What gratitude really feels like?

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The holidays are prime time for gratitude and compassion in this country. We have an actual holiday dedicated to giving thanks. But being grateful and compassionate is season-less. It should be a part of our DNA, our character, our daily routine all year round. It should be akin to getting dressed or brushing our teeth. Often though it's difficult to make time to appreciate the good things we have when we are in the midst of the grind we call life. 

Gratitude is an emotion and as such we should be able to feel and experience the emotion in our body. Just as anger or frustration manifests itself in the form of a tight chest or shortness of breath, gratitude too has a physical sensation. It can feel like warmth in the body, a sense of grounded-ness, a slowing of the breath, spaciousness in the chest and heart, uncontrollable tears or an automatic smile. I know when I am experiencing gratitude because it's not just a concept in my head, I can feel it in my body. 

The most popular advice out there for cultivating gratitude is some form of a gratitude journal. I have tried it, and to be honest it just doesn't work for me. For a year I kept a voice diary of the 3 - 5 things I'm grateful for each day. The list included my husband, friends, meals, where I live (San Francisco), my job, co-workers etc. Very quickly the exercise started to feel like a "should" and not "want" in my life.  

The first time I truly experienced gratitude, in a way that was cathartic and physical was during my first loving-kindness meditation, a type of mindfulness practice that is also known as Metta. In a loving-kindness meditation, we direct our attention and send kind wishes to four types of people in our lives, someone we love very much, someone we are neutral towards, someone we are having difficulty with and then finally all beings.

I was going through my meditation teacher's training when my teacher Jill Satterfield guided us through our first Metta practice. As I brought to mind the person I was grateful for, in this case it was a mentor at work, suddenly I felt this surge of emotion through my chest. Next thing I knew, tears were flowing uncontrollably down my face. Needless to say, I was shocked by how my body reacted to what was happening in my mind. Eventually, as the tears and mind settled, I was left with a sense of warmth, comfort and contentment in my body. Being grateful never felt so good. 

There are so many different tools out there for cultivating gratitude, but my watermark is "can I feel gratitude in my body?"

A regular mindfulness meditation practice is the most effective tool that I have used in my life to cultivate gratitude because each day I sit to practice, I am reminded of why I practice, to be a better person for those that I love, the people that I'm grateful for in my life. More often than not, I feel a sense of warmth and ease in the body after a meditation. 

If you have never experienced a loving-kindness practice, I highly recommend trying it at home. All you need is a comfortable place to sit and a recording. And this recording by Sharon Salzberg is a great one to try.  

In addition to leveraging mindfulness, here are other tools that I have used successfully to cultivate gratitude in my life in a way that is not only in my head, but in my body as well. 

Reflecting on the past. It is no coincidence that some of the most grateful and compassionate people in the world have suffered the most. Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela to just name a few. Hardships and obstacles in life can be a foundation of strength and gratitude. These experiences often involve a person or a group of people that helped or supported us in a time of need. Taking a few moments to remember and reflect on those experiences and people can be a great tool to cultivate gratitude.

For example, when I reflect on my past, I often think of the sacrifices that my parents made immigrating to this country from China in their mid-40's. Can you imagine moving to a new country where you barely spoke the language to start a new life with almost no money? I can't. My dad came to this country with less than $100 in his pocket and gave up a good medical career just so my sister and I could have the opportunities this country provided. My mom worked in a sweatshop for years to make additional income even though she was already an educated accountant. We were poor and far from family, but my parents worked so hard to make sure we had everything we needed. Each time I reflect on this, I am filled with awe and gratitude for my parents. As I write this, I'm crying. It gets me every time. 

Reading the news. In times of stress or anxiety, one of the most difficult things to do is to dig ourselves out of our own self-dug narrow hole. Learning about the world can open up that aperture and is a great tool for shifting our perspective. Whenever I read the news, inevitably there is some form of tragedy or suffering occurring in another part of the world. It's not that reading about others' suffering makes me feel better about my own issues, but it opens my heart and mind by shifting and widening my perspective. It automatically helps me feel more grateful for the things I have and compassion for those that are suffering. Sometimes the news makes me cry, most of the time it doesn't. But in my body, I always feel more spacious, open and grounded.

Needless to say, each of us respond to different tools. Don't feel bad if a gratitude journal isn't your thing. What is most important is that through trial and error, we each find what works for us. I hope you can find yours.