Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Gratitude Attitude: Finding Grace in Everyday Life

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

John Milton

Even those of us far removed from childhood can remember the subtle, and not so subtle, reminders from the adults in our lives to be grateful.  The often asked, “What do you say?” was followed by the obligatory “Thank you,” before running off with whatever gift, treat, or act of kindness given to us. 

When not being encouraged to reflexively give thanks, more dramatic methods were employed.  Perhaps you remember the frightening little phrase, “I complained of having no shoes until I saw a man with no feet.” Or, maybe like me, on more than one occasion you found yourself staring at a plate of a disagreeable food offering and being told “There are starving children in China (the location seems to vary based on generational and cultural factors) that would love to eat this."  And, maybe like me, you thought, “If a starving child in China wants this, let’s wrap it up and send it on its way.”
The intention, of course, was to foster a sense of gratitude in us.  The unintended consequence of the guilt-ridden, “Do it or else” approach, is that it takes a spontaneous experience and turns it into something we must do on command.  This seems to follow many of us into adulthood and, despite learning to appreciate the taste of broccoli, (the disagreeable food substance of my youth) many of us have a hard time swallowing the concept that gratitude is anything more than just good manners.
Interestingly, the word gratitude comes from the Latin root gratia, which is also the root for grace.  Both mean "to be pleased," or "thankful."  It’s an irony  that many families say grace before sitting down to a plate of food that, in some cases, children in some far off country would be more grateful to have.  On a much deeper level, however, grace and gratitude are intrinsically woven into the fabric of life; the warp and woof of existence.  Their arrival adds the sweet fragrance of wonder to everyday happenings. They simaltaneously steer us through, and transform, the struggles, challenges, and sufferings of everyday life.
Gratitude seems to be going through a renaissance of late.  The current selling point is that it can turn otherwise painful situations into opportunities for growth.  This has even shown up in my professional field of psychotherapy where clients are encouraged to “practice” gratitude with the understanding that when they focus on what’s good about their day they will feel better.  The trap door, however, lies in that the prescription to practice gratitude may be seen as just another version of something one ought to do.  With the echoes of, “Because it’s good for you,” ringing in their ears, many are still left staring ata plate of limp broccoli that is the world and all of its challenges. (My humble apologies to broccoli, which I have, on my own, come to love and appreciate.)
How does one find the healing power of gratitude when it’s all too obvious that life includes suffering; when our knee-jerk reaction is “Thanks, but no thanks”?  Does a list of “What went right today” really trump the painful hands many feel they have been dealt?  How do we keep gratitude from becoming just a more dressed up version of the optimist’s doctrine of “Don’t worry be happy”? 
As someone who has gone through the cancer experience, fully convinced that if cancer did not take me out of this world then its treatment would, I can tell you that even that experience does not move one permanently into a state of gratitude.   I find this to be the case with many of the client’s I've seen who’ve gone through traumatic experiences, to include life threatening illnesses.  Many emerged with a profound sense of gratitude for still being alive, only to find that it faded like a summer tan; leaving them, once again, pale and tired of life’s minutia.  
Gratitude, it seems, is not something one can will into one’s life.  Like its counterpart grace, it seems to arrive on its own accord.  The good news is that it is a vital element of our true nature. The even better news is that rather than having to be taught to appreciate life, we can unlearn those things that blind us to life’s wonders.
We can begin by refusing to feed gratitude’s opposite.  Let’s be honest, the more we take things for granted the less pleasing life seems. Additionally, when we begin to expect the worst in an attempt to avoid disappointment, we step into a trap of our own making.  We become ensnared in the twisted logic that there's something to gain in having our belief that “Life sucks and then you die” confirmed.   As a result, if the awful thing does not come about, gratitude is replaced by the terrible twins pessimism and cynicism. 

