Gratitude-leaf carpet after the rain

It’s December, the solstice is here and we’re coming together to celebrate in many traditions. I’m thinking about our human capacity to appreciate. We turn toward things, individuals and communities that support our well-being and resilience (a basis of trauma resolution). A friend and I talked about Hanukkah’s festival of lights where little gifts are given each day—and she spontaneously offered me a Peet’s card for a free drink (Chai tea please!) I notice a pleasant sensation of warmth around my heart and a deep breath. This–the expansive experience of gratitude, gladness, appreciation—feels good, and changes my brain!

Gratitude as a practice grows on you, It can be cultivated, and is a way of inclining the mind toward the good.  Perhaps it’s helpful right now more than ever as we are exposed to so much suffering.
Research from the Greater Good Science Center shows gratitude changes the brain to support physical and emotional well being. As Rick Hanson, PhD teaches,”what we put our attention on shapes the brain the most.” Gratitude inclines the mind and heart toward the good and supports us in responding to difficulty. Steven Porges, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies the neurophysiology of self-regulation, talks about gratitude as an emotion and sensation that shifts our physiology. Feeling appreciation turns down our fight and flight response—where we can be in our “middle range” with opportunities to connect, rest and play.

There’s many ways to practice. Steve Stucky, a San Francisco Zen Center priest and teacher spoke about gratitude as a daily question. Sitting at the side of his bed in the morning, he’d ask…”gratitude” and wait for a response. He continued this practice even as he was approaching his death. As I’m writing this, I received an email of appreciation for my contribution on a panel for small business students. I’m also thinking about my group of friends who practice meditation together. We send each other emails about what we’re grateful for that day. For me, the little things, roses blooming in December, a cup of tea, a carpet of red leaves after the rain, the smile of a neighbor are most accessible. Gratitude can’t be forced though and I remember a few years back when I just wasn’t ready for it. I’m glad I was willing to try again. And I’m struck by the sense of how gratitude is a pausing to receive and respond to what’s here right now with an open heart.
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