Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Power of Gratitude for Wellness

Two men shared a hospital room, both very sick. One man was near the window and the other man had to stay flat on his back in his bed away from the window. They struck up a friendship and talked for hours on end. The man near the window would describe the scene out of the window in great detail–the colors, the children playing, couples walking by, the city skyline. One day he even described a passing parade. The man away from the window loved the descriptions, and cherished every word he heard from his friend.

After several days of this conversation the man by the window passed peacefully in his sleep. The other man asked to be moved to the window bed, excited to see all the amazing sights that he had heard described. He slowly propped himself up on his elbow to look out the window. He was surprised to see that he faced a blank wall. He called the nurse in and told her what had happened. She said, “Well you should know that this man was blind. He couldn’t even see the wall. Perhaps he was just trying to lift your spirits.”

The man by the window had an incredible perspective, a vision well beyond eye sight. His window on the world was optimism and gratitude. In his mind he saw only beauty and he shared it with his friend. Gratitude is the gift of perspective. It doesn’t depend on circumstances or good fortune. It is the gift of being able to choose where you place your focus. The man by the hospital window is a wonderful reminder that wellness has less to do with your physical condition than it does with your perspective. Gratitude gave him wellness to the end of his life and meant that he left the world with an open mind, a big heart and a contented spirit.

What’s your window onto the world? Your mission should you choose to accept it is to see the world through the window of gratitude. If you truly recognized the miracle of being alive, you would walk around with your jaw constantly dropped, your hands on your head and crying out, “OH MY GOODNESS.” Life is amazing and you have the privilege of participating.

You are surrounded by incredible beauty and filled with amazing strength. Soak in the power of gratitude. Choose something right now to be grateful for. Choose anything. Choose one thing. Give thanks for being alive. Thank your heart for beating without having to even think about it. Show gratitude to your perspective that is able to see the miracles that surround you. And if you are a pessimist, give thanks for your ability to choose to be worried and give thanks for your active imagination. Give thanks for any one thing. Then give thanks for your ability to be thankful. One becomes two, the list grows quickly and spreads and very soon you have created a whole chain reaction of gratitude.

Gratitude – What goes Around Comes Around

What happens if you choose not to accept the gratitude mission? I heard a Hindu spiritual teacher asked the question, “What is the worst karma a person can experience on earth? What is the greatest difficulty, the harshest circumstances?”

You would think he might have said poverty or illness or depression. He said, “The worst karma is to be ungrateful. If you suffer from ingratitude then it won’t matter what goodness and miracles exist in your life, you won’t be capable of receiving them. In contrast, if you are grateful then even in the most challenging of circumstances, you will be able to recognize the many gifts that you are receiving all the time.”

Either way, it’s a choice, and either way it comes back to you. I’m not talking about karma as a cycle of reward and punishment. I’m talking about the reality that if you fill your mind gratitude you will dwell in a world of appreciation, and if you fill your mind with problems and negativity, you shouldn’t be surprised to live in a problematic and negative world. The world is as you see it. There is no punishment for choosing not to be grateful. The only consequence is tainting your own experience of life.

We have incredible ability to find problems and anxiety, don’t we? Sometimes the miracles are staring us in the face and we still find a negative angle. A grandmother is walking with her 5-year-old grandson on the beach, when suddenly a wave comes and drags the boy out to sea. The grandmother looks up to the sky, shakes her fist and says, “God, this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot take an innocent child.” And just as those words come out of her mouth, another wave comes and brings the child smiling back at her feet. She picks up the child in her arms, looks up to the sky and says, “My grandson had a hat! Where is his hat?”

Life is incredible miracle and we find the one thing that isn’t perfect. We complain about the inconvenience of losing internet for a few minutes because we’ve forgotten the privilege of being alive at a time in history when we can send a message to someone across the world instantaneously by pressing a button. We complain about credit card interest rates because we’ve forgotten that only thirty years ago when you ran out of money you stopped buying things.

Catch yourself when you start complaining. When you hear yourself moaning about the weather or how much work you have or how inconvenient this is or how boring that is, remind yourself that you get to partake in the miracle and gift of being alive and everything is amazing. Watch your whole outlook on life change, and your whole experience of life improve.

Gratitude improves your life because it breeds other positive virtues and joys. Gratitude’s children include optimism, generosity and kindness. Her cousins include abundance, joy and contentment. Gratitude was always there, just waiting for your attention. Once you find her, you unlock all sorts of other delights.

