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Gratitude Journaling Improves Mental Health!

Growing up in a chaotic home environment, whether as a result of job loss, divorce, mental illness or abuse, challenges the developing brain to grow from its survival parts to the parts that allow us to engage in the world in a way that brings a sense of acceptance, belonging, peace and abundance.  It gets us stuck in a reactive mode that operates from a place of lack and fear, where the lens we view the world through suggests the glass is half empty, not half full and that we will never have everything we need.  I know it did with me and the research tends to support my anecdotal experience, which has become a part of my own personal gratitude journal.

It was through my own personal yoga journey that led me to the idea – and ultimately the regular practice – of a gratitude journal over a decade ago.  I started slowly, simply identifying some very basic items (for me at that time while recognizing they might not be for many), such as writing down that I was grateful for the roof over my head, the bed that I had to sleep in, and the hot running water that provided a hot shower each morning upon awakening.  Some days that was all I could identify as far as what I was grateful for in the moment.  But with the encouragement from others, my list began to expand – and it didn’t take that long either!

I recognized how grateful I was for my sometimes daily yoga practice, my breath, the joy that my fur babies bring me, walking, the thoughtfulness of my friends, my car that allowed a greater sense of freedom in my experience of travel to and from my jobs, music, air conditioning on hot days and heat on cold days, the colors when the leaves change in the fall, sleep, movies, the internet, rain, the sound of a train whistle, the smell of a fire place, Eastern medicine, boredom, reading a good book, setting a healthy boundary, the sound of the ocean, the warmth of the sun on my skin, sitting still in nature and I could go on and on, as I found the practice of gratitude growing exponentially.

Then I decided to challenge myself in this experience, where I got curious about what I might find to be grateful for in those moments when life sucks, such as when we lose someone we love or fail to get something we worked hard for and really wanted.  Each night, I would open my gratitude journal and reflect on my day and delve into the challenging moments I experienced that day, whether it was a conflict I had with someone at work or the traffic accident I got stuck behind on my way home from work.  Through this effort to test the strength of my gratitude I discovered that there is a silver lining or benefit that serves us in all of our life experiences where we can feel gratitude if we are open to the shift in perspective that arises when we exercise those parts of the brain that support our growth and transformation.

So what was the result of my gratitude journaling practice?  Well, it has become a habit of mine!  So now, whenever something that others might perceive as negative happens, I stop, reflect and share a different, more positive perspective of the event or circumstance.  My felt response to this practice includes a greater sense of peace, trust, confidence, and a new, growing belief that all is as it should be which emanates from a deep, growing well of abundance.  I now see the glass as half full and encourage everyone to try it for themselves, reminding them to start small and watch how their list grows.  Then, when we do experience dark days – as we all will and do – we can read through our gratitude journals to remind ourselves that this too shall pass.

If my personal experience of cultivating gratitude isn’t enough to motivate you to start practicing immediately or continuing practicing, click on the link below to read up on the first randomized controlled trial (which is the gold standard in the research world) to test the impact of gratitude writing that demonstrated a positive, lasting impact on mental health:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Support the Development of Santosha

“Contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want, but the realization of how much you already have.”― Anonymous

With the holidays fast approaching, it is likely that our minds are kicking into high gear, with thoughts beginning to focus on what needs to get done before they arrive!  These types of thoughts tend to encourage us to reach for our “To Do” lists, possibly adding a boat load of tasks, lighting the fire under our expectations around what this time of year is supposed to bring.  And when expectations enter into the picture, we set ourselves up for suffering at the hands of disappointment.

I attended a workshop many years ago about letting go of my expectations as a way to reduce the stress of the holiday season.  I remember thinking “Why would I ever want to lower my expectations?”  It sounded like I was being asked to let go of my goals, which ran counterintuitive to my (at the time) Type A personality, but I was willing to try anything to avoid the inevitable pain that I came to experience when it came to this time of year.  When I tried it out that year, the result was one of the best gifts I ever gave myself!

