Gratitude: Our Human Superpower

Every creature on this planet has at least one superpower. Ants can carry 50 times their
own bodyweight, hummingbirds can fly backwards, humans can express gratitude. This
may sound trite, but gratitude is our superpower. A superpower we know about, pay lip
service too, but don’t fully take into our hearts and honour.

There is plenty of scientific research, proving what the wisdom traditions have always
known to be true: Gratitude makes us happier, healthier, and kinder.
How does our superpower work? Science has found that gratitude both triggers the
release of dopamine and serotonin and reduces cortisol levels.

This translates into gratitude:

Improves the quality of sleep
Strengthens the immune system
Alleviates physical pain
Optimises blood pressure and cardiac functioning
Improves digestions
Leads to greater emotional intelligence and resilience
Improves communication and interpersonal relationships
Deepens ones sense of connection with others and the planet.
Promotes empathy and self-love

Sounds like a superpower to me.
Let’s take a moment to explore this superpower. Is it possible to sense it for ourselves? To
feel it in our cells?

Take a few breaths and see how you are feeling at this moment. Notice where you are
reading this. At home, in transit? Is it quiet or loud? Are you at ease, stressed, a mix of
both? What are your internal vibes like? Notice your breath and how your body feels.
Take a few more breaths to fully feel into all of this.

Now take a moment and think of five things/people/places/etc you are grateful for.
Count them on your fingers. Breathe each one in and on the exhale offer it your gratitude.
I will breathe along with you. I am grateful for: My eyesight and the colour blue. The sound
of water. The taste of cinnamon. The smell of a cedar forest. The feeling of sunshine on
my belly.

How do you feel now? Was there a shift in your body or mood?
Each time I take a moment like this, where I pause and truly feel in freshly what am I
grateful for in the moment, I do notice the shift. Something, I hadn’t realised had frozen in
me, always melts. My shoulders drop. There is a sense of more space in my chest. I feel a
little lighter and more capacitated.

Of course, the beat passes. Life continues. Things get complicated, stressful, messy.…
Our superpower needs cultivation. There are three circumstances where we need to focus
on building up our capacity to be grateful:

  • When things are going badly
  • When things are fine
  • When thing are doing great

Let’s start with “when things are going great.” For example, you are on holiday or a retreat.
Many years ago, while I was on retreat, Luis, a volunteer at the center taught me a
precious grift. He taught me to say, “Yes thank you. That would be great.” Time after time,
Luis came up to me offering me things: an extra pillow, towel, hot water bottle (I was
camping and its was raining and cold). My reflex at first was to say, “no thank you. I’m
okay.” Each time I did, he looked so disappointed. When I changed my mind and said, “yes
please,” his face lit up. He practically ran off and to get me whatever extra treat it was he
wanted to share with me.

On the last day of the retreat, Luis was still eating lunch when I was bringing in my dishes.
He turned to me and asked, “Would you like chocolate covered strawberries?”
“That sounds amazing Luis. I would love some.” He jumped up with the biggest smile and ran into the kitchen. A moment later, he was there with a plate full of chocolate covered strawberries.

Luis taught me to delight his generosity. To accept it fully. To be grateful for the beauty and
comfort that is there and be open to even more. A favourite film always comes to mind
when I think of Luis. “Thankyouhappymoreplease.” That’s the title of film and such a
great way to meet life when thing are going well. “Thankyouhappymoreplease.”

What about accessing gratitude, “when things are going badly?” Like this summer, when
visiting my family after four years, I got an ear infection and ended up in the emergency
room in a lot of pain. It is natural at moments like this to give out. Equally natural is to feel
grateful. Lying in pain, I did my gratitude practice. I counted on my fingers what am I
grateful fir in this moment? Thankful for the hospital. Thankful for my access to it. Thankful
to all the people working in it. Thankful for the antibiotics and their superpower magic.
Thankful for my body. Yes thankful to my body that was in a lot of pain.

