“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep and I fall asleep counting my blessings.” ~Irving Berlin from the musical White Christmas
Happy Holiday Season, Spunky Friends! Before I begin my post on how mindfulness leads to gratitude, I have a confession. I have had a really difficult struggle with living in gratitude this past year. I consciously abandoned my mindfulness and gratitude practices and replaced them with constant angst from a 24 hour negative news cycle and far too much time spent behind my computer and on social media. I allowed the ugliness of the outside world to cloud and poison my inside world. I was choosing “activism”, I told myself. And yes, activism is good and necessary but not if you allow the fight to crush your soul. Meanwhile, my compromised inside was not giving a lot of love to an outside world that needed it more than ever. So, when my kids, finally and in not so many words, informed me that I had become sad, grumpy, and didn’t laugh much anymore, I knew it was time to give my myself a swift and hearty kick in the tush and resume my essential practices. Over the past two months, the dark clouds have begun to clear and bits of light are finding their way back in. I suppose we all fall off the proverbial wagon from time to time. I keep reminding myself that what matters most is to not forget the lesson the fall has taught me. For me that lesson is that no matter how out of control things seem, there is always much to be grateful for if we just allow ourselves to see beyond darkness. The most effective tool, in my life, for seeing beyond darkness and into gratitude is mindfulness. The key is that it must be practiced. Continually. That was lesson 2.
Mindfulness Opens the Door to Gratitude and Visa Versa
The concept of mindfulness has been around for millennia but it is used so flippantly today that it’s meaning and application can get lost in translation. Put in the most simple terms, mindfulness is “actively noticing” the present moment without judgement. If you’re a human, that’s a fairly tall order because we tend to judge, a lot. However, imagine that while you’re in the midst of experiencing your normal, chaotic, trying to get your family out the door, kind of weekday morning, you instead step back, take a deep breath and look at the moment mindfully. In that moment, beyond the chaos and the burden of your own expectations, you may see a clearer picture of what is in front of you; a warm home, healthy kids, solid employment, reliable schools, and access to healthy food to feed your family. Perception is everything and in this way mindfulness is a precursor to gratitude. Instead of pulling your hair out in that moment, you can see the beauty present in the chaos. The more “active noticing” you practice in your daily life, the more you will find yourself grateful for everyday moments that you would have otherwise taken for granted. It’s truly transformative.
Mindfulness and Gratitude Can Restore Holiday Wonder
If you’re anything like me as the holidays approach, you are looking forward to them but with some trepidation. While our childhoods may have allowed us to experience the “wonder of it all”, adulthood’s responsibilities, to-do lists, financial concerns, and family drama may have taken a bit of the shine off of the season. However, realizing that much of the expectation placed on us around the holidays is self inflicted, it might be a good idea to do a “mindful inventory” of what matters most to you during the holiday season. My list consists of a holiday which is:
- focused on gratitude rather than acquiring more stuff
- full of time spent with people I love rather than just fulfilling obligations
- full of old and new traditions that create meaning and memories for my family and friends
- full of kindness, compassion, and peace
This kind of simple inventory makes it easy to prioritize the things that bring you joy throughout the season while letting the non-essentials drop away.
A Daily Practice
As I mentioned, in order for mindfulness to work its magic, it must be consistently practiced. In addition to “active noticing” and “mindful inventories”, a daily gratitude meditation has been the game changer for me. Mine is a very simple but effective practice. Here is how it goes down:
- I find a quiet space inside or outside where I am unlikely to be disturbed for 10 minutes. If 5 is all you can squeeze in, that works, too.
- I sit comfortably, close my eyes and begin with 5-10 deep breaths. Inhale for 7 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 7 seconds. Repeat. You should find your mind and body calmed.
- I then think about my day and try to come up with a least 3 unique things that I feel grateful for. That doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful for your kids everyday, it just means you are finding something new about your kids to be grateful for. The unique aspect is important….no cop-outs here. 🙂
- After I’ve gone through my gratitude list, I switch to a loving-kindness focus and wish people in my world well. I don’t have to know them. I don’t have to even like them but I do have to find a way to wish them well. I often find the quickest path to forgiveness is this practice.
- I close by bringing my focus back to my breath until I am ready for the practice to end.
This is typically my end of day practice because it sends me more peacefully off to slumber. I do sit upright because if I attempt a supine posture, I am likely to fall asleep before I am done. Your routine might look a little different and that is absolutely fine. Do what works for you. Just practice.
Post Script: Where Gratitude Alone Falls Short
While gratitude has been shown to increase our overall well being and happiness, it is important to acknowledge its limitations as it is impossible to find gratitude in all things. Tragedies happen, as do sadness and despair. A mindfulness practice does not teach us to bury our emotions, rather to make us fully aware as we are experiencing them, feeling them, and allowing the emotion to naturally fade with time. It’s an indispensable skill set. When you pair your mindfulness and gratitude practices and let go of your angst :), you will have a far more emotionally healthy you.
Cheers to you and yours for a wonderful holiday season!
Looking for ways to be more mindful in other areas of your life? Have you considered implementing simple habits for mindful eating?