What you pay attention to – what you rest your mind on – is the primary shaper of your brain.
As I prepared to teach a class on "Accepting the Good," I sat in the rain shelter in our backyard and counted my blessings: being in a long-term, creative, loving relationship, having easy access to relatively wild nature in this location. a garden plot by the river, the possibility of earning enough money doing the things I love to do; be free from any life-threatening illness, live in a country where I can freely express my beliefs, etc. How did you feel thinking about these things? I was studying, as I would encourage my students to do as well, how this “Welcoming the Good” actually works, and whether deliberately cultivating gratitude was indeed a good strategy for achieving this goal.
The theory is that by consciously noticing any positive experience and making it last, by dwelling on it, “mental states become neural traits,” as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it. (Hanson, age 10) You can actively and deliberately reshape your brain, building your resilience, inner strength and a sense of agency and self-worth, meaning you can actually do something to improve your well-being. -being and that you matter enough to commit. in such activities – and in doing so, you develop the ability to pay prolonged attention, training yourself in mindfulness. This all sounds very attractive, but how do you actually go about taking note of a positive experience and then extending it? Usually that's not what we do, is it? We encounter something pleasant, give it a cursory nod in acknowledgment, and then quickly – and usually unintentionally – move on to more pressing, even threatening, issues. We struggle with our brain's hardwired "negativity bias," which has evolved to resemble Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative experiences. We have no difficulty in prolonging unpleasant experiences: we are experts in the art of surrendering to them, letting them run in circles in our minds, imagining future disasters and repeating past disasters.
The first thing I noticed was that I needed to slow down. Just making a list in my head of the usual things I'm grateful for – this isn't the first time I've done this of course – hasn't really changed anything noticeably. The more I applied myself to this exploration of “Taking the Good,” the more it seemed to me that it was above all about what was good here and now: the weak winter sun on my face, a long fluffy coat retaining most of my body. warm body, a thermos cup of cinnamon and ginger flavored tea in my hands, my breath coming in and out easily, and nothing alarming happening in the immediate vicinity of the frosty vegetable and flower beds I was overlooking. I felt a very ordinary sense of well-being in an immediate sensory way, and awareness of the breath – as a visceral experience – seemed to be essential in allowing me to dwell on it. Breathing was like a gentle wind spreading a feeling of well-being throughout my body. Nurturing this image made it relatively easy for awareness to stay attached to the breath for a few moments and allow the experience of well-being to become anchored in my being. I experimented with different similes to see if they would also stabilize the experience – letting it be like a warm, fragrant bath to soak in worked well for me. I found that by inserting a single evocative verb, such as “diffuse,” “saturate,” or “permeate,” I could feel a corresponding reverberation in the energy field, a filling of more and more relaxation and buoyancy.
If what I was doing here was cultivating the art of appreciating the present moment, I was curious how that related to gratitude. Imagine you receive a kind email from a friend. Bringing this moment back to awareness will have an effect: perhaps a clearing or warming in the heart area and you will be able to begin to smile. You revel in the good feeling of being seen and loved for a moment longer, feeling it seep – another suggestive word – through your system. When you consciously relive it, it becomes a present moment experience that reshapes your body and mind. If you then introduce the idea of gratitude, perhaps thinking about how lucky you are to have such a friend, something else is likely to happen: a deepening of pleasure and a redirection of your energy toward 'outside. There is a receptive openness to a field of interconnection that permeates your life with richness, the very opposite of the poverty mentality.
Coming back from the housing estate, I stopped on the bridge which spans the Kelvin River, alerted by the movements of a large bird a little further upstream. A gray heron moves slowly through the current, only half of its long legs visible, then stops on a rock, assuming its usual elegant watch position. Two young men were walking by, chatting and looking at a phone. “Have you seen the heron,” I opened a dialogue. “Yes, usually it’s lower,” one replied. The three of us turned towards the bird. “So always.” . . » I suggested and we stood there without speaking, four beings in perfect harmony, savoring the silence for a few breaths.
I'm pretty sure my exploration of gratitude in the home garden helped me feel more open to humanity and willing to take the – small – risk of connecting with strangers. This fleeting heron incident, so easy to forget, became part of my response when my husband asked me in the evening what I was grateful for. We do this regularly and I think it makes a big difference to our emotional wellbeing and resilience, as well as being a great way to stay in touch with what's going on in our lives. And it’s also a great practice to do alone, making you feel less alone. Whether you write some “gratitudes” in a journal or do a meditation practice like the “10 Finger Gratitude Practice”* where you hold a finger while contemplating a positive experience, slow down and savor the details of it , review what happened, think about what was the best part of it, what needs were met, and marinate in those positive qualities, like feeling loved, mattered, feeling safe and satisfied. And just in case you also have certain parts of you that object to such frivolities when there are so many things to do, or that doubt whether you're worthy of it, watch out for next month's episode, which will explore how we can include such inner voices.