In order to open the door to gratitude, it helps to see that all life moves towards happiness and the universe provides endless gifts just waiting to be opened.  And while a polite, and even heart-felt, “Thank you” is the mannerly thing to do, we should heed the words of the writer Richard Bach who wrote “The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.”  Isn’t this the ultimate expression of gratitude?  Once we break free the bonds of guilt, unworthiness, or whatever other psychological mechanisms stand between ourselves and our enjoyment, we will find the awe in everyday life.  This, in turn, will alter our experience and change our very existence into one great “Thank you.” 
Additional tips for creating an opening for gratitude to flow freely include: 
1. Say “yes” to offers from others for help, assistance or support.  
2. Practice saying “I don’t know” more often.  Rather than a sign of a lack of commitment, it’s a sign that you’re committed to keeping an open mind. 
3. Have you cake and eat it too.  Deprivation leads to desperation and it’s hard to feel pleased when frantically try to get our needs met. 
4. Avoid the expectation trap.  Nothing spoils a feel-good moment like wanting, needing or craving its return.  Live in the now as it's the playground of grace and gratitude.
5. Forget “Give until it hurts” and “Give until it feels good.” If you’re not finding joy in your giving then all of your gifts carry the stain of suffering.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Artwork by Ralph Verano

Looking back over some of my recent posts, I was astounded by the lack of humor in some of them. The serious tone and, dare I say, preachiness, made me pause and reflect. When did I confuse pacifist with weightiness? I don't feel that one has to take on a solemn tone when walking a more peaceful path through life. As a matter of fact, I have always believed that a sense of humor was a key element when trying to dodge the slings and arrows of the path of most resistance. What gives?

Upon further reflection I realized I had fallen prey to one of the lesser known side effects of going through major life events. This side effect, unlike the ones that come along with chemotherapy, arises solely from the mind and has only one full-proof remedy. The effect is to look at life way too deeply and the cure is to simply knock it off.

Let's be honest, when I say the word pacifist the image that most likely pops into your head it one of a peacenik, sticking flowers into instruments of death, and chanting, "We are the world." Where's the fun in that? Who says that one cannot strive for a higher cause while taking the low road of slapstick comedy? Where is it written that we can't take the "mean" out of meaningful and just have a good laugh now and then?

It was Oscar Wilde who said, "Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about" and he wasn't kidding. Or maybe he was? Who knows? Who cares? It's a great quote.

We are repeatedly told that laughter is the best medicine. Current neuroscience research even indicates that simply smiling is good for the brain. Of course there are times when the joke not only is lost on us, it seems that we are the very brunt of the joke.  It's the feeling that the punchline has hit us right in the solar plexus, or, in my case of cancer, right in the thymus gland, which is just a little higher. It's ironic that this profound sense of laughter would leave us just when we needed it most.

The problem lies with confusing serious with important, and funny with trivial. When strength of conviction hardens it loses its flexibility and can no longer smile. In rigid fashion it poo poos the free-spirited, spontaneous, "Take life as it comes," approach (poo, now there's a funny word).

I've seldom heard a cancer survivor, or survivor of other traumas, for that matter, exclaim, "You know, I find that I'm a lot funnier now for what I've been through." Maybe that means it's time to take on a viewpoint best expressed by an old Robin Williams joke that goes, "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing near you." Tragedies can bring a heavy-hardheartedness to our lives so why not counter with a lighter heart? If we're going to head into the deep waters of the meaning of life after a close call, why not strap on the laughing gas instead of the oxygen tank? 

It is most likely some innate wisdom, and not so subtle reminder, that tears accompany both a good cry and good laugh. Surely, in both cases they spring from the same profound source of . . . thought I was going to get all deep on you there, didn't you? Seriously? : )

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Don't Take It Personally: Cancer as Yoga

In the mirror of your mind all kinds of pictures appear and disappear. Knowing that they are entirely your own creations, watch them silently come and go. Be alert, but not perturbed. This attitude of silent observation is the very foundation of yoga.
 –Sri Nisargaddata Maharaj

During a recent counseling session, a client was sharing with me the current stressors in his life. He was feeling increasing pressure both at home and at work, and it was exacting a heavy toll on his overall health. At some point during our talk he mentioned that he is a cancer survivor, having been through treatment, recurrence, and a second treatment. He proudly pointed to the scar on his chest where his port had been and talked about what it was like to see a “dying face in the mirror everyday” only to find the courage to face another round of chemotherapy.

