|"Appreciating 14 Secrets" Collage by Lani and textures from FlyPaper|
We know that doing small things repeatedly each day will, over time, add up to big things. I heard a lecture of Rick Hanson's, talking about how he felt like there was a big hole in his heart that he realized only he had the power to fill. So every day he practiced a little something to increase his joy and peace of mind (filling that hole in his heart), which he shares freely with others. So this idea of doing small things, like looking for the good, can change your life. Hanson asserts that we are in charge of where we place our awareness. Things may be going on all around us as well as inside us, but we are free to place the spotlight of mindfulness on anything. In a way, he might say we are observers and spectators in our own lives. But he would advise being very deliberate about where we place our attention and awareness.
He would suggest that if we spend our days dwelling on resentments and regrets, quite naturally our neural structures that support pessimism, self-doubt, and unhappiness will become quietly, implacably wired together. Alternately, he would suggest that if we spend our days dwelling on the good facts all around us and in us, focused on what makes us happy and grateful, and facing our problems with determination, our neural structures that support optimism, confidence, and happiness will gradually wire together. Which would we prefer, I wonder?
The difference between the neural structures in these two cases is simply how we use our attention. Since attention is pretty much under our conscious control, we have an extraordinary tool at our disposal throughout our day to fill the holes in our hearts, and nudge our experiences in a positive direction. Over time, we sculpt our neural pathways and our brain in positive ways. Which of course leads to increasingly positive experiences, which in turn sculpts our brain further, in a sort of wonderful, positive feed-back loop.
So this challenge is about some focus-shifting for our peace of mind. We all deserve that, don't we?
A while back, Gioia Chilton sent the 14 Secrets group some relaxation techniques (Relaxation Techniques and Ideas from Gioia Chilton, MA, ATR-BC). Two of them fit perfectly here.
Find An Object To Appreciate: (about ten seconds minimum)
* Simply pick out one enjoyable or beautiful aspect of your environment, wherever you happen to be. In some settings it is easier, but you can almost always find something to appreciate. Examples include an object with a particularly lovely color or texture, a comfy piece of furniture, perhaps a piece of your own art, or another person, a sound, or a personal object (a great pen that has a nice flow of ink, a piece of jewelry, an attractive purse, etc.).
* Focus only on this one object. Admire it for a moment and breathe deeply and easily as you do it. (When you do this, you will be activating the parasympathetic nervous system and your relaxation response.)
Maida, B.J. (n.d.) Short Relaxation Exercises handout, McLean, VA:
Family Counseling Center
Appreciation Game: (about 5 minutes)
Now we can take a moment to be intentional about our appreciation for our friends and family. Make a game of it by in turn, telling our partner, friend or child what we appreciate about him or her. Appreciations can include the "little" things, like the way someone smiles, the scarf they wear, or the sound of their sneeze! Gioia finds long car rides to be a most excellent time to do a round of appreciations. Have fun with it. (Gioia's daughter calls this activity "saying my loves." Isn't that sweet? Don't you want to say your loves?) If we are going to fill the holes in our hearts that Rick Hanson talks about, we need to remember to appreciate ourselves as well, every day. We don't have to wait for others to notice, we get to appreciate ourselves any time!
In an article by MJ Ryan, who is a resilience expert, one particular resilience strategy caught my attention, and that is to cultivate gratitude. Ryan asks herself the question: "what in my life or myself can I be truly grateful for right now?" She reminds us that this should be about what we really appreciate, not what we think we should appreciate.
Ryan tells a story of Lauren, a 17-year-old, who had lived in 12 different foster homes since she was 8. When she moved from place to place, her possessions fit in one plastic trash bag. She was about to “age out” of the California foster system, with no place to live, no money, and no job, but she was optimistic. When she was 10, she lived with "Mommy Jean." "Mommy Jean" gave Lauren a pebble and told her to carry it with her always. Each time she felt it, she was to think of something she was grateful for. Every day since then, Lauren has been using this touchstone and finding things to be grateful for and slowly, over time, she grew her optimism.
Ryan says that if she could, she would hand us all a little pebble right now. