Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney prepare to sing "Counting My Blessings"
From the classic movie White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS GRATITUDE?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A GRATITUDE PRACTICE
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. 1) You could make a list of 50 things and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
2) An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, waking up in the morning, commuting, etc. Commit to thanking God in that moment for five people or things in your life.
3) Or, make a decision to shift to gratitude when you're tempted to ruminate about the latest news story.
4) Write a letter of gratitude to a person who has helped you along the way. For a remarkable testament to the power of this practice on both the recipient and the giver, click here.
5) Keep a gratitude journal. I recently attended a funeral where excerpts from my dear friend's gratitude journal were read. It was a touching reminder of who she was and where she had been.
6) Draw gratitude pictures, and invite the children - or the adult artists - in your life to do the same. Post them around the house, share them in social media.
If those seem obvious and simple it's because they are. The change happens when we:
A) Actually do them regularly and
B) Do them mindfully, being truly present to the moment.
Here's where the neuroscience comes in. Simply listing things intellectually uses only a small part of your brain and none of the rest of your body. We are more deeply grateful, and benefit more fully, if we engage our emotions in this practice. To do so, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Recall a person's face, a moment that captures why they are precious to you, how you feel physically when you notice that sunset. Consciously enlist your senses in your moment of gratitude. Focus long enough that the gratitude has a chance to actually register on a feeling level. This engages the emotional part of your brain, which then activates the rest of your nervous system.
Some days this will "work" and some days it won't, but intention counts and this is where the healing happens. There's a ton of research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Click here for a examples, if you don't believe me.
Better yet, test it yourself. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week - and give it your best shot for a time. Ideally, tell at least one other person about your commitment, and then check in with them. Or encourage them to start a gratitude practice themselves and share what you learn and experience.
Click here for a handout with a brief summary of the lesson, suggested actions, and space to jot down a commitment to yourself (and perhaps a buddy.)
Think for a minute of a few people you consider spiritually resilient. They might be famous - like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa - or they may be a member of your own family.
Why do their faces come to mind? How would you describe them, and what qualities do they hold in common? What is it about these people that we instinctively admire and respect?
Regardless of who you chose, I would be willing to bet your examples possess a calm strength, a sense of hope and generosity, and a willingness to engage in but not get bogged down by their own and others’ suffering. I would suggest they are likely to exhibit a higher than average tendency toward:
These spiritual emotions all have a tendency to call us - emotionally, not just intellectually -
beyond our own small egos to connect with other people, creation, and God. In doing so, they allow us to experience our deepest and best selves, the part of us that is most capable of seeing reality and acting as God calls us to act.
POSITIVE EFFECTS OF SPIRITUAL EMOTIONS
Members of the positive psychology movement of the last few decades have conducted extensive research on these and other positive emotions. They have documented that when we are experiencing these emotions we are more likely to:
Seriously, if someone announced they’d just developed a pill that would deliver these benefits, I’d be the first to sign up. Our seven spiritual practices are even better. They don’t cost money, don’t have negative side effects, and can be way more fun than swallowing a pill will ever be.
Spiritual resilience is not the same as a chipper outlook. Spiritually resilient people do not live in denial about complexity or pain, and they do not put undue emphasis on their own happiness. But while spiritual resilience is more than feeling good, it is characterized by emotions that feel good. Our opening lesson focused on the practice and emotion of gratitude, Today we’ll take a look at hope and joy.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the expectation, realistic or not, that things are going to turn out well. Hope can exist even in situations where there is no possibility of a positive physical outcome. Hope increases our capacity to be kind and courageous; it can be a source of healing even when there is no possibility of a cure. Trust in a God who loves us, and a belief in a positive afterlife, gives us a sense of perspective that helps us see beyond the immediate.
Hopeful people keep trying even when all seems lost. They refuse to accept ultimate defeat even, sometimes, in the face of certain death. Hope bestows courage and the capacity for action; Gerald May, M.D. puts it, “Hope frees the will.”
