Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Simply Emmy Life Lesson #2- Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it's natural to reflect on the blessings in our lives. Family, friends, our home, our jobs (or if we don't like our job, at least that we have a job), the freedoms that we enjoy in our country. We're grateful for our health and "wealth," especially when we think of those less fortunate than ourselves. We enjoy our turkey, eat way too much, and the day is done.

But what would happen if we practiced real gratitude every day? And not just every day but in the moments that count, the moments and experiences that are the most difficult for us? Let's think about one reality of life that almost everyone can relate to: traffic. When was the last time that you were trying to get somewhere, got caught in a massive traffic jam, and practiced gratitude? Seems crazy, right? Unless perhaps you think to yourself, "That person who just cut me off should be grateful that I didn't jump out my car and...(fill in the blank here)." What if in that moment, you realized that you were grateful for the song on the radio, for a blue sky and sunshine, or maybe for the person in the passenger seat beside you because you could have a real conversation with them before rushing onto the next thing?

In my experience, moving to a place where traffic can be bearable (and even bordering on enjoyable?) is a gradual process and starts with your awareness of the present moment. For me, meditation allows me to become more aware of the present moment. For you, it may be taking five deep breaths when you are in a difficult situation, being mindful of those breaths, and then asking yourself a simple question- "What am I grateful for in my life?" If you are in a place where you can write it down, write it down and create a gratitude journal. I do not advocate texting and driving so if you are driving when this occurs, you can always dictate your thoughts to Siri or the real life person sitting beside you. If you are a more tactile person, create a gratitude jar. There are a ton of crafty ideas online for creating these jars (and a great excuse to search Pinterest, as if you needed an excuse). If you have kids, this is great way to show them that you are mindful of blessings in life throughout the year and to encourage them to contribute to the jar themselves.

Once you start realizing the small things you are grateful for in life, the momentum builds. If you have a gratitude jar you can literally see it filling up! That is where the shift can happen from not only thinking about what you are grateful for in your life when difficulty strikes, but what you are grateful for specifically in that difficult situation or moment. I'll use an example from my own life. My husband and I are excited about starting a family but oftentimes I feel impatient or discouraged that we haven't arrived "there" yet. How can I be grateful about something that I don't have? As I sit here with my husband, enjoying a quiet evening at home, writing my blog post and enjoying a glass of wine, I realize that when we have kids we probably won't be able to do this as much. (Parents reading this think, "Umm...try at all!") The fact that I am experiencing this moment right now makes it even more precious to me and makes me feel extremely grateful.

Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" allows for a shift in our mindset. We start thinking about situations differently because it quiets the "ego-self" that normally rules our thoughts and allows us to connect with our true selves. Instead of playing the victim in every difficult situation, such as our traffic example ("Why did this have to happen to me? I have important places to go today!") we see it as an opportunity to take a moment, breathe, and connect with the things that are important to us.

If I haven't convinced you yet that practicing gratitude is a good idea, what if I told you that it had emotional and physical health benefits as well? Psychologists Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough conducted research which found that those keeping a gratitude journal experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness and also exercised more frequently than those that did not keep a gratitude journal.   Those practicing gratitude on a daily basis reported that they felt more joyful, attentive, and enthusiastic, just to name a few positive emotions. The research can be found here. Fascinating stuff!

So this Thanksgiving, you have a choice. You can go around the table and say one thing you are thankful for before eating the bird, and then flip someone the bird when you are driving home and someone cuts you off. Or you can write down what you are thankful for right now and just keep going. I'll start: I am grateful that you read my blog post and I am grateful for any positive impact my words may have on your life. :) Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

"Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world."
- John Milton

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Simply Emmy Life Lesson #1- Live Like You Just Learned How to Walk

A common saying is to "Live like you're dying." Tim McGraw's song comes to mind, which goes through bucket list activities such as skydiving and "Rocky Mountain climbing" as well as being a better spouse, friend, and enjoying every moment like it was your last. I am totally on board with "Carpe Diem" and the idea of living in the present (and in fact, many of my blog posts will focus on that topic) but for me, I think it's more important to approach life like a baby who just learned how to walk.

1) As babies, we are our true selves, because who else could we be? We haven't had any negative feedback (except maybe our parents telling us "no" when we try to put our fingers in the electric socket!) and we are free to express our true unbounded joy. As we get older, we receive feedback which causes us to scale back this joy and in many cases make us think that we're not "enough"-  not smart enough, thin enough, good enough. What meditation has given me is the gift of realizing that when I look at myself as "not enough" because of what others have told me, what I perceive that others think of me, or my own negative self-talk, that is not my true self. My true self is that of uninhibited joy and potential, just like a baby. When you realize how much of your life has been impacted by how you've limited your own potential, it's quite eye opening.

2) Have you ever seen a baby that just learned how to walk? They are so excited to be on their feet that they run around at full speed. You look the other way for a second and they're gone. New parents may not think this is that fantastic since they constantly have their eyes on them, but I think that babies are thrilled to have a physical way to outwardly express their internal joy.

More importantly, have you ever seen a baby fall that just learned how to walk? Probably yes since it happens a lot, especially at the beginning. If you witness it, you hold your breath for a moment, anticipating a blood-curdling scream when the baby does a face plant. But what happens nine times out of ten? They get up and start running around again, right? Babies aren't afraid to fall flat on their faces. Even kids that are slightly older may fall down and wait to see how the adults around them react. Most times, if the adult says, "You're OK!" the child gets back up and starts running around again. So why do we treat our own failures differently? When we fall flat on our faces we feel embarrassment and shame. It prevents us from trying again or if we do try again, we do so very cautiously. Whether it's true or not, we imagine the reactions of those around us- feeling sorry for us, embarrassed  for us, shaking their heads in disapproval. We don't tell ourselves "You're OK!" so we can dust ourselves off and get back up to running at full speed again. 

I recently finished a book by Brené Brown called Daring Greatly which I would highly recommend about having the courage to be vulnerable and live an authentic life. Brené uses a quote from Theodore Roosevelt's Man in the Arena speech which I think is a great way to remember living life like a baby just learning to walk who gets up time and time again:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

 The next time you do a face plant of failure, think of yourself as a joyful baby who can't wait to get up and start running around again.