Gratitude: The mind/body edition

So being that yesterday was Thanksgiving, it seems that a reflection on the effects of gratitude on the mind and body is in order.

I have always found the gratitude process as as saccharin sweet, simple, trite, and mechanical.  I always thought it didn’t and couldn’t respond to the trials and tribulations of adult life. It’s too simple and unrealistic to all the suffering and pain out there.

I scoffed at it. I’m an academic, fact checking realist (and close to a cynic on some topics) not some rosey faced optimist. How can I focus on the trivial good things when so much suffering is going on in the world?

However, when I was asked last week what I felt I needed to focus on to throw a wrench in the litany of complaints and laments I seem to always have in ample supply, I resignedly said “It’s so cheesy but I think I need to focus more on the good things I do have in my life.”

So I was challenged to do a gratitude journal for 2 weeks and to pay attention to what arises when I list my daily thoughts. I felt so silly but I agreed.

To pacify my feeling that it’s too childish to take seriously, I poked around and found that there’s actually a good amount of science to the gratitude practice. Just as mindfulness and meditation have been all the rage, apparently so has gratitude. In true academic fashion scientists have not only identified the positive socio-psychological benefits of gratitude such as lowering depression, better moods etc, but physical health benefits too. From reducing pain and inflammation, boosting the immune system,  and improving heart health, really engaging with the gratitude practice changes the body.

Now, this got me interested. Another nerdy body hack just by noting what I am thankful for each day? Ok, I’m in! So, like my sitting practice, I allow whatever comes to mind no matter how seemingly simple. It was (and can still be had).

Write, resistance, write. I never thought how interesting it would be to watch me at play just thinking of and jotting down (hopefully unique) things I’m grateful for that day. My reactions were (and still are) more pithy than what I actually write, but as they say, these all serve as “grist for the mill” of further inquiry. “I’m training the brain” I say, “I’m training my brain ad everyone’s got to start somewhere.”

A few days later, I ended up stumbling on an opinion piece in the New York Times  Choose to be Grateful.It will make you Happier. In that article, the author Lindsey Holmes notes:

“Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciences identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.”

She references a study that “took a genetic approach to test the hypothesis that social interactions involving expressed gratitude would be associated with variation in a gene, CD38, which has been shown to affect oxytocin secretion.

I suppose my CD38 gene is just too ‘normal’ then (maybe too much), as I have always found those relentlessly positive people unrealistic, hokey, hippie dippy, and often downright annoying.  My mind seem(s/ed) to always lean to the negative at best, realistic. Even being open to this 2 week task has been a challenge as it has been forcing me to suspend disbelief and just play along.

But hey, I realized that I can always deny any association with this project of gratitude if I so choose, so in the spirit of body hacking and curiosity, I have been sticking with it.

What seems interesting, is that while some people seem to have a genetic (?) inclination to lean towards the positive and more easily flood their system with oxytocin, it can still be learned.Well, I suppose I already knew that, but I did not know that oxytocin plays a role in gratitude. I wonder then, to what degree does this practice changes gene expression and how they operate over time.

I wonder if it is experienced over time with a meditation practice, neuroplasticity seems to have a role to play in the positive mental and physical changes of gratitude practice. Indeed as Rick Hanson notes, gratitude and taking the time to sit down to identify what to be grateful for alters the brain much like meditation:

“Gratitude is a powerful tool in this “garden” since what you rest your attention upon is what will shape your brain the most. That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Gratitude shifts your attention away from resentment, regret, and guilt – and therefore stops you from building up the neural substrates of these known factors of mental and physical health problems. Gratitude also focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange.”

Gratitude practice trains the mind to more easily tune into the frequency of positive things rather than the more negative and unwholesome frame of mind that is integral to our self preserving limbic system, but also stressful and taxing to the mind and body over time. But if this is the case, then indeed, this simple act can change the baseline operations of a gene that regulates oxytocin flow.

Moreover, the very simplicity I scoff is at the core of the gratitude practice.  This practice at its core “focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts..” It appears to draw the attention away from the complex stories of fear, threat, and worry that minimize the simple and essential good things available at inexhaustible supply of the moment.

I tend to relish the gray area of life, the nuances of language, and the qualifiers and by simply stating “I am grateful for…” without a long story or “but I wish it would be like…” I am training to brain to take a break from what I don’t have or what I wish I had and focus solely on what I have at that moment.

It is interesting to feel my instinctual tug to say “but, wait!” and the enticing addiction to minimize the joy experienced and the slow coaxing back to the simple “I am grateful for this breath I took, the sunset I saw, the delicious cup of tea I drank..etc” No commentary or concessions or caveats, it just was what it was.

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By doing so, it helps foster an environment fertile for for a more softened relationship with the self.

“Gratitude is a protective factor against psychopathology not only due to its association with improved relationships with others, but also because it is connected to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self (Petrocchi & Alessandro Couyoumdjian).

Not only does it foster more connection with others, but the self-protective and kind nature of gratitude elicits a positive and protective attention to the self in the moment. It is a conscious effort to check in and ask oneself, “what made me smile today? how was I taken care of today? how was I loved today?” It seems to counteract the magnitude of self judgement, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. by asking the simple question of “what was I grateful for today?” and nothing more.

