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Gratitude not working for you? Here’s why you might have it all wrong

And how a sprinkling of complaining can actually help.

When I first discovered gratitude practice in James Baraz’s book Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness, a whole new world opened up to me. For the first time, I experienced the true potential of feeling thankful that was entirely different from the kind of gratitude that’s often forced upon us as kids.

“Thank you for having me,” is a phrase that comes to mind! And I’ve been just as guilty of reminding my kids with hysterical urgency about this one at pickup from birthday parties and play-dates!

Feeling thankful for everyday things; seeing things as glass half-full rather than half-empty, and understanding the lessons or growth that come from challenges has had a remarkable impact on my life and levels of happiness. Psychologist and neuroscience expert Rick Hanson talks about the ability to “shift the happiness set-point” and I have experienced first-hand how gratitude (and meditation!) has helped water down my brain’s negativity bias.

When I talk about happiness, I’m really referring to a satisfaction with or contentment of what is, more so than the heady pleasure derived from ice cream cones and comedy skits. (Although, in the moment, I am grateful to those experiences, too!)

But what happens when your gratitude practice has become stale?

When you’re no longer feeling the life-changing benefits promised by writing down 3 things you’re grateful for every day?

Here’s what you might be missing. 

1. Write your WHY

I’ve fallen into the trap of jotting down three things I’m grateful for and coming to the realisation that my list is always the same, and has become boring, arbitrary and completely uninspiring. 

  • Husband
  • Kids
  • Job

What’s missing from this gratitude list?

Details!

WHY am I grateful for my husband? What did he do that I appreciated and how did it make me FEEL?

I’m grateful to Dean because he has created and tends to this amazing garden for us to enjoy, including the wisteria that he planted just for me, which flowers spectacularly once a year and brings me much joy.

Ahh, that feels better! I turned an arbitrary bullet point into a sentiment packed with feeling and it has quite literally put a smile on my face.

By writing your WHY and getting into the details, the list becomes different every time and that’s where you’ll notice a shift in energy within your body. 

Which leads me to the next point. 

2. Pay attention to grateful feelings in your body

Start to notice how your body responds to giving thanks or appreciating things.

In that one exercise above, I noticed an opening through my chest area, a feeling of warmth in the belly and that my breath started flowing in contented waves.

Where does gratitude present physically for you?

When you become aware of the physiological effects of a practice like gratitude you’ll make a stronger connection to it which will motivate you to keep going and create a positive feedback loop.

3. Be genuine

Choose things you genuinely feel grateful for. Things you genuinely see the beauty within or that bring you joy.

Don’t try to transmute negative experiences with false affirmations in an attempt not to feel those negative experiences. There’s nothing wrong with being pissed off with something. 

EXAMPLE:

I am grateful for COVID. 

Am I?

Well no, I’m not really all that grateful for COVID because my mum suffered terribly from isolation and loneliness and her mental health deteriorated significantly. It was heartbreaking to watch.

However, what I could be grateful for during COVID is Zoom. It’s meant in lockdown we could stay connected as best we could to our friends and family and that meant being able to laugh and see our loved ones’ faces which made the isolation a bit more bearable.


Interestingly, even though Rick Hanson’s message is all about “taking in the good” to rewire the brain, he isn’t a fan of the kind positive thinking that leads to spiritual or emotional bypassing.

In an interview with North & South magazine, he said,

I don’t believe in positive thinking. I think it’s hooey… If we’re just absolutely red-lining on physical or emotional pain, in that moment all we can do is ride out the storm, and any kind of looking around for good news or something else to be grateful for is total bullshit.

He adds, “Pain pushed away too quickly just goes “underground” and returns to bite us. There’s a normal rhythm where you feel the pain, you bear it. The best ‘positive’ you may be able to register during this time is that you are surviving, it’s not killing you. But at some point – the Goldilocks point – you can start letting it go; you can say, ‘I don’t need to keep thinking about this,’ or maybe, ‘This hurts too much and I need to move on.’”

Be authentic with your gratitude. There is plenty to find without even trying, leave the negative experiences alone.

