I mentioned last month that we, as İçsel Doğum, have decided to assign monthly themes to focus the content of what we share with you all. This month, the focus is gratitude. Gratitude seemed like a wonderful topic when I first thought it up. Such an easy topic, and so uplifting! However I am realizing just how challenging it can sometimes be to feel and express gratitude, to invite it into our daily lives. Time constraints, worries, pressure to get everything done can often leave little time for feeling gratitude. Sometimes we may even wonder why it’s important to feel gratitude, or we may just gloss over the idea of gratitude in an effort to placate that inner (or outer) voice that says “you should be grateful!”. I am sure we all have habits and belief patterns which can interfere with our ability to truly feel gratitude. I am simply going to share a bit of my own patterns and practices in the hope that it may serve you.
When I dig deeply beneath all of the possible things that can keep me from feeling gratitude, the main barrier I have found is the frequently surfacing belief that I make my own destiny, I carve out my place in the world, I am responsible for all that I have or do not have, good and bad. This kind of belief pattern is very common in the modern world of self-made men and women working to spearhead projects, innovate technology and explore new frontiers of all kinds. The increasing level of control modern technology allows over nature, our bodies, our lives lends itself well to this belief. In my work, I see this mindset reflected in both childbirth preparation class philosophies and in new and expectant parents themselves: a course of action is settled on and, as if it can be realized by sheer will and determined intent, there is a steady march toward whatever outcome the parents have decided is the appropriate one. This is a very appealing idea, and I have certainly found myself in this mindset a time or two as a parent! However, while our mindset and our will can affect much of the outcome of our birth and parenting experience, it cannot control all of it. There are factors outside of our control, there is luck, or grace or chance involved in any dealings of life and death. As much as we like to feel we are, we are not in complete control of our lives.
My family recently held our annual ceremony honoring our beloveds who are no longer with us. We do this each year around this time. Every year is a little bit different, depending on our needs and focus for that year, but the central theme is the same. There are always stories about those who have passed, sometimes sadness, sometimes tears, and always gratitude for what each person has given us. It may seem strange at first glance to think of gratitude in connection to loss. However in my personal experience, it is precisely when loss is experienced that I become most awake to what I still have. These are the times I feel gratitude keenly. I actually enjoy sitting in cemetaries because it helps me to realize the impermanence of the life I have created, of what I have been blessed with. It is when I sit with the dead that I feel true gratitude for living.
For this reason, it has always made intuitive sense to me that in my culture the month for honoring the dead is followed by the month of Thanksgiving. Honoring the losses in my life and in the world leaves me humble, vulnerable and open to feeling gratitude for all that I still have. In this way, gratitude is, for me, a two-fold process: first acknowledging losses and then contemplating the blessings. Because becoming mothers and fathers often involves a great deal of loss with regards to unrealized hopes and expectations, I feel that parenthood is a ripe opportunity for cultivating a practice of gratitude. Particularly in a culture that can expect perfection, both from parents and from children, the ability to express gratitude even when things are less than ideal is a powerful tool for coping and living vivaciously with less-than-perfect humans in a less-than-perfect world.
The way I try to bring this two-fold expression of gratitude into my daily life is by having a grief altar set up in my home, and by keeping a gratitude journal. A grief altar does not have to include religious intent, though it may if you wish. Mine consists of a shallow basket filled with a few objects which hold for me reminders of losses I am working to process. These losses may be personal or global.
My journal is a very plain, blank paged note-book. Sometimes I will just choose one topic I am grateful for and list the specific reasons for my gratitude. Sometimes I will feel like doing a bit extra, and I will draw a tree with the object of my gratitude as the trunk and the specific reasons for my gratitude on the leaves. I may not sit with the altar or the journal daily, but the times I do provide a great deal of relief, peace and contentment.
There actually are studies done on the benefits of a regular gratitude practice. Feeling gratitude on a regular basis actually changes brain chemistry, increasing dopamine, which is important for both emotional and neurological health. Especially focusing on one particular person, event or thing and why you are grateful for it has been shown to be more effective than making a general list of the many things you are grateful for. Writing down your gratitude has also been shown to create more positive responses than simply thinking about it. The wonderful news is, the more one feels grateful, the greater the increase in positive brain changes. As mothers in particular are increasingly diagnosed with depression, anxiety and exhaustion, any positive changes in brain chemistry are more than welcome.
What are you grateful for? What challenges do you find in feeling gratitude? What helps you connect with your feelings of gratitude? We’d love to hear about your challenges and your gratitude practices!