It’s so easy to blame and judge our bodies. To beat them up when they don’t work as we
want them to. My poor ear got attacked and it was doing all that is could to fight off the
infection. Bodies get injured and sick. Bodies age. That’s what bodies do and usually they
are blamed for it. In reality, they are doing their best with what they have got to keep us
alive and ticking. I think that deserves recognition and a whole lot of appreciation.

Of course it’s not easy to do when we are sick and in pain. But when we can, the pain, the
sickness, is so much easier to bear. Remember reading above, science has proven that
gratitude alleviates physical pain. It does. There is still pain but instead of being in conflict
with the pain, fighting the pain, we are befriending it. We are turning towards the difficult
sensations with our superpower. “Thank you body for doing your best. I know it is
really hard right now.”

Finally, how do we cultivate more gratitude “when things are fine?” This is the neutral
flavour, which I find can be the most tricky. We tend to tune out when things are just
flowing along. We distract ourselves and don’t fully pay attention to what is going on. This
leads to more automatic pilot living, which is a duller, more disconnect life.

One way to remember to practice gratitude in the normal moments is with a gratitude
stone. I love collecting tiny smooth stones from beaches or river beds. I often gift them to
others. Inviting people to keep them in the pocket of a favourite jacket or bag. Each time
your hand comes in contact with the stone, you pause and think of one thing you are
grateful for. Then you move on with your day.

It is a simple act and can read as cheesy, but I swear it makes a difference. The more we
practice gratitude, the more me make this a neural pattern. Changing it from a trait to a
state. Hebb’s Law states, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Making happiness
easily accessible in our day to day living no matter what we currently encountering.
I will leave you with one last bit of science pertaining to our superpower. Expressing and
feeling gratitude affect the brain differently. There is more activity in the medial prefrontal
cortex when one expresses gratitude.

So feeling grateful is one thing, but expressing it is something that much more powerful. So I invite to do all the above out loud. Or if that is not your style, write it down. It’s pretty awesome knowing you have a superpower. It is even more fantastic using. Enjoy!

About Loving Kindness and Why Practice It

I never really understood the practice of Loving Kindness, metta, until recently. Sure, I had read
about it, heard about it in my trainings, practiced it, and even taught it, but somehow I didn’t
‘quite get it’. That is until I read Christina Feldman’s book Boundless Heart, The Buddha’s Path
of Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity.
In her book Feldman presents practicing Metta as
a verb: befriending. It is an attitude rather than a practice you turn ‘on and off’. She writes:
[metta] “is said to be the necessary foundational attitude underlying all meditative
development.”

Loving Kindness is not so much an emotion or state, but a way of approaching all experiences
with boundless friendliness. We can learn to befriend all people – including ourselves – and all
events and circumstances; the pleasant and the unpleasant, the beautiful and the ugly. This
doesn’t mean we have to like everyone or everything, but we can care about it and befriend it.

Insight practice allows us to gain insight into impermanence, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, and the
awareness of no-self. As an Insight practice, the cultivation of metta is directed toward
uncovering aversion, which is a symptom of unsatisfactoriness. Aversion can show up in many
ways: irritation, impatience, jealousy, hatred, belittlement, anger, etc. I don’t have to tell you
there is a lot of that in the world.

Loving Kindness is not so much an emotion or state, but a way of approaching all
experiences with boundless friendliness. We can learn to befriend all people
– including ourselves – and all events and circumstances; the pleasant and the
unpleasant, the beautiful and the ugly.

Aversion leads to depression and anxiety as there is no room in our heart for joy and
appreciation. From a Buddhist psychological perspective aversion, or: ill will, is rooted in fear –
the fear of loss, the fear of harm. When we are gripped by fear, we create in our mind the
sense of ‘other’ that we want to run away from or attack. We don’t want to feel this way so we
blame the other, or our circumstances. This blaming can become such a habit that we don’t
even notice we are doing it, nor the effects of it. Moreover, we often feel justified in our
aversion; we feel we have every right to hate people that are doing wrong in our eyes.
Unfortunately, we don’t realize the negative effects of that. As a Tibetan teacher said:

Do not take lightly small misdeeds,
Believing they can do no harm,
Even a tiny spark of fire
Can set alight a mountain.