4. Do some ‘conscious complaining’

In her book The Language of Emotions, Karla Mclaren introduces the concept of conscious complaining. That is, having a good vent so as to not bottle things up – but doing it in a conscious and contained way.

She offers a few different methods for this, including finding a complaining partner who will simply hold space for you to have a gripe, and setting up a complaining shrine in your house you can let leash on!

For me personally, I find putting pen to paper very therapeutic. So as well as journaling your gratitude, you can set aside some white space to get your frustrations, worries, fears, shame, grief and sadness out of your head and into your book.

At first, you might find dot points are enough to release your peeves. But when you’re feeling ready to, you could experiment with adding a why.

EXAMPLE:

I’m pissed off with Telstra right now because I just want to talk to a real human on the phone and all they’re letting me do is use this stupid texting service! This is a total waste of my time that I could be using to get other stuff done and now I’m feeling irritated and angry! Argh!!


Feel the anger. Feel the frustration. Notice how it feels in your body. Tight, constructed, awful. 

Sit with it for a bit. Can you change it?

If the answer is ‘yes’, you’ve found a positive. When it’s time, you can reorient to do something about it. 

If the answer is ‘no’, then the only action you can take is to accept it. I’m not saying acceptance is easy. But it’s easier than the suffering that comes from resisting what can’t be changed.

Here’s a guided meditation you can try to practise acceptance.

5. Don’t edit your thoughts

Your journal is a place free from viewer guidelines. It won’t be stamped PG or M15+. 

In his book Meditation Made Easy, Lorin Roche says,

You don’t need to edit during meditation because you aren’t going to act on the thoughts… You are releasing the energy tied up in them, freeing that energy for your life.

Mindful journaling is the same. It takes a one-way dialogue inside your head and adds an impartial ‘listener’ into the mix. A listener in the form of paper who is all-ears and no judgement.

Start to become friends with your thoughts and feelings. Understand them. Be mindful of them. They will appreciate having your tender attention.

6. End with gratitude

After any session of conscious complaining, try wrapping it up with more gratitude. It’s definitely freeing and illuminating to unleash pent-up peeves, but I prefer, when appropriate, to leave them there on the page and not have them follow me back out into my day. (Unless there’s something truly awful going on, in which case, acceptance is a wiser way to finish.)

Can’t think of anything to write?

How about pick something mundane. And asking the question, what’s to love about this?

EXAMPLE:

I love that our garbage bins get collected at the same time every week. Our streets are clean and inviting and free from odours and disease. We are so lucky to live in a country where this is a given.

I love this eight-dollar grey and white fleece blanket that I bought from Kmart! It keeps me warm and snug in my morning mediations and I also find the colour and pattern visually appealing, which invokes joy and satisfaction.

Sometimes, imagining what’s it’s like not to have something in your life is a way to reveal what you’re truly grateful for.

  • What if my kids weren’t in my life? I am so grateful for them.
  • What would it be like to live without electricity? I’m so grateful we do!
  • What if women in Australia were still not allowed to vote? I’m grateful we can!

When we’re struggling to find gratitude, we can look for it in the imagined lack of the very things right in front of us. I always find something there. In the very least, that I am alive to write these words, is really a freakin’ miracle.

7. Actually do it. 

In my experience gratitude is a practice that you get all gung-ho about for a while and when everything’s going well, you stop putting in the effort.

It’s like any endeavour, be it fitness, healthy eating or learning a new skill. You need to actually practice to get better at it and start feeling the benefits.

Just like Ben Stiller’s character Tugg Speedman says in the politically incorrect satire Tropic Thunder:

“I just did the work.”

But it doesn’t need to be hard work! It can be little as 5 minutes a day. Right before you hit the pillow or first thing when you wake up. 


So, how do you feel about gratitude now?

To sum up the approach:

  • Give it a try
  • Add your why
  • Be authentic
  • Unleash your gripes
  • End with gratitude

Would love to hear your experience with this in the comments!

Articles

What exactly is meditation? What’s mindfulness? And what’s the difference?

You know, I thought I knew what meditation was until I sat down to write this.

And okay, I do know what it is, but it’s actually quite hard to define in a way that both considers all the nuances and lineages, and keeps it simple.

