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.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grief of Grieving

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.                                    
-Khalil Gibran

It there is one statement that summarizes most of the therapy sessions I've had with clients over the past twenty-nine years it would be, “Help me make the pain stop.”  Very often this experience of pain, mostly psychological and emotional, but sometimes physical, is associated with some type of loss.  It can be the loss of a loved one through separation, divorce, or death, the loss of family pet, the loss of a job, social standing or status, and even the loss of a cherished dream or belief. As all cancer survivors know, it can also be associated with being diagnosed with a life-altering illness.  The experience of this suffering is what most of us refer to as grief. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that grief, from the Latin gravare, "to make heavy,” is a part of life.  It’s normal, we are told, to feel sad and heavy-hearted when we experience loss.  However, under the sheer weight of this burden, very little seems “normal” and many of us worry that we will be unable to hold up and carry on.

While all grief is connected to loss, not all loss leads to grief. We can all look back at our lives and count numerous losses that did not lead to grief responses.  How is it that certain situations create such deep pain and emotional scars, while others leave barely a scratch? 

The answer is that we experience suffering in direct proportion to our level of attachment—a felt sense of connection—to a person or thing. This connection is a uniquely personal perception and helps explain why people vary in their responses to losses.  For instance, the loss of a job for someone who perceives that his or her sense of self-worth is defined by what he or she does for a living will likely feel catastrophic. The same job loss for someone who has little sense of self invested will feel much less devastating.

Traditional grief work seeks to help individuals understand and work their way through the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth KΓΌbler-Ross as denial, depression, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  Those grieving are advised that these are not sequential steps and that there is no set time-frame for moving through the stages. Mourners are encouraged to seek support, express their feelings, and be patient with themselves while they find ways to adjust to the loss.

Common expressions during this adjustment period include, “Nothing seems real,” “My heart is broken,” or “I feel dead inside.” The fear that underlies these statements is that one will not survive this feeling; that the broken heart can no longer sustain a meaningful life. Grieving itself becomes the source of pain. One is left feeling like C.S. Lewis when he wrote, “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

To find comfort during such times requires a new way of looking at grief. Instead of focusing on bringing the grieving process to an end, sometimes called “closure,” we can see it as an opening into the very nature of life. When we look through this opening with a compassionate heart we will experience not just the grief, but also a sense of relief and gratitude, or what I call gralief. 

Gralief begins by shifting our focus away from the past, before the loss happened, and the future, where the loss will remain, to the present moment. Here, there is no “life before” and “life after,” there is just life. When we are not being pulled apart by these opposing forces we realize that not only are we going to survive the loss we encountered, we will survive the grief process as well. This sense of relief allows us to look at our pain and see that it holds lessons for us which, paradoxically, are able to heal the broken heart. The wisdom gained from these lessons leads to gratitude—an appreciation for the natural rhythms of gain and loss, up and down, life and death. We are grateful to see that hiding in the shadows of our losses are unimagined treasures which are revealed after the walls we build to protect ourselves break down—or more to the point, break open—and let in the light of our awareness.

Gralief teaches us the art of letting go, thereby allowing us to discover that our losses are not interruptions in our life; they are a part of the process. It allows us to feel a very deep connection to people and things in our life, minus the need to cling to them when they move on. We are able to, as Khalil Gibran says, “Watch with serenity through the winters of our grief," knowing that even sadness, pain, and suffering come to an end in their season.

Getting some gralief:
1.   Create rituals that acknowledge the loss and honor your courage in facing it. (A good friend sends a balloon over the ocean every year with a message attached in memory of her father.)
2.   If you are struggling to accept what has happened outside of you, accept what is happening inside—allow the sadness and hurt to be there and observe them with self-compassion, as you would watch over a good friend who was suffering. 
3.   Use prayers, mantras, or affirmations during particularly hard times. (“This too shall pass,” the serenity prayer, or simply meditative breathing helps bring one back to present moment that is life.)
4.   Challenge guilty feelings and the thoughts which create them. (Too often people deepen their grief through feeling that they could have or should have done something to prevent the loss.)
5.   Keep a mental, or physical, diary of all the things in life that you are grateful for and make them the last things on your mind before going to bed.
6.   Take some time to reflect on all the things in your life that you once thought you could never live without and realize that while they have come and gone, you remain.
7.   If you are dealing with multiple losses at one time, as is often the case, feel free to place your grief on hold. (A client once told me she had no interest in grieving the pending loss of her job as she was already grieving the loss of a significant other and her health.)
8.   Remember that the word solemn essentially means "ceremonial," not "serious." It’s ok to smile, joke, and laugh when grieving.
9.  Find ways to support others who are grieving—you become the light at the end of their tunnel.
10. Forget about being your "old self" again and focus on the new you that is being born before your eyes.

Most importantly, forget about trying to go this alone. If friends and loved ones aren’t
Immediately available, seek the support of professionals. Simply finding a watchful
eye and listening ear can help ease the pain.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Battle Scars

“The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” General Douglas MacArthur

My wife and I spent the last week on vacation at Cape Cod. It’s impossible for me to walk their wonderful beaches without thinking about the classic movie Jaws. There also was the ever-present reminder at every beach entrance:

No wonder I kept thinking, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."

One of my favorite scenes from the original Jaws is when the shark hunters are killing time on their boat by comparing battle scars. click here for the scene. It’s the old salty dog, Captain Quint, who takes the prize with the tale of his wartime tragedy of being thrown into shark infested waters. After pointing to the tattoo on his arm of the USS Indianapolis, Quint tells of how he and fellow shipmates had to fend off the dark eyed monsters of the deep (this actual true story is profoundly tragic and heroic click here) . When he has finished, his current shipmates are in silent awe until the good Captain breaks out in song, to be joined by the eager Mr. Hooper, and the seasoned Chief Brody.

Like many cancer survivors, I have my own battle scars. I have the seam running down my chest from thoracic surgery to remove the tumor. I can also point out body parts that were altered. I even have the tattoos that mark me as a member of the radiation club (these permanent ink marks are used to accurately aim the radiation beam to prevent unnecessary tissue damage). I have to confess that there are times when I see these as badges of honor; reminders of a journey into the dark night of my illness, and the emergence back into the light. I also feel a kinship with other survivors, whose bodies have similarly been imprinted with the telltale marks of their being tossed into the uncertain waters of a life-altering illness.

I find, however, that the urge to tell the story associated with these body alterations, fades with every passing year. Retelling the tale gives glory to something that, I find, is better off left in the dusty corners of memory. The, “My scars are deeper than your scars,” contest is one where the winners are often left with a shallow victory.

Regardless of their appeal, stories about the dramatic events in our lives are still only that; stories. As narratives, they seem to give meaning and a sense of coherence to otherwise random and painful events. The danger lies in confusing the story of what happened to us with who we really are; the ever present, one life that is untouched by the scrapes and bruises of a bodily existence. To drop the identification with an illness, a tragic circumstance, or suffering opens one up to experience the fullness of Life. Or, to put it in terms that would appeal to Captain Quint, “You ain’t your head, you ain’t your tale, you’re the whole damn thing."