Vulnerability and Gratitude

During one of my meditation groups last week, we discussed gratitude and being thankful. While the teacher mused on the snicker of her kids, but the profound statements that would come out of their mouths, I thought about why we tend to minimize gratitude and being thankful.

Expressing gratitude, I think, is a vulnerable act. Aside from my musings on fear of sugarcoating, there is how it reminds us of impermanence. A quick search revealed, that I wasn’t the only one who made this connection. Brene Brown actually alludes to this very idea:

“As someone who studies shame and scarcity and fear, if you asked me, ‘What is the most terrifying, difficult emotion we experience as humans?,’ I would say joy,” says Brown. “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. So what we do in moments of joyfulness is we try to beat vulnerability to the punch … We try to dress-rehearse tragedy.” –Brene Brown

But while she discusses the fear of when the other shoe will drop, I suggest that there is something more going on that feeds into this fear of losing something held so dear.

To really feel and experience gratitude, is to be truly present in the moment. It isn’t complaining about what was lost or incomplete nor fearing what may come down the road, it’s recognizing and really taking in what is available during that moment. It is the vulnerability of being open to receiving and expressing the gift of gratitude.

That, I think, is where the real fear of impermanence and of scarcity begins. To the untrained, the one who doesn’t often consider gratitude much until those unexpected moments where that light turns on and wakes up to the moment, it can be frightening to think that said awakenings are few and far between instead of something that can be cultivated and experienced all the time.

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. 🙂