Gratitude Workout

It’s Thanksgiving week, let’s breathe our way through a gratitude workout. A study of the effects of the pandemic showed that 90% of us have been emotionally affected by it. That’s really not surprising. But for 25% of us, this has resulted in depression. While a temporary state of depression is a natural response to change, it’s possible some will experience long-term or clinical depression as time goes on.

Many Americans are facing trauma and hardship they’ve never seen before – job loss, hunger, severe illness, loss of family, lack of physical contact, unsafe working conditions, and more. This takes a toll even on the strongest and healthiest of us. Yet some will rise to the occasion, feel the effects, find a way to cope, and thrive in the future. Others will become stuck. Genetics, personality, support, and choices all play a role in how we fare.

Even when outside support is lacking, we can become our own support system by building the emotional resilience that will facilitate processing through difficulty and coming out the other side better than before. This can be accomplished through deliberate practices. One tool to build an emotional toolkit is a gratitude practice. I’ve written about this before because it’s always a wonderfully useful tool, but it seems especially important right now.

So much of our cultural conversation is focused on what we don’t have, can’t do, can’t buy, can’t see, can’t experience that we’re at risk of losing sight of the good that surrounds us. A gratitude workout may be just the shift in focus that revitalizes us when we’re dining alone this week.

I’ve used many techniques for practicing gratitude. I started with a series of journals. In those books, I made a list every day of 10 things for which I was grateful. On days when most everything had gone wrong, I had to sit for a very long time to think of that first item. But I’m sure you’ll find as I did that once you think of one thing, you’ll think of more because your focus has finally shifted.

One year, I used a series of neon colored post-its that I collected in a brightly colored plastic box with a pull-out drawer. At the end of each month, I’d go back and read all of the notes. It was a great way to gain perspective on the events of the month. If I gleaned an insight that seemed particularly significant, I’d record it somewhere to ponder later.

The specifics of how you record your lists are not as important as the discipline of doing it. In fact, it’s the discipline that will pave the way for the greatest insight. Those moments when you really don’t feel grateful for anything will get you to dig deeper. But you won’t dig deeper unless disciplined commitment to the process requires that you record something. It’s a lot easier to eat ice cream and pout.

This week of Thanksgiving, you may not be with family. That brings the temptation to only see what’s missing. That’s why I’m planning to combine two practices and breathe my way through a gratitude workout.

How? Before I prepare my Cornish hen, I’m spending some time on my yoga mat. I’m going to sit in easy pose (Sukhasana) or stand in mountain pose (Tadasana) and slow my breath bringing my focus to my sit bones or the four corners of my feet, my thighs, my shoulders, my neck, my face. Once I’ve found the balance between effort and ease, I’ll begin to breathe my gratitude. A long breath in through the nose and a slow breath out for each item on my list. I may add a twist in between and a series of warrior poses before I rest in corpse pose (Savasana).

I’ll express gratitude for grocery delivery, Zoom & FaceTime, the warm weather that made fresh tomatoes and spinach from the garden possible for Thanksgiving, the flavor of those tomatoes, my grandchildren’s laughter, the internet, the heart of healthcare workers, brilliant maple leaves, and strong oak trees with rough bark.

None of those are equal to sitting around the table with my family, but grocery delivery means I have groceries without virus exposure. Zoom and the internet mean I’ll can see my family in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago. Fresh vegetables from my garden mean both healthy and tasty food. And cooking for one rather than a large group means I have time to sit still. Things don’t have to be perfect to enrich my life or make things better than they would be otherwise. I can be grateful for things that are just okay.

In fact, I am grateful for things that are just okay as well as things that are magnificent. But it’s easy to miss the magnificent if I only focus on what is wrong. In this year when it feels like so much has gone awry, a gratitude workout is just what the doctor ordered.

Lessons from the Garden

While I was pulling weeds yesterday, I began reflecting on lessons from the garden. Beyond healthy food, fresh air, sunshine, and closeness to the Earth, gardening brings other positives. And time in the garden when your hands are busy, but your mind is free is time that can be spent exploring them.

I’m not a landscape-pretty raised-bed gardener. Even though I live in the city, I garden like we did on the farm. I have a wire fence enclosure and plant seeds directly in the ground. I’m not as haphazard as my stepfather who just throws a few seeds in a patch of weeds and lets them all grow together. I have rows and I weed in between them as well as in between the plants.

My watering schedule is observational and instinctive. I try to mimic nature. Sometimes I spray with the hand sprayer to impersonate a hard rain that removes larvae from leaves. Other times I use a sprinkler to mimic a slow, soaking rain. If an afternoon is hot, sunny, and bright, I don’t water. Nature would rarely combine heat, bright sun, and rain. So far, I’ve been rewarded with good harvests.