So, we need to befriend aversion. Aversion is suffering that we can only end through our
willingness to be intimate with the landscape of it, in order for it to be understood. Ill will truly
holds the power to make us ill, as the body carries the burden of aversive thoughts and
emotions. Metta is intended to interrupt these negative thoughts and emotions.

Metta is a quality of mindfulness. It doesn’t ask for an ambitious desire to save the whole
world, but simply to rescue the mind and heart from moments of compulsive ill will. When we
commit to kindness in each moment, we stop feeding the habit of aversion and bring the
tendency of ill will to an end. It is a rotation of consciousness: rather than waiting for aversion to disappear for there to be space for kindness, it is through cultivating our capacity of
befriending adversity that affliction will be eased and healed.

The conscious cultivation of metta as a meditation practice uses simple phrases that give words
to the intention of metta. The keyword here is: intention. The words are less important, as long
as they are meaningful and feel easy. Each phrase is repeated slowly – either out loud or in your
mind – allowing space between each phrase to listen to the inward response.

There is no right response, however. We are not looking for a specific feeling or state of mind.
All responses are welcome and a reminder that we are practicing befriending. Through
sustaining our attention within the felt sense of befriending, we learn to deepen and sustain
the capacity of our hearts to abide in kindness. In doing so new neural pathways are being laid
in our brain and slowly we can reverse our habitual ways of reacting.

Traditionally, metta practice is offered first toward ourselves, then to a benefactor, a friend, a
neural person, and lastly to a difficult person. For example:

May I/you be well in the midst of difficulty.
May I/you be at peace.
May I/you rest with ease and kindness in this moment.

In the western world befriending oneself seems to be the most difficult for most people. Metta
practice should never be forced though and should be kept free of striving and expectations. It
is always an invitation and a conscious cultivation of intention and inclining our hearts toward
kindness.

As a practical application during your day, you could ask yourself these questions:

What does this moment need?

What is needed to free this moment of ill will and fear, and to rest in a boundless heart?

And as you practice loving kindness, remind yourself that you do not have to be ‘God-like’ to
fully embody it. It is through practicing that we strengthen our ability to be more kind. And that
is worth the effort; the world needs it.

6 Ways to Cultivate a Summer Practice

Summer is here, and there is so much to celebrate. Travel season is finally open, the weather is amazing and I feel light, energetic and hopeful. People around me are smiling, I live in the South of France and the combination of rivers, mountains, beach (and the aperitivo) is simply intoxicating. All of life’s regular challenges seem easy to tackle, even work, as I actually I get the busiest during summer.

BUT, there is also a nagging thought “why don’t I feel like this all the time”?  I have to admit I get a little anxious about how short the summer is and that it might be over soon. I tell myself, well, let’s just be in the moment, and put away whatever is coming next. Just enjoy it. 

Its not a seasonal thing! 

Here’s the thing: I spent 12 years of my life living in a year around summer climate, and trust me, ‘The Blues’ can come anywhere, any time, and they are not seasonal! Our inner sense of satisfaction, our ability to be mindful and grounded in the present is something we can cultivate to be lasting year around. Actually, THIS is our practice. 

Our inner sense of satisfaction, our ability to be mindful and grounded in the present is something we can cultivate to be lasting year around. Actually, THIS is our practice. 

This time of year  is so rich and filled with beauty, its easy to feel connected to the earth, to nature, family and community. Summer time is a  great opportunity to deepen our practice, and at the same time can be distracting and we can completely fall out of it because we are in ‘vacation mode’. 

