Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Self-Compassion 9: Experiencing & Expressing Gratitude

Note: Much of the content in this section is influenced by Dennis Rivers.
You can find his workbook on healthy communication HERE,
with a specific chapter on gratitude HERE

Chances are that you have to spend a significant part of your time focusing on problems - sometimes fixing them, sometimes anticipating them, sometimes avoiding them. It's even possible to view the daily work of survival as a collection of problems, especially if we have a view of the world that sees resources are scarce (and for a huge percentage of the world population, even the most basic resources ARE scarce!). The risk here is when we are tempted to view life as broken and we become unable (or unwilling) to notice and respond to those parts of life that really are wonderful, enjoyable - those moments that bring us delight. And healthy relationships - with ourselves or others - depend on noticing and dwelling fully in those moments.

We noted that Gratitude can be an important compassion practice in Learning Task 7, and the practice of gratitude is a good way to end this workbook.

Step 1. To begin, make a list of those things (relationships or circumstances) in life that fill you with anticipation – dread or joy, anger or excitement, exhaustion or energy, irritation or gratitude.

Based on your reflection, what kind of approach characterizes your daily experience of life?

Step 2. Think about how important those positive emotions are in the context of your relationships and the way you spend your day.

What do you think is the relationship between appreciation and our experience of conflict?

Appreciation is what makes it possible for our relationships to strong - and to stay strong even during the stress and disagreements of life.

Dennis Rivers shared research findings on the role of appreciation in healthy relationships. For example -
For Couples:
"... researchers at the University of Washington have discovered that couples who stay together tend to have five times more positive interactions than negative ones. Couples who stay together often have real disagreements, but a strong pattern of appreciative and affirming interaction appears to give them the positive momentum they need to work through their problems."
For Parents & Children:
"The child development research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley produced a strikingly parallel conclusion regarding parent-child interaction. 'They found that children who are the most intelligent, self-confident and flexible ... at ages six to eight had experienced five times more positive than negative interchanges with their parents by age three' By age three, the children who would thrive had received an average of around 500,000 positive interactions!" (SOURCE)
In what ways do you experience appreciation in your primary relationships?

What actions (outer voice) do you associate with gratitude? What attitudes (inner voice)?

2. Looking Deeply for Places Where Gratitude Can Grow

If you think back to our exploration of Interpretive Filters, you'll remember how constantly we are forming judgments and creating stories. We are constantly assigning meaning to our experiences. We are all story tellers.

This isn't a bad thing. We create stories in order to make sense of our lives, to bring order to what might otherwise feel chaotic and inconsistent. The trouble is that often the stories or themes we use to interpret and organize our lives can also be obstacles to a grateful, joyful experience of life. After all, we have plenty of raw material for almost any kind of story we'd like to tell. Each day is filled with any number of good of bad things. Or, when our stories kick in, any day can be filled with anticipation of the good or anxiety of the bad. Pretty soon, we think we know the story before anything even happens. We become "the guy with good luck" or "the man who never gets it right." With a trail of broken dreams behind us, the labels start to stick. "I'm a [insert your favorite put-down here]" may be a chorus, with a litany of "if only this..." to back us up. We remember everything that supports this interpretation and the rest of life falls into the background. It just doesn't count.

This is part of the reason why two people can experience very similar things in life but respond so differently. Those labels can lock us into a certain way of seeing the world, whether it's that way or not. Because even if our labels are true, they are not ALL that is true about us. This means that there is often a lot of experiences in life that have drifted out of view. Many times, it is those good moments. And that means that if we look deeply, we can often find some places in our hearts where gratitude can grow.

This doesn't mean to ignore or repress the labels and interpretive filters that have supported you up to now. In time, you can even be grateful for all those things that have helped you survive, especially during the dark and difficult times of life. Instead, we are talking about being compassionate and gentle with ourselves by intentionally developing new stories that will help us live more happily in the present moment.