Now, fast forward to my present day experience, where I have loosened my grip on my attachment to my Type A personality traits, I set intentions instead of having expectations, and I trust that the Universe will co-create something even better than I every could imagine by myself.  How did I get from point A to point B?  Well, it hasn’t always been a straight line, yet one particular practice has proven invaluable, especially at this time of year.  The practice is the development of Santosha, which is Sanskrit for contentment.  And even though the human mind’s default position is to worry or focus on the negative because it is what keeps us safe when danger approaches, it doesn’t mean that we can’t flip the switch by seeking the beauty, harmony and peace in every experience.Now, I’m not going to tell you it is easy.  It takes practice, just like any new sport or hobby you might want to take up.  So, if the idea of expanding the sense of inner peace sounds appealing to you, below are some ideas to support the practice of Santosha and I recommend trying them out now BEFORE the holiday season is upon us!

  1. Let go of what you can’t control.  When we really think about what is truly under our control, we quickly realize not too many things come to mind.  To support the expansion of our awareness of this adage – or something similar like “letting go instead of holding on” – you might want to write it down and put near your tooth brush so you can remind yourself on a daily basis, even several times a day.  As you allow this awareness to become more evident in your mind, also tune into the felt experience in the body too.  When you feel the pain of disappointment or loss, the body is informing you that you were probably trying to control something out of your control and had attached expectations to the outcome.  So try letting go of the need to control and the associated outcome expectations.  Not only will you reduce the pain that naturally accompanies loss but you will reduce the experiences of disappointment altogether!
  2. Stop comparing yourself to others.  When we spend our energy focusing on others, what they have that we want, we discount our own unique gifts and zap ourselves of the potential we have to live our dharma.  Instead, shift your energy to focus on discovering, cultivating, and growing your own gifts and notice how much more vitality and peace you experience.
  3. Look for the silver lining.  When we find ourselves stuck in a unhealthy or painful situation, it can be very difficult to tap into our reservoir of inner peace and contentment.  In those moments, I suggest sitting for a moment and ask yourself “How might this situation be serving me?”  Everything serves although it might take us a little while to figure it out.  Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in order to learn what we don’t like or want in our lives, especially when it doesn’t bring us comfort.  Use this information as a guide for moving forward in a different, more authentic direction for yourself.
  4. Develop discernment, don’t judge.  Judgment can sometimes be a mask for expectations.  We expect people to behave a certain way or to say certain things and when they don’t, we judge them.  Judgment is very contagious and when we catch ourselves judging another, we start to realize how much judgment has seeped into our experience, where are thoughts are now judgments of ourselves!  Instead, allow others to express themselves, however differently than you might express yourself, and consciously distinguish what is appropriate or inappropriate for you.  When we bring consciousness to our thoughts, we open up to discernment and, with discernment we make healthy choices for ourselves and uplift the collective consciousness at the same time.
  5. Practice gratitude.  Our social culture motivates us to spend a great deal of time, energy, and resources to create and generate, from simple ideas to literally concrete structures.  However, our culture does not encourage us to spend an equal amount of time, energy, and resources in appreciating what we have achieved.  This culture creates an imbalance and this imbalance disturbs our Santosha.  Think about how much effort it requires to cook a meal for our families and how little time it takes to eat it so we can run to our next expectation or commitment.  However, research has shown that if we took more time cultivating appreciation for what we already have, including the food we eat, we begin to expand our sense of contentment, bringing more inner peace into our minds and bodies and to the world.

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Self-Care Through This Holiday Season

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ― Buddha

With one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent memory still resonating throughout the world and the ‘season of giving’ fast approaching, I don’t believe I am alone in my felt experience of unease and restlessness.

Therefore, I spent some time in reflection around the questions of “What are the ways I take care of myself” and “What do I do to create a sacred, safe container for myself” in order to calm the uneasy and restless parts of myself.  I recognize that if I don’t honor my own inner states of unrest, then I am unable to maintain my connection to that still point within where my authentic self exists, where my essence of love and light dwell, and, thus, will not be able to continue to walk a heart-led life, being the light not only for myself but for those that are struggling to find their way out of the darkness.

