraging a more realistic, honest, and skillful thought, like “It’s OK. We all make mistakes,” helps us to be more at ease with ourselves, and thus to be happier. We’re not choosing happiness. We’re choosing how we think, and that can lead to us being happier.

We can choose to pay attention to our feelings, and that will make us happier. When my attention is caught up in my thoughts, I sometimes lose touch with my feelings, and my experience becomes kind of cold and hard. But when I pay attention to my heart (an area of the body innervated by the emotionally important vagus nerve) I’m more emotionally open and sensitive. I feel more connected with myself and with others. That’s enriching, like a black and white movie suddenly turning into color.

We can choose how we speak. Connecting honestly and kindly with others builds up bonds that lead to happiness arising in the short term (saying kind things to others makes both them and us happy in that moment) and in the long term (having positive connections with others gives us support when times get hard, and make the good times better). Again, we’re choosing actions, not happiness. But those actions lead to happiness.

Happiness arises from a million momentary choices. This is why we need to cultivate mindfulness. Without the ability to monitor our actions moment by moment, the mind will habitually and automatically default to decisions that make us unhappy.

Feelings like happiness are, according to Buddhist teachings, not actions. They’re not things we do. They’re the results of actions. They’re the consequences of our actions. You can’t choose happiness. But if you want to be happier, you can make choices that allow happiness to happen.

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Letting happiness happen

50572155 - white flower growing on crack stone wall soft focus, blank text

The one emotion that we most commonly repress is joy.

We don’t intend to do this. Instead, it happens through inattention. Few if any of us would sense joy arising and make a conscious decision to destroy it or push it out of awareness. Few of us would refuse happiness if it were to appear. And still we repress joy all the time.

One of the principles of meditation is that it allows joy to flourish. The process of meditating is that you start paying attention to some immediate sensory experience, such as the breathing. Then, after a while, you realize you’ve stopped doing that, and have instead been caught up in some train of thought. And so you bring your attention back to the breathing again. You do this over and over again.

What happens is that you get happier, and the reason for this is that you’ve stopped repressing your joy. Most of the distracted thoughts we have create suffering for us, because in those distracted trains of thought we create dissatisfaction, worry, or self-doubt. All of these kinds of thinking hinder our happiness and make us suffer. Let go of them, and calmness, peace, and joy naturally arise.

All we have to do is stop repressing our joy, and happiness happens.

Both the repression of joy and letting happiness happen take place in our daily activities as well. These aren’t just things that take place on the meditation cushion. All day long we’re slipping into distraction and diminishing our happiness. Daily life is not just an ideal opportunity to let happiness happen — it’s where most of our practice must inevitably take place.

We often think that it’s the things we do day-to-day, or that happen to us, that make us happy or unhappy. However it’s not so much the things we do that condition our mental states, but how we respond to them. We might be mildly anxious about leaving the house a little bit late. Every day. Or there’s the person at work we find annoying. Every day. There’s the gossip that we tend to join in with. Every day. There’s the routine task that we resent. Every day. It’s those kinds of habitual responses to the world around us that condition our mind and emotions. Moment by moment, they mount up.

It may seem like these mental acts are small things, but when it comes to happiness there are no small things. Every response we make to the events in our lives either represses us or unleashes happiness. The sum total of our wellbeing depends on how these repeated and seemingly insignificant acts mount up.

Happiness is not created. It’s allowed. Its there, in potential, all the time. It’s just that in our unawareness we are constantly doing things that make it impossible for us to be happy. Inattention destroys our happiness. Attentiveness allows happiness to happen.

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Moving past self-criticism

We co-create our lives based on the self-talk and self-imposed beliefs that have conditioned us from our childhood. We become what we believe to be true, and journey thru life making decisions that are fueled by conversations we have with ourselves. Words we speak to ourselves are often untrue, and rob us of the beautiful life that would be ours if only we could move past our rigid convictions and allow in the truth that would free us to an amazing life: a life that is speaking to us …

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