Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Gratitude

joy! (Photo credit: atomicity)
I always feel funny talking to clients about gratitude, although I do it often. I worry that it sounds Pollyanna-ish, that flying in the face of their very real (and often truly insurmountable) difficulties, I am, in effect, advising them to whistle past the graveyard. I suspect that the only reason I'm able to do it is that I try to practice "an attitude of gratitude" myself and I know that it works. 

There are all sorts of How-To instructions out there. One of my favorites is Kathleen Adams's Pockets of Joy.  The expression comes from her childhood, when her mother would be emptying the pockets of her jeans before throwing them in the wash. There were always in them the cool things that kids collect during an adventurous day outside--pretty rocks, dead bugs and the like. And her mother would remark that she must have had another wonderful day, because she had her "pockets of joy" again. Adams advises journaling three things every day that you have in your Pockets of Joy. Sometimes when we think we've had a tough day, we can surprise ourselves, discovering that we actually had a pretty amazing one, too. And if we can hold those two views in our minds at once, we can feel better about ourselves and our days.

I've learned that there are dozens of things, often tiny ones, that we can be grateful for in any moment of a given day--or night. I may be lying awake anxious and frustrated because I'm not sleeping, worrying about the day gone by or the day to come, but I can be grateful that I have my nice warm waterbed with my nice soft sheets to lie and worry in. I can be grateful for a roof over my head, and central heating and air, and the dog at the foot of the bed and the partner by my side. And if I focus on those, then lying awake at 2 a.m. can actually become a pleasant experience.  

In a recent post on Tiny Buddha, guest blogger Alexandra Hope Flood advised listing things in your head that you are grateful for from your day as you lie in bed waiting to fall asleep every night. And in the morning, she says, while you're brushing your teeth, list ten things that you are grateful for to start your day. If you're having trouble thinking of anything, begin with having teeth to brush, and being able to stand there and brush them. From there, I might go on to being grateful for meaningful work to do, and a place to go and do it in.

I like that one, and I'm going to start prescribing it.  

The practice applies to far more serious problem states, too, than a little insomnia. Are you sick? injured? possibly even dying? Still. As Jon Kabat Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, "as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, even if you are sick or troubled or in pain and things in your life feel dark and out of control." So start your gratitude list with the fact that you are breathing, if you can't think of anything else. And while you're at it you can send a smile, as Thich Nhat Hanh advises, to every body part that's working. This is something you can practice at any time throughout your day. Right now, for example, you can smile to your eyes that they see these letters, and to that part of your brain that comprehends the words. Smile to your eyelids that blink, to your tear ducts that moisturize, and to your lashes that keep junk out of your eyes. And then direct your attention back to your breathing. Put a half-smile on your face as you do, on the principle that "neurons that fire together wire together," to paraphrase Hebb. In this way, over time, you develop a habit of being happy.

Gratitude is one way I deploy Wood's Rule #4, and its corollary, #5. Focusing on what you can be grateful for in the moment is a mindfulness practice that is the perfect antidote to worry about what is not happening now, may never happen, in fact, and which, in any case, you can do nothing about right now. 

Now mind you, I'm not saying not to worry, period. That would be Pollyanna-ish. And it wouldn't do any good to try, because we're hard-wired for worry. I mean, think about it: The Pollyannas of the savannahs would have been eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before they ever got old enough to reproduce. What I am saying is that we are all so good at worrying that it tends to crowd other things out. We lose sight of the big picture. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is just remembering to add our assets to our bottom line before we hit "Print" on the balance sheet of life. No matter what else is going on in my day, right now it's spitting snow, the birds are mobbing the feeders outside my window, my dog is lying beside my chair, and I am writing. There are problems, yes, and I am happy. No reason both can't be true for you, too. As one client said recently, "That's the power of 'and'."

When you are in a seriously foul mood, I think it's best to make a written list.  I advise people to use their journals for this, because you can look back over your  lists when you are making the cognitive error of thinking, "Oh, this has been such a bad week!" or some such. Read your lists and it will give you a more balanced perspective. Don't limit your list to a prescribed number, but keep writing until you run out of steam. It's ok to repeat things from previous lists: The dog and the sky and my mate go on nearly every list. And you can list the same thing multiple times from various points in time or points of view on the same list: Mine might, for example, include the way my dog's silky coat feels under my hand, the warmth of her body curled up next to mine during our afternoon nap, and something cute she did this morning, all on one day's list. I guarantee your mood will be improved when you're done, if only by a few percentage points. And that's good. At least while you are writing this list, you definitely feel better. So if nothing else, you've given yourself a break for five, or ten, or fifteen minutes from your unhappiness, and those breaks are essential for all of us. One thing we are often guilty of as humans is 100% thinking, as in "This is a bad day." Stopping and making a list proves to us that no day is 100% bad, including this one.

So hop to it. Unhappy? Get out your pen and paper!
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1 comment:

mamie said...

One gratitude affirmation that I use almost every day is, "I give thanks for blessings already on their way." It gives me a sense of gratitude AND a sense of anticipation.

Thanks for this thoughtful post.