So here goes!

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a process.

A process of giving ourselves time out. Not the kind of time out where we zone out, but the kind where we zone in.

A process that pushes pause on our habitual way of doing things and interrupts habitual, automatic thinking.

A process of discovery and contemplation; that develops awareness of ourselves, of others and of the nature of things. 

A process that is both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and scientific.

A process with countless techniques and perspectives but only one whose counts — our own.

A process which in the end isn’t a process at all — but a way of being.


So, what do you think? Did I explain it well?

Ha! 

Okay, so that’s a broad, somewhat philosophical or esoteric definition of meditation. 

You’re probably still thinking, but Rebecca, what exactly IS meditation? Like really.

How about this?

Meditation is a process of resting one’s attention on an object or experience, either chosen or received, to develop awareness of our inner and outer worlds and qualities such as calm, clarity and connectedness.

MEDITATION — the WHO, WHAT AND WHY

Is that better? I think this definition likely encapsulates most fundamental ideas about what meditation is. It’s the “who”, the “what” and the “why” that delineates all the different traditions and practices.

For example:

As a Buddhist, you might take time out to rest your attention on well-wishes towards others for the purpose of developing compassion for all beings.

As a Christian, you might take time out to rest your attention on prayer for the purpose of deepening your connection to God.

As a Yogi, you may take time out to rest your attention on your breath for the purpose of experiencing the interconnectedness of everything.

As a Muslim, you might take time out to rest your attention on Allah’s name for the purpose of growing your relationship with Him.

As a practitioner of Vedic or Transcendental Meditation (TM), you may take time out to rest your attention on a mantra for the purpose of transcending thought.

As a New Thought (Law of Attraction) practitioner, you may take time out to rest your attention on a visualisation for the purpose of manifesting a desire into physical existence.

And

As a secular Mindfulness practitioner, you may take time out to rest your attention on your sensory experience for the purpose of being present for your life.

This list is just a small representation of who meditates, what they focus on and why they do it. The permutations and combinations are really endless!

What is Mindfulness?

So, while we’ve landed here on mindfulness, let’s dig a little deeper into what it is.

Mindfulness could be considered the modern definition of meditation relevant to Western, secular (non-religious/spiritual) culture.

In other words, you practice meditation not because you want to grow your connection with God, but because you want to calm down, relieve stress and be happy. (I’m over-simplifying things here, but hopefully, you get the gist.)

If we revisit my definition from earlier — that meditation is a process of resting one’s attention on an object or experience, either chosen or received, to develop awareness of our inner and outer worlds and qualities such as calm, clarity and connectedness — it would equally apply to mindfulness

To simplify again, you could say that:

Mindfulness is observing and accepting your experience while you are experiencing it.

MINDFULNESS OF EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING

To be mindful means you are aware of what’s happening in real-time. It doesn’t require you to be “meditating” (as in, the typical notion of sitting down with your eyes closed.) You can be mindful while doing anything — from breathing to performing surgery and everything in between.

EXAMPLE: MINDFUL DRIVING

For example, when driving to work mindfully, you are aware of the sensation of the steering wheel underneath your grip; you observe all the sights outside like other cars, trees and buildings and you are aware that you’re planning out your day’s to-do list in your head.

This is in contrast to arriving at work and not remembering one thing about the journey there.

Sound familiar?

ANOTHER EXAMPLE: MINDFUL SOCIAL MEDIA

Or, you’ve just seen a friend post something on social media that you find utterly offensive. You observe and (try to!) accept the surge of heat that rises up through your body and into your face; you feel the powerful emotions of shock, disgust and anger present in different ways through your body and surprisingly, you also detect the tone of self-righteousness in your own thoughts. 

Instead of firing off a venomous public comment that sparks even more hate, blocking your friend from social media and deciding that your friendship is done, you send your friend a private message to say, hey, did you know that what you wrote could be taken quite offensively, and here’s why? And you decide where to take things from there.


The point of mindfulness is to increase the richness of our experience by being present for all the little things, and decrease our reactivity to people and circumstances.

