The Heart of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

…keep reading…

What Are You Holding Back?

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” (The Dalai Lama) 

Wikimedia CommonsMy talent as a cook is about equal to my interest in cooking—random and fleeting, sporadic at best. Fortunately for me and our friends, my husband is a good cook, and a venturesome one. He does the lion’s share of the meal prep in our household.

Many years ago, he decided he wanted to master potato salad. He tried several recipes, but never found one that excited him. His stepmother made an exceptionally good potato salad and that’s what he was aiming for. So he asked step-mom for her recipe. She refused.

For whatever reason, she didn’t want anyone else to have her recipe. I wish I could say I was surprised, but she was one of those people who held tightly to everything she had. She had neither open hands nor an open heart. A few years later she died, taking with her the secret to her great potato salad. Sadly, the loss of the salad was probably mourned more than the loss of the woman.

Bill did finally find a great potato salad recipe, shared by TV personality Joan Lunden. We appreciate her generosity every time we enjoy the salad and make it for friends.

As previously noted, my own cooking is generally mediocre and uninspired, but on those rare occasions when someone asks for one of my recipes, I am elated and eager to comply. I have even been known to inflict unrequested recipes on my dinner victims guests. And, fortunately, my friends—who are all fabulous cooks—are always generous in sharing their recipes.

I’ve never understood people who are unwilling to share their recipes. What is it they’re holding on to? Does it give them a sense of superiority to know that no one else will ever be able to replicate their Chicken Marsala or Cherry Chocolate Walnut Cream-Cheese Pie? How much better it would be to know there are people preparing our recipes and thinking of us fondly as they do.

Refusing to share a recipe is just one example of how we sometimes senselessly withhold things in our lives—from recipes, to compliments, to knowledge, to assistance.

In my professional life, I occasionally saw this behavior exhibited by colleagues who somehow felt that holding information close to their vest gave them an advantage. I would see them strategically spring their information in a board or committee meeting, often blindsiding other colleagues who would have welcomed the knowledge earlier. Sometimes this resulted in needless scrambling to adapt to new information that should have been provided sooner. While the individual who withheld the information may have been perceived as smart or powerful, they were acting in their own interest rather than the group’s or organization’s.

Writer Annie Dillard has addressed this more eloquently than anyone I know:

“The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

How many of us are guilty of saving things for special occasions, realizing only much later that we never actually enjoyed having them. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a delicate china tea-cup, or a journal so beautiful we hesitate to write in it. Often those special occasions never come, and we die with our treasures neatly tucked away, wrapped in tissue paper.

A story to illustrate this made the rounds of cyberspace many years ago. The author writes about how she and her brother-in-law found an exquisite and expensive silk and lace slip among her sister’s things after she died. It had never been worn—she had been saving it for years for just the right “special occasion.” They had her buried in it.

As writers, we are sometimes guilty of holding onto our ideas, saving them for just the right time, waiting for the ideal place to share them, or the perfect time to tell our story. We delay so long that sometime those stories never get told—and we were the only one who could have told it in just that way. What were we waiting for?

What we love and treasure is not meant to be hoarded or held back, but to be used, shared, enjoyed, and savored. More will come, it always does. Likewise, what we have or know and can give to others is meant to be offered.

Is there anything in your life that you’re holding back—either not sharing with others or not allowing yourself to enjoy? What are you waiting for?

“Don’t die with your best song still unsung.” (Anonymous)

The Surest Way to Have a Disappointing Holiday Season

snowflakeIf we want to experience joy this season, we need to stop keeping score in our relationships. I wrote and posted a message last January that seems especially relevant now, with the holidays upon us. Keeping score is the fastest way to assure disappointment and resentment. Click here to travel back in time and read the original post.

 

A Dozen Reasons to Choose Kindness

“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” (Theodore Isaac Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronThe decision to make kindness a central element in our lives does not automatically imbue us with that important quality. Like so many other things we choose to care about, that’s just the beginning. Practice is required if we want to become proficient. Just as they say you need to practice if you want to play the piano well … or you need to write regularly if you want to be a writer … or you need to practice your swing if you want to shoot par in golf, you also need to strengthen your kindness muscle by using it regularly. The result—eventually—will be that kindness comes naturally and even sometimes effortlessly. That’s the sweet spot.

But, of course, if we’re going to practice something, there needs to be a good reason. If it’s writing, maybe you want to be published, or you want to be able to express yourself through stories that will entertain or inspire. If it’s piano, maybe you want to connect with the music, be part of a jazz combo, or entertain friends. If it’s golf, you’re simply a masochist.

With regard to kindness, it should be enough just to know it’s the right thing to do, but there are also some really good reasons to choose kindness and to practice it until it becomes ingrained in our reflexes. Here are a few:

  1. Kindness is good for our health. There have been several studies about the health benefits of kindness. They show that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they also have increases in happiness, optimism, and self-worth. More specifically:
  2. Kindness has a positive effect on the body’s immune system, as well as on the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body that has a calming, anti-anxiety effect.
  3. Kindness is good for your heart: Acts of kindness often generate an emotional warmth, which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which, in turn, releases nitric oxide in blood vessels causing them to dilate and lower one’s blood pressure, acting as a cardio-protective agent. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardio-vascular system, thus reducing heart disease.
  4. Kindness slows aging: That same reduction of free radicals and inflammation slows aging in the human body. Compassion has similarly been linked to activity in the vagus nerve, which also regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body.
  5. Kindness makes us happier: Kindness elevates the levels of dopamine in the brain, giving us a “natural high.” It has been shown to substantially increase happiness and reduce depression.
  6. Kindness improves relationships: Connecting with one another is actually a genetic predisposition, according to researcher David Hamilton, PhD: “Our evolutional ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.” As a result, kindness helps us build new relationships and enhance existing ones.
  7. Kindness is contagious: Just as colds and flu are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. Kindness begets more kindness. “When we’re kind,” Dr. Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.
  8. Kindness alleviates social anxiety: Recent research showed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance. Individuals who performed acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction, and were more able to participate in group activities.
  9. Kindness is a good reason to get ample rest and sleep: It’s been shown that sleep helps us be kinder. So getting your zzzz’s is a way of extending kindness toward yourself and the planet. You don’t need an excuse for that afternoon siesta! In addition, extending kindness when we’re tired can be as replenishing as a cat-nap, or a jolt of java.
  10. Kindness has been linked to greater life satisfaction: Those who regularly extend generosity and perform acts of kindness report higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives.
  11. Kindness make the workplace more productive and enjoyable: – A kind work environment helps employees feel more engaged; it improves morale, builds loyalty and engagement, reduces absences, and increases profits. Forget all those old-school books on winning through intimidation and fear; kindness is a better business model.
  12. Kindness serves life: Kindness guides us to look for the positive rather than the negative, to seek the best in the people we encounter, and to embrace abundance: we have enough and we are enough. When we do these things, we offer our best selves to life, and help manifest the world as we want it to be.

We don’t really need reasons to extend kindness—kindness is simply the best expression of who and what we are. But in the face of myriad deadlines and obligations it’s easy to look for shortcuts and overlook opportunities to extend kindness, so it never hurts to remind ourselves that there are really good reasons to be kind.

And to practice kindness daily….

“Our greatest gift is to allow ourselves to feel alive in this sea, moving with the tides of lovingkindness as they move into us, through us, out of us into others, only to return again and again.” (Wayne Muller)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)