As I listened, recalling my own scars from the cancer trek, he hit upon a theme that I have found in many of the people I have worked with who have been through life-altering experiences. This theme, which I have to confess I find within myself, he expressed as “I can’t believe I’m letting these little things in life bother me again.” 

I've often heard from people who've gone through traumatic experiences that their perspectives shifted and revealed previously unknown qualities. The self that each discovered was more resilient, courageous and balanced. Upon reflection, many see this as one of the gifts that come from living focused squarely on the present moment. The eventual return to the more familiar self, filled with worries, lacking in self-confidence, and a victim of past and future is what I refer to as the persistence of personality. This was crystallized by a young woman who had been through treatment for breast cancer who said, “I was a better person while going through treatment.”

The fact that the shock of a cancer diagnosis, and the journey into the labyrinth of treatment, can bring about dramatic shifts in one’s self has deep roots in psychology. It can even be said that the primary aim of psychotherapy is to help facilitate such transformations. That these changes often don’t become permanent is a testament to the strength of our egoic selves — the mind made sense of who we are — and the habitual manner in which most of us live our lives. The great news for anyone who has had this experience and now laments the loss of the “Now I see what’s important” self, is that it is not lost. The even greater news is that, rather than a false self arising momentarily out of chaos, it is, in fact, the true self. It is the shattering nature of a cancer diagnosis that shakes the foundations of the ego and cracks its hard shell. Through these cracks emerges the ever-present, shining, self. 

Interestingly for many of us survivors, the further we move away from the treatment experience the less contact we seem to have with our treatment selves. Looking at the world again through old eyes, molehills once again become mountains, it rains on every parade, and our picks for the grand prize on Dancing with the Stars are cast out after the first round. Life starts to hurt again. At this point, some survivors will practice the mantra of “I’ve been through worse.” While certainly true, this chant seldom works for very long as memory is never as powerful as our here-and-now experience. Others will adopt the alternative approach of entitlement. This technique’s subtext is, “The world owes me,” and due to an unsubstantiated belief in fairness, we feel we have the right to stress and worry over whatever we want because, after all, we had cancer.

In my work as a therapist, a leader of a cancer support group, and four years into my own survivorship, I find the middle path works the best when it comes to the persistence of personality. When working with clients I will suggest that they see the return of their old patterns of thinking and behaving as a natural rebound effect. It is the ego’s job to try to maintain a sense of familiarity, to include our idiosyncrasies and dysfunctional behaviors. I try to help them see that their egoic selves only grow stronger when they resist and try to fight. I will then remind them that their true selves emerged during their time of crisis not due to their effort, but to surrender. It was there in the shadows just waiting for the moment when their attempts to control life failed.

Eckhart Tolle compassionately addresses this experience of tragedy leading to victory when he says, "There is nothing more beautiful than a failed story." He goes on to add that all the stories about who we are eventually fail. Those cursed/ blessed with a life-altering illness come to this realization sooner than most. The question, then, is not how do we keep the old self from returning, but what do we do when it does? The better part of wisdom seems to be to not take it personally, refuse it the attention it seeks, and, most importantly, allow it to go as it must. 

Upon investigation, it’s revealed that it was not the cancer that brought about these changes, (good news for those who want the experience without the illness) it was the shift into a level of present moment awareness we seldom allow ourselves. When we no longer live in a remembered past and imagined future we experience what the Buddhists call the “suchness” of life, what the Chinese call the “flowing of the Tao” and what Eckhart Tolle has named the “power of now.” This is why many people who go through life-altering experiences will take up meditative practices and/or yoga. The formalized practice of being aligned with the present moment promises the return to the state where, despite the nagging doubts, suffering transmutes into peace. 

In this way cancer itself becomes yoga; joining the outer self, with its habitual patterns of fight and flight, with the inner self and its reflexive response of equanimity. Within this field of awareness, illness and health are simply states of the mind. They are opposites but not in opposition, and held together by the ever-present witness. The timeless act of dividing the world, if even just for a moment, ends and duality merges into the absolute Oneness. Not only is there no cancer here, there is no longer an “I.” We no longer take life personally, and awakening from the dream of separation the words of the great sage Sri Nisargaddata Maharaj make perfect sense; “All separation, every kind of estrangement and alienation is false. All is one.”