This rain is so cold… I wonder how it can be so cold and not be snow. I don’t like to be cold, and I feel like I can’t quite get warm. I look out my window, and see dark and almost bare limbs reaching into a gray sky, which is dripping icewater into my veins.
This being Thanksgiving week, I sit down to write about gratitude. I remember the choice I have in every moment to “flip the switch” for how I experience the world. Robert Emmons, known as the world’s leading expert on gratitude, tells us “it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful.” While we may not easily will our emotions to change, “being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.” (This article is from a wonderful website called Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Live by UC Berkeley).
I look out the window again. I breathe slowly, and notice hundreds of glass pearls resting along the undersides of the branches. I try to photograph them through the window, but they disappear through the lens. I put on my coat and head outside to capture these shimmering droplets.
The sky continues to offer its icy kisses, and I try to frame the decorated branches with chilled fingers. I bend and lean and I see the light of the silver sky through the suspended pearls. The rain taps a gentle rhythm on my coat hood. My camera finds the droplets, and I capture them and bring them inside with me.
I sit down again to write, but first, I slide my icy fingers under my dog’s silky scruff. I feel her breath softly sigh against her throat, and I absorb the warmth she offers.
With hands warmed, pearls of glass captured, I now can write about gratitude. So here is what I have to say:
This Thanksgiving week and always, may we all be blessed as we drink in the nourishing water of gratitude.
Yesterday I came across a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, where he says that “Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying,” and that we need to embrace this crying baby. My seven-year-old was by my side, and I asked her what she thought about that.
With the wisdom and clarity that children her age seem to conjure so effortlessly, she said, “We wouldn’t want to ignore our baby.” We talked about how we could soothe our anger and take care of it, and her idea was to hug and rock her stuffed animals the next time she feels angry.
As adults, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us that we can use mindfulness to care for and transform our anger. Acknowledging our feelings as valid, and then becoming aware of our body sensations and breath, can keep us from identifying with the emotions. We can then recognize the choice we always have to find our way back to the peace that is our true nature.
Photo by Danny Fowler
“When we embrace our anger and take good care of our anger, we obtain relief.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh
I am washing the dishes, and I become aware of a heavy tension in my shoulders. I remember to breathe and relax, and look out the window. The sky! Wow. My face softens, and my eyes drink in this dappling of cotton and sea spray, cradled in a crispy yellow and orange leaf-frame. I am happy for the break and change in perspective.
As we move into these chilly November days, it’s common for us to tense our shoulders and brace against the cold. Sometimes we carry this extra tension indoors with us and, before we know it, we’re all knotted up. And today, this is me.
Earlier this week, I was listening to a lecture by Louise Hay. She said that it’s difficult for healing to flow throughout the body when it’s tense or frightened. Of course this resonated with me. In Grace in the Muck, I wrote about the strong connection between our bodies, our emotions and our immune system.
In her lecture, Louise Hay suggested to pause throughout the day and take three deep breaths. On the third breath, she guides us to feel ourselves become very centered. Then, she suggests we say to ourselves, “I love you. All is well.” I’ve been enjoying this reminder to my body and find it helpful in staying present, even through the more mundane tasks of my day.
In my classes this week, we’ve been playing with communicating the message that all is well to our bodies. When we hold a stretch, we stay there and breathe deeply and calmly.
In a way, the breath is the language of the nervous system. When we breathe with ease, we are telling the nervous system that we are safe. Our nervous system then tells our muscles “all is well.” The muscles can release into a deeper stretch than they would if we were communicating fear or stress.
As deep breathing communicates wellbeing to the body and mind, shallow breathing can communicate a sense of fear. We can use breathing and centering breaks as an easy but significant boost to our health and wellbeing throughout the day.
Another form of “language” we can use to send messages of wellbeing to the body may surprise you. Our posture itself can cause our cells to produce hormones that either increase our stress or build our confidence.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her research team have shown that body posture can communicate messages of power and authenticity to the mind and secondarily, to others, with life-changing results. In her TEDTalk, “Your body language shapes who you are,” which received over 7 million views, Dr. Cuddy explained her findings on the effects of “power posing.”
In her studies, people who posed in “high power,” expansive poses for two minutes before a job interview were more assertive, calm and comfortable, with higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of stress hormones. Those who posed in the “low power,” collapsed poses prior to the interview were more stress-reactive, with higher levels of cortisol. The power posers were far more positively evaluated during the interview. Both participants and evaluators were blind to what the study was about.
Dr. Cuddy talks about this work in the video below, which is 20 minutes very well-spent. She notes that “It’s not about the content of the speech; it’s about the presence that they’re bringing to the speech.” In other words, using the language of their body to communicate confidence to the mind allowed these participants to bring their true selves to the interview.
In Grace in the Muck, part 4, I talked about how, at times, the path to how we want to feel, from how we do feel, seems too far to travel. Sometimes, it feels too difficult to send the message we want, because we just don’t feel good, either emotionally or physically. In that case, instead of “faking it ’til you make it,” we can use strategies from yoga and related disciplines to help our bodies feel better, so that it will be easier to come into resonance with the emotions we desire.
Power posing appears to work this way too. Amy Cuddy says, rather than fake it ’til you make it, “fake it ’til you become it.” Instead of acting happy or calm, or confident or even powerful, when we’re not, we build a pathway to that emotion, via the body. Then, our authentic power naturally comes through.
This research so elegantly shows us that, when you feel better in your body, the good-feeling emotions are not just easier to access, they are actually produced in the cells. The body speaks, and the mind listens.
Yesterday I walked with a friend in her wooded “back yard.” She’s the kind of friend who will listen to the crunch of the leaves with you and point out the crumbling lichen on fallen stumps, and remind you to stop to listen to that place on the trail where you can hear the stream bubbling.
We talked about the emergence of Life and about giving space for people to connect to their sense of reverence, in whatever way resonates with them. I was reminded of this poem by Mary Oliver, which I think is about this way of seeing the world.
So, although we are far from a summer day this crisp November morning, I share this photo from the back yard of a dear friend, and the poem, nestled in the roots of a moment of reverence.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
— Wayne Dyer
Yesterday I took these two pictures of the same tree, within the same minute of the day.
This morning I was reminded again how what we put our attention on can shape our experience. I got to attend a wonderful class led by Sharon at Opus Yoga. Sharon began the class with a quote by Thich Naht Hanh:
“If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence.”
We practiced yoga with deep attention to our joints and muscles. At one point, Sharon suggested we “let the breath carry care” into these places in our bodies. This practice felt so very strengthening and nourishing.
What an empowering perspective. We have the ability to truly nourish our bodies with care and attention. I wonder if we can all allow this notion to frame our day, and our week ahead. That we have the power to gift our bodies, our relationships, and our lives with deep, caring presence.
We can breathe with care. We can engage our eye contact a few moments longer with our loved ones, and listen deeply. We can be still, and be present with compassion for our own needs and desires.
Looking at things with care, we infuse them with our presence. The things we look at change.