1 Cor. 13:13 says, “Faith, hope and love will last forever, but the greatest of these is love.” As a kid I appreciated the importance and challenge of being faithful and loving, but I could never figure out why hope made the list. Why make such a big deal about hope? What’s so hard about being hopeful? Now I get it. In the darkness of today’s world hope is harder to come by and all the more precious.
Joy is like happiness only different. Joy is deeper than happiness, and like hope can exist in spite of rather than because of our current circumstances. People who are terminally ill can be joyful even though they are not happy about facing the end of their days on earth. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, says that joy is “being in sync with life, in tune with the Mystery.” Little children and puppies seem wired for joy, delighted at a leaf dancing across their path even in the most dismal surroundings.
Harvard’s George Vaillant, a pioneer in studying spiritual emotions, reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we can be, as C.S. Lewis titled his autobiography, Surprised By Joy.
Joy seems to coincide with an ability to be present to the moment as it truly is. Br. David said his life during World War II was filled with great joy because he and his comrades knew death could come at any time and they therefore lived in the moment. He says,
Joy is something other than pleasure. Joy is the feeling of being in sync with life,
in tune with the Mystery. One may have all the pleasure in the world and yet feel
out of tune with life; but one may, by contrast, be screaming in anguish and yet hear
deep inside the music of joy, a counterpoint bass line as it were.
Don’t let all this talk about spiritual emotions leave you feeling inadequate. I'm inspired by Brother David’s example, but I am confident his joyfulness is beyond me. We’re not responsible for being Br. David for the simple reason we are not Br. David. Instead we are called to be moving, however slowly, toward joy. And that is enough.
Note: Engaging suffering requires skill as well as courage and determination. A series on grief will be coming soon.
Quote taken from I Am Through You So I, David Steindl-Rast, OSB, p. 107
God, grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference
First, let me make it perfectly clear I think parking an infant on top of a Great Dane is a terrible idea. But the photo illustrates a point, which I'll get to in a minute.
If we're honest, one reason we're drawn to seek spiritual resilience is that we want to feel better. Whether we're coping with relationship issues, financial stress, loss of a loved one or the uncertainty brought on by a pandemic, we would like to be able to reduce the wear and tear on our emotions. Spiritual resilience includes the ability to enjoy life at a higher level and to waste less time spinning our wheels. But spiritual resilience offers more.
In previous posts we looked at the deeper dimensions of gratitude, hope and joy. We distinguished between gratitude and simple enjoyment; hope and optimism; joy and happiness. We said spiritual emotions were not simply an escape from pain but rather resulted from our ability to transcend pain by tapping into an underlying sacred dimension.
Today we'll spend some time considering the spiritual emotions of serenity and awe; we'll tackle compassion and inspiration next week. At the end of this post we'll also take a look at our body's information feedback system and the impact it has on our emotional state.
I chose the above photo because the baby and dog look pretty darn serene--and because I figured you'd already seen more than your share of photos of peaceful moonlit lakes. In reality, while spiritual serenity tops our innate fight-or-flight response, it is not to be confused with a numbed-out, frozen emotional state or with being asleep.
Serenity is an indication that we are at peace with ourselves and our world. It arises not from a lack of caring but rather from a deep acceptance of what is and the ability to see life in perspective.
Serenity can spring from a variety of sources. Buddhist serenity rests on the insight that everything changes and that our attachments and attempts to be in control are futile. A Christian’s serenity is rooted in Jesus’ example and ultimate triumph over suffering and death. The word Islam translates as the serenity that comes from surrendering to God, while Jewish serenity trusts in God’s covenant even in the face of persistent persecution and tragedy.
Serenity is a peace that transcends current circumstances and rests in the very deepest recesses of our hearts. Br. David Steindl-Rast writes that serenity comes from a radical trust—trust in life and trust in God. He says, “Going forward in faith is not a train ride; it’s more like walking on water. The life of faith is a continual test of trust.”
Peter was able to walk on water until his trust wavered. Serenity lies in being able to keep our eyes on the prize and find the calm center of the storm even when the wind and the waves are churning around us.