I thought I would share the outcome of my reflections with you below, so that you might try one of the techniques for yourself, when you may begin feeling like you have given all that you have to give to others and are in need of a recharge or reboot:

  1. Breathe.  When we sense the weight of the world on our shoulders, feel unappreciated for all that we do, and experience our needs not being met or our voices being silenced, our bodies and minds subconsciously respond.  And one of the most noticeable ways in which to observe this response is through the breath.  We may begin to hold our breath or breathe very shallowly, which revs up our sympathetic nervous system, creating even more agitation in the body and mind.  Therefore, simply stopping to take a few deep breaths in and out through the nose several times a day, consciously noticing the belly expanding on the inhale and softening on the exhale, will help keep the parasympathetic nervous system engaged, supporting the ‘relax and digest’ response in the mind and body. If you also want to try a breath practice that has a way of clearing out the mind, especially of those unwanted thoughts, you might try Brahmari breath, also known as “Bee’s breath”.  There are several ways to practice this, but I find the most simple one being where you bring your pointer fingers to the external part of the ear that when you press into it, closes off the entrance to the ear canal, thus shutting out the ability to hear external sounds.  You may also want to close your eyes.  Then inhale normally through the nose and, as you close your eyes and ears, also close your lips and, as you breath out, make the sound of bees, like you are humming and maybe play with pulling your tongue back towards the back of your throat.  Do this three times.  You really can’t do it wrong, so have fun! Afterwards, sit for a moment and sense the results.
  2. Listen to your body.  Our bodies have much innate wisdom to offer the mind, yet our culture informs us to THINK instead of FEEL, creating a wall between the body and mind. You may not be aware of it, but our bodies will naturally burp when our stomachs are full, informing the mind that we have eaten all that the body needs to remain vibrant and healthy.  Unfortunately, most of us ‘eat on the run’ these days, so we don’t create space for the wisdom of our bodies. Maybe set an intention the next time you find yourself sitting down for a meal with your family (think Thanksgiving) to become aware of when the body first burps.  At first it might not happen or we might forget to listen – don’t give up.  Try again next time. Listen.  We have been schooled that burping is rude, so it might take a couple of times. Eventually, when you tune in, you will thank your body for its natural ‘full gas tank’ sound going off!
  3. Practice aparigraha.  Aparigraha, Sanskrit for non-attachment, suggests that our suffering comes from the disappointment that we feel when we are attached to an expectation, or outcome, and something else happens instead.  For this practice, I would start with something small, to test it out for yourself.  The holiday season can bring with it a recipe for unmet expectations, with the sparkling lights and songs on the radio filling our hearts with anticipation as we make plans to gather with friends and family, while, at the same time, our schedules get overloaded and our budgets get stretched thin.  So, in order to reduce a bit of the stress during this time of year, maybe begin by simply thinking about level-setting your expectations of how others ‘should’ act during this time of year, and that may include you.  If we create space in our minds and hearts to allow others to do what they need to do without wanting them to do what we want them to do, it makes room for us to do more of what we need to do to make ourselves more peaceful.
  4. Express gratitude.  Research has shown that when we consciously focus our minds on the abundance in our lives, versus focusing on the lack, we experience more peace and joy in our lives.  This holiday season is one of the best times to start a regular gratitude practice.  I recommend writing down those things that you are grateful for in a journal, although it can be even more powerful if you have someone to share the practice with each day.  Either first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed, you can share one (or more!) experiences in your life or day that you felt grateful for in the moment.  It doesn’t have to be something big and, in fact, it is the small things that seem to bring the greatest warmth to the heart.  For example, every morning I am grateful for having hot water for my shower and every night I am grateful for having a warm bed to rest my head.  Try it and I promise you won’t be sorry you did!
  5. Try SELF-compassion.  As the Buddha quote above suggests, the experience of compassion must be expressed to both others and to ourselves if we truly want optimal health. Our culture informs us to have compassion for others, especially those that are less fortunate than ourselves. Unfortunately, it is this same culture that drives us hard to be successful, where multi-tasking is glorified, and competition is the name of the game. So when we falter, and drop a ball or two that we have been juggling, we tend to be very critical of ourselves, maybe even thinking to ourselves that we are a failure or punishing ourselves in some way.  This inner critic can be very harsh, creating limiting beliefs and holding us back from real joy in our lives.  Instead, if we can practice offering ourselves the same loving kindness we offer to a good friend when they are suffering in some way, our bodies, minds, and hearts soften, opening to the lesson of accepting imperfection as the shared human experience. Ahhhh, feel the relief when we let go of the expectation of perfection (do I hear an opportunity to practice aparigraha?)!