Gratitude – It’s Good for your Health

Maybe best of all, gratitude is good for your health. In particular it’s good for your immune system. The immune system prevents disease from entering your body and kills disease if it enters your body. Immunity is your body’s protection, and studies now show that gratitude strengthens your immune system.

This seems to work in both large and small ways. In other words if you have an overall optimism about life its good for your health. But if your overall orientation is more pessimistic, your immune system is strengthened by smaller episodes of optimism. In one particular study, law students were tested at periodic intervals during the year. As the students went through classes, exams and internship interviews, their optimism levels rose and fell. So did the strength of their immunity. When optimism went up, so did the immune response. When optimism dropped, the immune system weakened.

Does this mean that you should deny your anxieties and health issues? No. Denial is both a river in Egypt and also a sure way to suppress problems. This is very bad for your health. There is a big difference between denying a problem and refusing to allow your health issue to control your life. There is also a big difference between passively waiting for a miracle and actively doing what you can about your health and then letting go of the outcomes.

Gratitude and Circumstances

I will never forget a funny moment when I was helping in a soup kitchen. It was a breakfast for homeless people and took place in the church hall. Hundreds of local people gathered around sunday school tables clutching their plastic spoons and plates waiting for a serving of baked beans. People from the church served the breakfast. One of the church people always said grace before the meal. On this day I was standing next to a particularly scruffy homeless man. He muttered under his breath while grace was being said. The grace went something like this, “Dear God, you are so good and loving. We thank you for the bounteous and good gifts that you have bestowed upon us.” The homeless guy next to me said under his breath but loud enough for all to hear, “Yeah, real good.” I actually laughed out loud which didn’t go down well.

Was the homeless man being ungrateful, or was the church man in denial? Maybe a little of both.

Being grateful is not about denying reality. Gratitude doesn’t even measure blessings or compare fortunes with others. Gratitude takes a larger perspective than circumstances which are always changing anyway. Gratitude is a response to life itself. It begins as a recognition that life is grace, which means that it has no concept of reward or punishment. Things don’t happen because you deserve them nor because you are entitled to them. Gratitude is about your relationship with life.

When you live in grace you don’t expect everything to turn out well for you. You simply surrender to someone, something or some process larger than yourself that has its own direction and flow. There is more to life than your current circumstances and understanding. You stay open and watchful for beauty and meaning.

Gratitude is a quality that goes beyond optimism and pessimism. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. An optimist says the glass is half full. The grateful person says the glass is twice as large as it needs to be. There’s always more.

So what do you do with your struggles and challenges? Give thanks for growth and perspective. You have found inner strength to persevere. You have learnt to hold lightly to outcomes and to cherish every moment you are alive. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the Holocaust said that “no one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.”

You have proven that circumstances can shake you but not alter your ability to believe in yourself and to remain open. Gratitude is not about saying that tragedy is good, not is it even in a hurry to find the hidden meaning in suffering. Gratitude is the ability to acknowledge the way you feel, to name it for what it is and know that all things change. You surrender and accept that life is more miraculous than your current understanding. This surrender brings peace, and you give thanks for the peace.

Gratitude has found the right balance between holding on and letting go. You make the most of what comes into your life and the least of what goes out of your life. All is as it needs to be for now. You have the perspective to be delayed at an airport and appreciate the extra reading time. You have the presence of mind to enjoy the internet outage as it gives you some respite from screen time.

Freeze Frame Gratitude

The story is told about the verse in the Hebrew text the Talmud about giving thanks as much for the bad days as the good. Some students asked their Rabbi how this is possible. The Rabbi said, “Go to Anapol. There you will find a Rabbi who will give you the answer.” The students found themselves in the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses was a tiny shack. Inside they found the Rabbi sitting at a bare table.

“Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”

“No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rabbi told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?”

He laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Rabbi sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day of my life has been filled with miracles.”

It’s all about perspective. Every day of your life is filled with miracles. Shift your perspective and enjoy the gift of gratitude.Think of a moment of incredible peace and contentment. Freeze frame the picture in your mind. Let it come back to you at difficult times as a reminder of what is possible.

Everyday look for moments you can freeze frame. Ask yourself these questions-

What has surprised me?

What has touched me?

What has inspired me?

Dwell in the gratitude that grows out of an open mind, a large heart and a contented spirit, and you will know incredible wellness. Namaste.

For Further Reflection

What are you feeling particularly grateful for at the moment?
What has surprised you today?
What has touched you today?
What has inspired you today?

Books and Resources
Instructions on Gratitude by David Steindl-Rast

The summary of Segerstrom and Sephton’s 2010 research on optimism and immune system in law students:

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