Ideas on how to bring your mindfulness, meditation, and yoga practice to life during summer: 

  1. Plan your practice. As you plan your summer, make an intention about your practice too. Schedule it in, allow it to be a priority.  If you are going on vacation, bring your meditation cushion and your mat. Inform the people you spend time with about it, and that you would like to be free of distraction during that time.  
  1. Honour the sunrise. If you have the chance, try waking up early and practice with the sunrise. There is something auspicious and peaceful about this time, and it IS easier to wake up early in the summer, so why not make the most of it.
  1. Write about it. My grandmother once told me that if you want to remember beautiful moments and make them a part of you forever, write them down. Even with photos, the moment could slip by.  When we bring writing into our daily lives, we might also see the world differently, notice more details about the beauty and wonders of our experiences.
  1. Connect to your creativity. Bring out the old pencils, colours, knitting, half written poetry, dusty instruments. Take it with you on vacation and spend some ME time with your creative outlet. There’s nothing like being in the flow of creation in the present moment, and you might even end the summer with a beautiful finished project.
  1. Listen to your body. If it is rest that you need, then take the rest. Let yourself connect to your natural rhythm, your own pace this summer. It’s ok to opt out, be ‘unproductive’, and just lounge about. I love getting sweaty and doing all the activities when I have time off and that’s all good. But it can be exhausting. It’s all about balance and what YOU need.
  1. Take some silent time. There’s a lot of social stuff going on, and we love it. Give yourself some silent time, even just an hour here and there. It’s a gift. Maybe you have some time off work, you can put the phone away for a few hours a day, or longer! 

In time with regular practice, whatever it is that your chosen lineage, school or teacher is, it will become a part of you and trickle into your daily life, no matter where you are or what you are doing. That’s the beauty of it, it just takes a little attention and dedication for a while, and then it becomes naturally inviting. Summer is a great time to start!

About Silvia

Silvia is a Yoga teacher, physiology enthusiast, and spiritual seeker. She is passionate about making the yoga practice accessible and functional for everyone and helping others find their personal expression with joyful movement.  Read full bio

Want Peace? Embrace The Conflict.

Want Peace? Embrace The Conflict.

The paradox of the compassionate heart

A Tibetan monk, who had spent more than 18 years in a Chinese prison labour camp, told the Dalai Lama that on a few occasions he really faced some danger. So, he asked him, ‘What danger? What kind of danger?’, thinking he would tell him of Chinese torture and prison. The monk replied, ‘Many times I was in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.’

The recent war in Ukraine reminds me of one thing. We are in danger, in danger of ourselves. When I look around, I notice that people are angry, afraid, and feel powerless. And rightly so, but with whom are we angry, who are we afraid of and why do we feel disempowered? 

At the heart of the problem lies our denial as a species that we are not just aware, loving, and caring beings but we have the potential to be killers as well. The spectrum of what the human being is capable of is vast; on one end we can love unconditionally and on the other end we can kill and destroy cold-heartedly for our own benefit. Now, this is the part of us that we don’t like being reminded of; our dark side or the shadow as Carl Jung called it. Our unloved Self is too shameful, painful, or traumatic to bring into the light and acknowledge. Acknowledge that this is part of who we are, what we have done, what we have created.

And by that very suppression of our dark side over years, decades and centuries, individually and collectively, we have created a massive polarised energetic charge that continues to infuse conflict in ourselves and thereby the world around us. Just like any pressure, that charge seeks expression. And this is what we see in and around us all the time; an excess charge that is trying to find a way out.

As long as we keep coming into action from that old unresolved business, we will have more of that pain and suffering again. This is no rocket science. Well actually it is…quantum physics shows us over and over again that we create our reality on a moment-by-moment basis based on the thoughts, beliefs, and preferences we’ve subscribed to in the past. So, if we hold a tense and contracted state of reality in ourselves, we will see that same reality manifest around us. We are co-creative beings of our reality, not victims to it. 