That brings me right back to lessons from the garden:

Finding Balance

Balance is key to my health as well as the health of my garden. Finding balance is part instinct and part effort. My senses tell me when I haven’t had enough water to drink or enough sleep. If I’m a careful observer, I know when I need to say no to that one small obligation that will rob me of needed down time. I know when I need to seek something that stimulates my mind or comforts me physically.

While it sounds like a simple planning issue, a schedule doesn’t work perfectly for keeping balance. Unexpected weather rolls in and everything changes.

Yield to the Weather

And so the garden teaches me that I must yield to the weather. Think how much time we spend attempting to anticipate the weather. Newscasts feature forecasts multiple times an hour. A phone app or website tells us what’s happening 10 days out. We discuss it with friends and look out the window and still sometimes we’re left in a house with no food and no power because a tropical storm turns out to be a Category 2 hurricane or a tornado roars through.

Obviously, not all sudden shifts are from the weather, but the principle applies. With any sudden change that I can’t control, my options are to be flexible and adapt to my new situation or be stuck with a plan that no longer fits.

Patience

While my spring garden had a few weeds, my fall garden was overrun with them by the time I finished forming rows to plant. I weeded and within a day or two the weeds were back. Swift weed removal became my focus. Then I walked down the row of mâche and realized I couldn’t tell the seedlings from the weeds. In order to protect the mâche, I had to let both grow for awhile.

I’m not much for waiting when I know a task is at hand, but the garden teaches patience. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later the wait paid off and there was no question which plants should be removed.

Estimations Can be Wrong

It’s hard to gauge the size of a harvest the first year. You can estimate. You can follow the guidance of experienced gardeners, but your particular garden plot will be unique. Greens may do well and carrots may not. Two of your rows may get more shade than you realized. Having a contingency plan when estimates don’t pan out is always a good idea.

Small Wounds Can Yield Big Pain

My garden has ants. If you’ve ever had an ant bite, you already know the kind of pain they can inflict. It seems wrong. They’re so small. And their bites are so tiny. In fact, they’re so small you may ignore a bite at first. But soon it itches. Then it hurts. A blister forms. By the next day, your whole finger or hand may be swollen. You can’t think about anything besides the bite (especially if there are multiples). All the while, your brain is telling you this is silly. It’s only a tiny ant bite. Get a grip.

Like the physical response to an ant bite, an emotional response may seem disproportionate to a situation. When that response is yours, you may immediately understand that you’re responding to much more than anyone else sees. This is just the straw or it triggered an emotional flashback of sorts. Other times, you may witness someone else experience a large pain that appears to come from a small wound. This can be disconcerting.

Maintaining a connection and holding space for each other to work things out is a soothing compress. The swelling must subside before the pain is gone and that takes a minute. Thank goodness the garden already taught us patience!

For lunch I enjoyed a spinach salad fresh with lessons from the garden. Yum!

Ant Bites

Free Your Mind

“Free your mind and the rest will follow.” 1

Remember that song, “Free Your Mind” from the 1990s? It’s seared into my memory by a moment on the dance floor. I looked to my right and grooving to En Vogue as if she had not a care in the world was a woman about to go on trial for killing her husband. I knew her from the pictures that were plastered on the front of my newspaper every day. I felt shocked, amazed, and somehow challenged/inspired. Even if she was innocent, how could she possibly feel free enough to fully enjoy that moment?

I’ve come back to this question from time to time in the ensuing decades. I inherently understand that no matter what has happened or what other people think, my thoughts are mine. And I’m happy letting my mind roam free. But understanding on a deeper level why she could dance freely in a situation in which I would be more likely to hide requires an exploration of the emotions, training, and thinking that limit me.

Exploring these has led me to some thoughts on how can freeing your mind improve your life. Here are a few:

You cannot control anyone but yourself.

The dancing alleged murderer could not control the crime investigation, the newspaper reports, her employer (who fired her the minute she was arrested without waiting to see if she was guilty), or any of us on the dance floor. She could only control herself.

Attempting to impose limits on someone else so that they will conform to you is futile. When you change yourself, everything around you will shift. Sometimes this may be joyfully in the direction you desire. Other times it will be painful. I witnessed a moment of joy on that dance floor. No matter what my training said about an alleged criminal enjoying life with abandonment, that moment was inspiring.

For everything you think you know about someone, you don’t know much unless you’re willing to invest.

So often we make choices based on people’s outward presentation. This limits our choices for friendships, romantic partners, employees, and caregivers. The caregiver who treats you with kindness, gentleness, affection, and respect may use bad grammar or vote for another political party. The well-read, well-spoken, impeccably dressed professor may beat his wife.

My parents greatly diverged in their understanding of this concept. Very few of my dad’s friends were acceptable to my mother. They were mostly what you’d call colorful characters that brought him laughter, adventure, and intellectual stimulation. My mother preferred socially acceptable appearance above all else. She missed many opportunities for expanding her thinking and enriching her life even within our extended family.

Free your mind to visualize.