So as corny as this whole gratitude journal thing is, maybe there is something to this simple reflecting on and listing the simple good things that fed my body, heart, brain, and my soul earlier on in the day…and I am grateful for it. 🙂

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Being with the run

“Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it… ” Satipatthana Sutta

Last weekend I ran my first 50K (31 mile) race on trails.  I finished only a bit banged up after countless stumbling, trips, toe stubbings and maybe 1/2 a dozen flat out falls (thankfully kinda gracefully).

CaptureWhat I find particularly interesting is what went though my mind over the just over 7 hours I was running.  There comes a point in any  race where thoughts of life outside the run,  future conversations, and assessments of how the run went (or will go) start passing through my mind.

At best on a road race, I can notice my thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future and feel the ever so familiar tug bringing myself back to present.

When on trail however, and for hours longer, such distractions are tougher.

To run on a trail is to run with presence. A momentary distraction of thought or sight can result in a stumble, a trip, or a fall. It is important to know where and be with each foot fall, the balance of all the muscles in the body, and the alert sense of navigating and being aware of the surroundings (if only to avoid getting lost, strategizing hills and uneven trails, and beings around you).  Too much concentration on one of these causes imbalance and contraction. Sometimes the amount of attention over time and hours sometimes alone makes one freeze. The solution? Take a deep breath, slow the pace, and keep moving forward.

A friend of mine seeing a post about my achievement asked “How did you do that?”

My reply: “Gingerly and shoring up as much presence in the moment I could muster. If I stumbled, I just gently brought myself back and began again.”

I suppose that is what makes the practice “a practice” eh?

Reflections

I never explained where I got the title for this blog. It seems about time.

It was from a line in Wallace Steven’s poem “Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
So what is this ‘palm at the end of the mind’?  For me, it conjures the felt sense of what is often the remnant at that visceral moment when things get really quiet while sitting…that imperfection or holding back. That felt sense of something remaining solid when given a small taste of feeling truly present and connected with all beings…something not wanting to completely let go.  Is it the ego? Is it the observer? Is it what is standing in the way of truly feeling free?

Or, is it something else?

Without it, the bird cannot rest on its branches and sing nor can the ever-changing wind move though its branches.  It is just beyond the last thought of the mind as opposed in the thick of it and thus identified by it; rather it is serving as a support to nature’s practice.

Lacking Presence

“Clearly, all fear has an element of resistance and a leaning away from the moment. Its dynamic is not unlike that of strong desire except that fear leans backward into the last safe moment while desire leans forward toward the next possibility of satisfaction. Each lacks presence.”
― Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
The question I have is: How does one feel safe in the moment and the moment after that?  Noting when fear arises is a wonderful moment..a moment of ‘waking up,’ but it can be exhausting during times of tribulations to identify the contractions and resistance, note, find space, repeat.
It seems like the process of constantly moving back to the present can become just as rigid and mechanical. I suppose acceptance of the present state of affairs and learning to sit with it comes at its own time and from that comes peace.

Writing into Presence

It is funny how the mind and the body works. The last thing I wanted to do in the midst of stress was to be present enough to write.  I would get up in the morning, often run, and head to work. I’d eat square meals and sleep, attend any appointments only to repeat my day.  In short, my days were measured out in fairly predictable chunks. This works well for general maintenance of the body, but not so much for the mind and fully living in the present. My mind spent a lot of time managing the day to day operations and attending to possible future needs, but I was not settling in and noticing.

“This noting of mental states encourage a deeper recognition of what is happening while it is happening. It allows us to be more fully alive to the present rather than living our life as an afterthought. It enables us to watch with mercy, if not humor, the uninvited swirl of “mixed emotions” not as something in need of judgement but as a work in progress.”                  Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

A teacher asked me “How’s that writing going?” I hastily replied: “A lot has fizzled lately…some kind of block. Largely because I think it’s all a bit too much.” Attending to this blog was (is) very much like sitting in meditation. It was less of an afterthought but incredibly restless. I often had an awareness that there was an intention to do this, but all that I could churn out were general ideas that I shelved for a time I thought I’d be less in a state of “monkey mind.” To be with the cacophony of sounds, responsibilities, and to really notice my experience, whether it be anticipation, fear, joy, or exhaustion was just too hot…too real.

Yet, restlessness of the mind is no different than restlessness of the body. Both are a resistance to fully exploring and being with the present moment. As Gil Frondal notes “because restlessness is uncomfortable, it can be difficult to pay attention to. Paradoxically, restlessness is itself sometimes a symptom of not being able to be present for discomfort

So what exactly did I mean by “a bit too much?” A bit too much physically? A bit too much emotionally? Or some variation of both?

I will go with both.

Don’t get me wrong, I imagine there is a time and place for this muted “side-eye” acknowledgement of life and its experiences within it especially during acute stress. There is a fear of judging or naming the discomfort because one is afraid of it overwhelming and overstimulating and not being able to handle it. It’s a way for the body to prioritize self preservation over the delay of reflection. But knowing when it’s time to wake up from this trance and maybe lean in a bit deeper is the tricky part.

Maybe it is waking up again when I encounter that moment when “coping” becomes stale and unsatisfying. Then, possibly it’s time to look at the uncomfortable a little bit more squarely and to sit with it a little bit more intently.

So, back on the writing horse I go.