As much as we would like it to all just go away, we have to deal with the mess we created. But it won’t if we keep coming from the same principles we applied to live in the past. Einstein reminded us of this when he said that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

And apart from the same thinking, it might not even be thinking at all that is going to get us out of the woods. It could very well be that the thinking mind is never going to get us to the place where sensible solutions to problems can present themselves: the present moment. And it can’t because the job description of the thinking mind is to seek, to go out on a quest to find something other than ‘this’. ‘This’ is the very moment in which life manifests as it does. And that manifestation is all-inclusive, not just peace and harmony but also conflict, pain, fear, and all other aspects of life.

Now we may want to ask ourselves if this is a problem. I have come to see that we don’t suffer from being afraid but from our inability and resistance to consciously experience that fear. Our judgment, fear, and denial of that which life presents and our immediate need to fix it creates the very charge we hold on to as stress and which we keep feeding back into the system, thereby perpetuating conflict.

In my belief and experience, the solution to this can come from our compassionate hearts. Contrary to the thinking mind our compassionate heart has the ability to experience all aspects of life freely in all its intensity without knowing or understanding. At the same time, the compassionate heart has the ability to let that experience be without personalizing or needing to fix it.

In this sense, compassion exposes the illusion that what happens in this very moment is personal and needs fixing. It is simply how life unfolds. True compassion ends the personal drama and sees life as it really is; a free fall of endless possibilities. 

The union of compassion and being aware of how life is now having an immediate and noticeable energetic effect. It will release the old charges and prevent them from building up again. The effect of us holding less charge from the past is that we no longer project it into the reality of tomorrow. 

If we apply this principle to war, for example, we have to make an entirely irrational step in how we have dealt with this before. We now need to consciously move towards something that we previously tried so hard to run away from. And rather than fix it we now let it be. We can see it for what it really is; an aspect of life that has come into manifestation. Letting war be, does not mean approving of war or condoning it. That is what your mind will tell you in facing the compassionate embrace, which instantly ends the story it wants to keep going so badly.

What happens is simply astonishing. We will lose charge around our perception of war. And by no longer holding that charge in us we don’t feed it into the reality we manifest in and around us. When more and more people practice this and thereby end their contribution to the conflict, we literally disempower the war. Not by fighting it, opposing it, or trying to fix it but by embracing war as part of life as it could potentially manifest.

This is a much more aware and realistic approach to living. We need to get real, wake up. Life is not just a fluffy cloud of pink marshmallows; it is a living system of endless diversity and potential. What part of that potential comes to life is up to us. The first step is to take responsibility and deal with our creations from the past in a conscious way by no longer giving them energy. Denying it or running away from it didn’t get us anywhere. Neither did peace demonstrations. Taking sides only leads to more polarisation, energising the very things we wanted to put an end to. Noticing the present moment in an aware state and embracing that which presents ends the unconscious re-creation of the past and gives way to a much more harmonic principle that is no longer based on our personal limitations that come from fear, greed, and ignorance.

When we move out of a contracted state of being we come into the flow. A natural state of energy, which moves into directions that benefits all of nature. The actions and decisions we then make come out of clarity and awareness and have quite a different outcome than the ones we used to make from our contracted states of being.

We can no longer exclude the parts of life we don’t like or want and thereby polarise and charge them. We need to learn to embrace the diversity of life and experience it without reservations, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Does this mean we will never be angry again, that there won’t be any fights? It is a romantic idea but completely unrealistic. Trying to achieve that would be missing the point here. Look at life, it is everything. Making ourselves consciously available to all of it allows us to experience its endless diversity and intensity, without being a victim to it any longer. I believe it is the only way to freedom and peace. 

A Tibetan monk, who had spent more than 18 years in a Chinese prison labour camp, told the Dalai Lama that on a few occasions he really faced some danger. So, he asked him, ‘What danger? What kind of danger?’, thinking he would tell him of Chinese torture and prison. The monk replied, ‘Many times I was in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.’