Awe stops us in our tracks when we come upon a sunset, a night sky sprinkled with stars, or a large body of water. Awe automatically makes us aware of scale: our tiny presence in the face of some kind of immensity. When we look at a night sky we usually feel small in a good way (unless we’re feeling particularly lonely or confused, when a night sky has might heal us - or make us feel a whole lot worse.)
When we encounter the truly awesome, we are reminded that we are not the masters of the universe - and that we and the universe are the better for that fact. We have a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves, something completely outside our control. Awe transcends logic and is beyond argument; it is a way of directly knowing.
Until fairly recently most humans lived in close contact with nature. While the experience wasn't always pleasant, it had a certain humbling effect. The limits of human control were hard to escape, even for the very wealthy. C.S. Lewis reminded us that humility is not denying our talents but instead remembering they are gift. Awe evaporates rather than crushes the arrogance that leads us to believe we are the center of the universe and the source of its benefits.
To keep our egos in check, to keep our sense of the world reasonably accurate, we need to revisit awe frequently. We experience awe when we give our attention to something marvelous, whether to the elegance of a mathematical equation, the majesty of a piece of music or the precision of a colony of ants whisking their eggs to safety after their hill has been totaled by a toddler with a stick. If we pay attention, opportunities for awe are everywhere.
THE BODY'S INFORMATION LOOP
We used to think that our bodies took information in through our senses, processed it, and then directed our bodies to take action. We now know that the nervous system embedded in every inch of our body sends information to our brains in an ongoing feedback loop, often intensifying our reactions to an event. Way too often, this loop gets in our way.
Our spiritual practices can work by interrupting a negative feedback cycle. I leave work, notice the sun setting, and thank God for the beauty. My physical reaction, which has been simmering all afternoon and perhaps prompting me to take action that makes things worse, settles down.
If I pay attention, I can learn from this moment to:
1) Not assume that just because I'm agitated there is therefor something wrong and
2) If I take action to calm my physical agitation I can settle into a clearer sense of reality and deepen my spiritual resilience.
This week, try using body awareness to notice a moment when your physical reaction is causing you to blow an event out of proportion. Try using a spiritual practice you've learned to directly intervene with your physical response.
Quote from I Am Through You So I, p. 77
Top photo: Buzzsharer.com
On August 23, 1989, almost two million people held hands and scarves spanning 419 miles across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The event was part of a larger struggle challenging the Soviet Union's domination of the Baltic region. Demonstrators kept their spirits up by singing, drawing on the region's long history of massive choral music gatherings events celebrating Baltic culture and history. The effort eventually resulted in the independence of the three countries from Soviet control. To see a trailer for the inspiring documentary chronicling what came to be known as The Singing Revolution, click here.
Inspiration is a friendlier name for an emotion psychologists call moral elevation. It's our emotional response when we witness an act of moral beauty. Our hearts are touched, the world lights up, and we feel a spontaneous desire to be and do better. In the case of The Singing Revolution, we see an enormous crowd of vulnerable people standing up to a brutal regime, not only incredibly brave but also creating something beautiful in the moment. We are reminded, at least for a moment, that such a thing can happen and that we can imagine ourselves being a part.
Stories of heroism are inspiring, and they are all around us. Opportunities for inspiration also go beyond actual events. They account in part for the incredible success of the Harry Potter series. Music, art, dance and theater at their best all have the power to evoke an intense sense of the greater possibilities in ourselves and others.
A moment of inspiration can stop us in our tracks and set us down facing in an entirely new direction. Spiritual heroes often describe a watershed moment in their lives when they were overcome by an inspiration that triggered a long and sometimes painful process of moral transformation. Many of us can look back on people or moments that were turning points, that inspired us to aim higher, try harder, see more in ourselves and the world. The feeling of inspiration is particularly important in our cynical age, when so many we have looked up to turn out to have feet made of clay and sometimes knives in their back pockets.
We've all grown used to youtube moments going viral. Some explode onto the scene because they're funny, others because they're controversial. Some of the best hit a nerve because they inspire us to compassion.
