I’ve not had much luck with gratitude practices. Picking out things to be grateful about feels either forced or redundant, and I end up feeling like an ass when I still feel miserable even in the face of so many blessings in my life. Focusing on the good in a situation or in a moment just highlights the gap between what I expect or desire and the reality. It engages my logical mind to step in with its focus on identifying problems and proposing solutions. And that’s a problem.
I really like my logical mind. It serves me well in many, many situations. It helps me figure out whether to go to the grocery store or the post office first, which math curriculum I should try for my kids, and how many layers of clothing I should wear if it’s -6°F out (trick question; I don’t go out when it’s -6°F). But when my logical brain approaches the problem of my feeling down and sets to work identifying why this might be, the common element is always me. I’m the problem, says my logical mind.
This doesn’t foster feelings of gratitude, and you can imagine what it does to my mood.
Instead, I’ve found that I do better when I ask my logical mind to step aside and let my body and awareness take over so I can just be present for whatever the moment brings.
But my logical mind is tenacious. When it gets its teeth into something, it does not let go without a fight, even if it’s clear it’s losing. So, how do I ask it to step aside?
For me, it helps to shift my awareness from my brain to my body. For example, when I’m feeling anxious, my stomach feels queasy. Because I’m not good with throwing up, feeling queasy triggers more anxiety, which triggers more queasiness, which makes me more anxious. When I was a kid, my mom would say, “Count to ten,” or “Take three breaths.” These are good suggestions, but for me, they just serve as distractions. The underlying anxiety is still steaming away, driving that feedback loop.
To stop the feedback loop, I’ve learned to check in with my body. Sometimes I’m too anxious to bring my awareness directly to my stomach, so mostly I start with more distant body parts. I bring my awareness to my toes and how they feel in my socks, against the bottoms of my shoes, or if I’m barefoot, I feel the air across my skin. Or I bring my awareness to the space between my eyebrows or the space between my neck and my shoulders. If I have time, I do a full-on body scan meditation. (Usually I don’t have time.)
The key is not to think about what my body is feeling; that defeats the purpose. Rather I just bring awareness to the sensations in my toes or my face or my shoulders or my stomach without attaching any sort of judgment or evaluation to the sensations. This doesn’t change the sensations themselves, but it gets me out of my logical mind, which stops the anxiety feedback loop and helps me calm down a bit.
Another way I engage with my body is through motion. This morning I attended a dancing meditation. We began by learning the steps and hearing the lyrics of the songs read aloud to us, which both engaged the logical mind. Then the music began and as we listened and moved through the sequence of steps, I was able to let go of thinking and let my body do the driving. It was a moving experience, both literally and figuratively, and it not only calmed and centered me, but helped all of us in the room feel closer and more compassionate with one another.
At home, I’ll exercise or dance and sing with my kids or go for a walk. All of these work, but I found the dancing meditation to be much more effective and powerful than my solo endeavors.
I’m not always able to remember to bring my awareness to my body before my mind gets going too fast to stop, but when I can remember, when I can be present without judgment, I find that calm, compassion, and gratitude follow organically.