In other words, with mindfulness, you give yourself a pause. A space to appreciate the beauty of life on one hand, and on the other, an opportunity to respond to life in a way you won’t regret.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

To get better at being mindful of everything and anything (i.e. the present moment!), you can practice it in meditation, either as spot meditations dotted throughout the day or in a more formal way at a particular time, in a particular place.

As I noted earlier, there are countless techniques to try, even within the subset of Mindfulness, however, the one thing that seems to define mindfulness over other types of meditation is that you are resting your attention on your sensory experience.

By sensory experience, I mean the experience you have through one or more of the six senses: Hearing, Touch, Sight, Smell, Taste and Thinking.

(In Buddhism — where mindfulness originates — the activity of thinking is regarded as a sense. This is so important, because the aim of mindfulness meditation is not to try and stop your thoughts.)

As a beginner, you could approach this in a couple of ways:

1. Narrow — Focused Attention

Probably the most instructed method for someone dipping their toes into mindfulness meditation is to start narrow, by choosing one of the six senses to engage with for say, 2 minutes at first and building up from there.

For example:

Hearing. Rest your attention on all the sounds around you. Accept the sounds with kindness and curiosity.

“Welcome, Sounds. Oh really? That’s interesting.”

Touch. Rest your attention on a physical sensation like your breath or the touch of a body part. Accept it with a gentle curiosity. 

“Hello, Breath. Hello, Body. I didn’t realise how interesting you were.”

Sight. Rest your attention on what you can see with your eyes open. Accept the sights with an attitude of wonder.

“Welcome, all you Sights. Ohh, so interesting.”

Smell. Rest your attention on any fragrances or odours you can detect. Accept these smells with fascination.

“Come in, Smells. I accept and understand you a little better now.”

Taste. Rest your attention with the flavours in your mouth, either while eating or simply as it is. Accept and notice the flavours.

“Ohh, Taste, you are so interesting!” 

Thinking. Rest your attention on your thoughts as they come and go. Note them. Accept them. With kindness and curiosity. 

“You are welcome here, Thoughts. Come and go as you please. There’s plenty of space here for all of us.”


With one of these “objects” of meditation selected, use it as your “home base”; as your “lighthouse” for reorienting yourself after your attention has been called elsewhere for a period of time.

The idea is to develop concentration, understanding, clarity and acceptance by repeatedly remembering this one sense experience.

2. Broad — Open Awareness

Alternatively, you can zoom right out in a technique known by a few names: open awareness, open monitoring or bare attention. Here, you allow your attention to shift between all of the sense experiences, noting whichever is most dominant, moment by moment.

In this context your practice might sound internally something like:

Hello, breath.
Ooh hello, sound.

Hi there, itch.
Itch.
Itch.

Welcome, thoughts.
Hello, frustration.

Hello, restlessness.
Hi, again sound!
TV.
TV.

Etc!

Which is best?

It’s not for me to say which of these approaches is best for beginners or indeed any level meditator. Some beginners will enjoy having the simplicity and structure of just one thing to rest their attention on. (Focused Attention.) Others will prefer a more relaxed, hands-off approach that says just follow whatever sensory experience is dominant moment by moment. (Open Awareness.)

When I was first starting out several years ago, I tried the “single-pointed” attention method because that’s what was presented to me in a book. Who knows whether that was the right way for me to start? I’ll never know!

Meditation as an Umbrella Term

As we circle back on meditation as a broad concept, another way meditation has been described is as an “umbrella term” for a whole variety of practices and traditions, much like the broad category “sport.”

But I’m not so much into sports! So I like to think of this as a different umbrella term:

Cooking!

In cooking, there are cuisines — for example, Italian, Mexican and Thai (yum) — which can be likened to some of the major meditation traditions — for example, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian.

In cooking, there are also recipes — instructions that combine ingredients and methods together for the purpose of creating the dish.

In meditation, there are thousands of “recipes” or techniques.

  • Some “family recipes” have been handed down from generation to generation, preserved for their history and authenticity. (Om, Breath Counting, Loving-Kindness.)
  • Other recipes are modern fusions, borrowing an ingredient from here and a method from over there to keep things fresh, interesting and relevant.
  • And then there’s the cooking you do when you open up the fridge, see what’s in there and make it up as you go. (Open Awareness or Bare Attention).