And when we do have deeply troubling and even traumatic experiences (or remember those in the past), these new stories can be a resource to us by enabling us to continue to celebrate and enjoy those things in life that ARE still worth celebrating and enjoying. Our suffering will not have the power to control every part of our lives.

Reflect –
• What themes or stories have you used to make sense of your life? Were you conscious of these?

• What do your themes or stories encourage you to look for and pay attention to in life? How has this encouraged or discouraged experience gratitude?

• How can seeing the parts of your life that are 'bigger' than your stories and themes "open a path toward gratitude"?

• In what ways can gratitude be a form of resistance to oppression and injustice?

• Do you see any opportunities to give your heart and mind some "small moments of rest" from the problems in your life?

3. Experiencing Gratitude

For many of us, experiencing and expressing gratitude is actually quite difficult. Especially if praise and blame have been used to control our behavior, judgments of our self-worth might either lead us to believe that we are not worthy of anything good or that we are entitled to certain privileges. Neither of these stories help us feel grateful, even if all our basic needs are being well met.

So instead of being able to really enjoy life, we end up searching endlessly for something, anything. Gratitude can help us awake to all the things in life that are NOT missing. And, just as importantly, gratitude can help make us more mindful of happy moments throughout the day, so we don't miss them as they come.

So how do you experience gratitude? Is it an emotion that comes easily? Or is it difficult? How about gratitude for certain situations or people? It can be useful to get familiar with how you experience gratitude. And a simple way to do it is the time-honored tradition of counting your blessings.
Set aside 15 minutes and write down ten happy events in your life (or as many as you can think of – but try not to rush, savoring each memory as you go). This can include both specific events, such as winning a much-desired prize, and also particular people who have been a blessing in your life.

After you've done this, take the time to notice your mood. How do you feel? Were there some memories that were especially joyful? Difficult? Mixed?

4. Expressing Gratitude

An awareness of experiencing gratitude is a crucial step in a joyful life, developing new habits of mindfulness along the way. The next step, though, is just as crucial. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for us to have learned ineffective ways to express gratitude. But it is possible to practice new ways of using words to express gratitude. The example here is not the only way, but it is a good place to begin.

First, it is helpful to reflect on why a common way to express gratitude is often not the most effective way to connect with ourselves or others. Phrases like, "You are the greatest piano player in the world!" or "You are so beautiful" have at least 3 limitations –
1. The speaker is making a judgment/evaluation.
2. The speaker is NOT connecting to the appreciation personally (i.e., these are not 'I' statements)
3. The listener does not really know what is being appreciated or why
This is not to say that we can never use these expressions. Rather, we just want to make sure we are aware of the ways we communicate and what communicates most effectively. So let's take these 3 limitations and turn them into 3 strengths for communicating gratitude.
1. Be specific: without a judgment, what happened that inspired your gratitude?
2. Share your heart: what positive emotions arose with your gratitude?
3. Celebrate: what specific need(s) was met?
Take a moment and practice these three steps with something from the list you made in part 3, Experiencing Gratitude. Here is an example:
Thank you so much for washing the dishes this afternoon (be specific!). I feel so relieved and grateful (share your heart!). I had a really rough day at work and was really feeling tired, but now I can relax a little bit and still have time to go to bed early (celebrate the needs!).

It doesn't hurt to do this exercise from time to time and especially to practice with a willing partner. As you get familiar with the process, you can also reflect on the following questions:
• What do you like about expressing gratitude with this model?
• What could make it more useful?
• Can you think of any reasons it may be helpful to replace an evaluation with an observation when expressing gratitude?

5. Symbols of Gratitude

Gratitude is also a profound spiritual practice, a deep way of experiencing the world that connects us with others during the short time we are blessed to live. Being capable of joy, wonder and awe are two of the most wonderful things of being human.
In whatever way is right for you, take the time to write a prayer, draw a picture/symbol, spend some time in quietness, write a letter, or do something else that helps you experience the wonder of being alive.