Compassion lies at the core of every great spiritual tradition. It is a feeling of care and concern for others, especially for those who are suffering. Compassion is distinct from pity and empathy. Pity is often criticized as patronizing, springing essentially from a one-up position. Most of us resist being the object of others’ pity. Empathy involves feeling another’s pain as if it were our own, and brain imaging demonstrates the pain centers of empathetic individuals’ brains light up when they observe other’s suffering.
Compassion goes a step beyond empathy to include an impulse to take action to help. Compassion includes an element of discomfort that prompts us to do something to relieve other’s difficulty. It is at the heart of every great heroic story. When we witness compassion we are inspired to be braver and more generous ourselves.
Jesus didn't come just to make us feel good. In fact, he had all kinds of unsettling messages like "Take up your cross and follow me" and "Turn the other cheek." Other directives were less startling but still a challenge: "Feed the hungry." "Visit the imprisoned." He wasn't kidding.
Positive spiritual emotions by their very nature bring us beyond ourselves to connect with God, other creatures and our wisest selves. If we seek positive emotions simply to benefit ourselves, we transform them into something very different. When we make it all about us we transform a flowing stream into a stagnant pool.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICE: SERVICE
We don’t generally think of emotions as having a purpose, but they do. Many prime us to take action. A painful sensation like fear prompts us to avoid a situation or throw up a defense, while loneliness stirs us to reach out to connect with other people.
Positive spiritual emotions like compassion and inspiration prepare us to take action to reach out and help, to make the world a better place. The emotions are bittersweet. On the one hand we are filled with a sense of the beauty of what might be, while at the same time being tugged by the undertow of sadness or even outrage at what is. We sense for a moment a world that makes sense and where everyone thrives, while at the same time having a heightened awareness of the suffering of the world as it is. We simultaneously experience deep joy and intense pain.
As I struggle to come to grips with our current situation I am aware of wanting to expose myself to practices, stories, conversations that bring me to balance. I want to be informed and aware of the terrifying reality unfolding around us, but not to the point where it paralyzes me. When my brain starts to spin into anxiety or despair, I pull out one of the spiritual practices we've discussed to help me get back to center.
But I am careful to not insulate myself too much. A healthy dose of reality creates the discomfort we need to do something. The world needs us, and we need to be in contribution. Like our other spiritual practices, service also has plenty of research verifying its positive impact on our wellbeing. We are wired to connect and to care.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The difference? A sense of efficacy and control.
Part of our distress at this time is a feeling of helplessness. Like field soldiers in an extended conflict, we are at risk of losing the ability to think and to feel. Taking action gives us a sense of power, a knowledge that even though we can't fix the world we can make a difference in our corner.
One of our current losses is our old ways of being in contribution have disappeared, at least temporarily. Schools and social service agencies have closed; volunteers have been furloughed. For a time we have all been like deer in headlights, frozen in place, with little bandwidth available to think creatively beyond our own small circle. But the need is greater now than ever, and those of us with capacity and resources need to become creative in finding ways to be of actual practical support to others. We will benefit as deeply as they.
SPIRITUAL EMOTION: LOVE
Love can be a verb or it can be a choice. As an emotion love is a warm, joyful, momentary connection with another or good. We can legitimately love nature or music or our dog or our goofy neighbor or our president. Love in the moment is spontaneous, but we often have to till our soul's soil so those spontaneous moments can happen.
I've heard meditation described as a long, loving look at reality. I get it, although I can't do it all that well. I've also heard it described as a time when, "I look at God and God looks at me." When we place ourselves consciously in God's presence we enter into a deeper realm of love. We increase our own capacity to give and receive love, to notice when it pops up unexpectedly.
Jesus called us to do love and to experience love. When we partner with others to actively bring about good we encounter spontaneous moments of love. We may be surprised by the good-heartedness or wisdom of someone in the room; we may experience greater love for ourselves.
In the end it all comes down to love. If it's true that God is love, than love does literally make the world go 'round. We need to draw on all the means at our disposal to step on to that merry-go-round.
Top photo: Shawna Pierson, Flickr