Much like the food you eat, there are endless flavours to explore and try until you land on something you enjoy.

But it’s not all about how delicious it tastes.

THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF MEDITATION

Just like the ingredients you use in cooking have different nutritional and sensory values, so do different meditation practices.

So, in the same way you reach for different foods for comfort (pasta), bliss (ice cream!), or relaxation (tea), in meditation, you could sit down with a guided visualisation of the ocean or forest for a similar response.

On the other hand, there are the foods that you eat because they are good for you – even though the initial flavour is gross and hard to swallow (your greens.) Similarly, there are meditations, like mindfulness, that ask you to look within; to examine something matter-of-factly even if it brings up emotional discomfort. 

And no, we don’t want to eat only greens all day long without the enjoyment of a bit of chocolate here and there, but neither do we want to overindulge in cheese and wine without also fuelling our bodies with healthy stuff.

As you grow into a more mature meditator, you come to love eating your “greens” as much as you do “chocolate.”

Conclusion

How did I do? I hope this exploration of meditation and mindfulness has been as illuminating for you as it was for me. If nothing else, then, some food for thought!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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6 things I’m doing to self-isolate from negative thinking during coronavirus

SOME TIPS ON SURVIVING LOCKDOWN DURING COVID-19

1. Writing a gratitude journal

Okay, so I’m not doing this the old-fashioned way, putting pen to paper inside a padlocked diary or anything. I’m doing it via Instagram and Facebook stories, which for me is way more fun and it also helps me tick off tip number three, below.

I have found this to be really, really helpful. And because I’m publishing mine to social media, it’s keeping me accountable to show up every day and think of at least one thing that’s bought a smile to my face, even for just a moment.

I know I’m in a much better position than so many that have been affected by coronavirus. My family and I all have our health. We have a home. My husband and I have our jobs. We all have each other. I can’t compare any suffering I’ve felt the past few weeks with that of so many others.

But I truly believe this gratitude practice has kept me from turning to the dark side of a spiral of negative thinking. So I’m keeping it going indefinitely.

2. Meditating, obviously

Ha! This goes without saying. But actually, when COVID hit, my meditation practice went AWOL. It was temporarily replaced with obsessive news-watching, social-media checking and phone calls with friends.

Thankfully, my meditation group was able to move online pretty quickly, and now that the dust has settled a little (and toilet paper’s not such a hot commodity), I’ve found my practice is returning and I’m remembering how bloody good it feels.

Here are a 10 meditations that may help ease coronavirus anxiety:

3. Creating more than I consume

This one’s hard. The urge to watch news and check social media can be fierce! But I know how I feel in my body if I’ve consumed too much Instagram or Facebook. I know how it feels to have sat around watching news report after news report.

On the other hand, creating is so much more rewarding. It doesn’t need to be artistic. It can be cooking, making, planning, problem-solving, caring, building, entertaining, practising or inspiring – doing these things yourself instead of watching others do it on YouTube.

My family and I are currently doing what ScoMo said we all should: stay home and do puzzles. This thousand-piece patience tester will hopefully end up the Lion King motif it is meant to.

4. Moving my body

Another thing I’m SO grateful is that my hubby has become the family PT! He’s had us out doing laps of the local oval, riding bikes, walking, shooting hoops and doing circuit training at home. Our very own PE Joe!

My Pilates studio has also recorded these YouTube workouts which is great (and my pelvic floor thanks me.)

5. Connecting with others

Even though we can’t see each other like we used to, how amazing is technology!? It’s not quite the real thing to catch up with friends and family over Zoom, but it’s a pretty decent substitute. We may not be able to have a change of scenery but these FaceTime catch-ups make all the difference.

6. Limiting news coverage

I’ve never been a big consumer of news. Anything important that I need to know has always managed to find me. I’ve probably watched more news in the past few weeks than I have in 12 months. Even so, I’m still limiting my news intake to once per day, and it’s usually via The Project.

I’d love to hear your tips for staying sane during COVID-19. Share your ideas in the comments below!