When you learn to waterski, you also learn to fall. If you can’t get the falling out of your mind, you won’t get it out of your muscle memory. We accept that many sports require conquering the mind game. Life in general is no different. And just like you can improve your basketball shot by visualizing, you can improve your chances of becoming successful at any goal using the same technique.

I’m not saying that visualization will suddenly make me a great basketball player, but unless I can see the possibility of becoming one, I’m doomed before I start. Many of us have learned how to visualize failure.

Most limits are self-imposed.

If your initial response to this statement is a four-letter word, that’s not surprising. It’s more enticing to believe that we are limited by outside forces. It is a fact that outside forces affect us and may change the options, but they limit us less than we believe they do. When we let go of the idea that outside forces control our fate, we are required to face our own demons.

Taking responsibility for our limiting thoughts and behavior is much more emotionally difficult. It may require processing through anger, grief, and loss. It may require a shift in self-image. It will require some decisions that don’t feel good. Letting go of self-imposed limits is not easy, but to the degree it’s hard it’s also healing and rewarding.

Flip the script.

If you understand the value of freeing your mind but aren’t sure how to start seeing the possibilities, try flipping the script. For example, instead of imagining only how awful you’ll feel if you don’t get the job you really want, imagine how great you’ll feel when you do. Don’t stop there. Imagine days, months, and years filled with excitement and fulfillment. Hold onto those thoughts and feelings until you feel a shift from anxiety to confidence.

It is at that moment that the world of possibilities will open. You don’t need that particular job anymore. You want it, but it’s not the only gig in the world worth having. There are millions of opportunities. When your mind is free to embrace all the options, you’ll be free to see abundance instead of scarcity.

It’s not mind over matter.

For some this will work differently. If you have experienced significant trauma, you may need to free your body before you can free your mind. The two are significantly intertwined. There’s nothing wrong with this and there are great tools to help – somatic experiencing therapy, EMDR, and yoga for trauma are all great options for helping your body release so your mind can follow.

Another benefit of freeing your mind is problem solving will get easier. There are multiple solutions to any problem that presents itself. An open mind makes it possible to imagine creative and innovative approaches. Easier problem solving alone is a great reason to free your mind!

I’ll just dance my way out now.

https://www.kheljournal.com/archives/2015/vol1issue6/PartB/1-5-77.pdf

http://www.cooking2thrive.com/blog/preparation-healing-manage-expectations/

Need Some Tools To Help You Thrive?

Need some tools to help you thrive? Cooking is a tool for some. Biking is a tool for others. Gardening, yoga, meditation, gratitude journals, and volunteering are tools. Some people can just pick those up on their own, but some of us need help getting started.

So many things in the world are out of balance right now that it’s hard to focus. I’m usually good with efficient time management and plowing through a to-do list but right now there are days that I feel distracted and restless. I don’t really care whether I accomplish anything.

I think it’s that I just don’t want to push myself. I need to leave plenty of time and space to be and to process the myriad emotions brought on by distance, separation, virus threats, work changes, and added everyday tasks. While I believe that’s a reasonable response, it’s creating distress for me because I feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

Fortunately, there are many tools available to help me through difficult moments. You may find some of them useful as well.

If you are inspired by books, here are some to consider:
The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten
Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine, PhD
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

If you prefer workshops, here are some venues:
The School of Life
Classes can be attended via Zoom and include:
How to Enjoy Life, How to Fail, How to Develop Self-Knowledge, How to Be Confident, How to Be Serene

Onsite
Workshops include:
Centered Living, Grief and Loss, Healthy Love and Relationships

The Yoga Center Retreat Workshops online include:
Yoga for Anxiety, Detox and Restore, Yoga for Larger Bodies, Slow Flow Bliss

There are also apps that can help:
Calm, Headspace, Aura, Inscape, as well as Stop, Think & Breathe

Exploring new ideas is a great tool for thriving:
Ted Talks
Whatever motivates you, there’s a Ted Talk for that. With over 3500 talks readily available you won’t lack for options.

Documentary movies and series can also change the way you see the world. Here are a few to explore:
I Am a Killer
Phil’s Camino
For Sama
Fire On the Mountain
The Man Who Saved Ben Hur
Fed Up
Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
42 Grams

Spending a few minutes using a tool to calm your mind can sometimes get you past feeling restless so you can focus again and get back to work. For this, I sometimes work Sudoku puzzles. I also like the New York Times Mini Crosswords number game 2048.

I sometimes see inspiring or funny tweets, but social media is more likely to suck you into a vortex of its own rather than giving you new tools to navigate life. Even a long thread does not allow the space for the depth of thought a book yields. Medium.com, podcasts, and full-length blog posts are more likely to be good sources.

With so much in flux, it’s not surprising that we all need a little extra support. Whenever you find yourself needing some tools to thrive, just come back here and grab whatever best fits the moment!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. One 3 Squares Productions, Inc. shareholder was paid for contract work on the films Fed Up and The Man Who Saved Ben Hur. He will not receive additional compensation from this post. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”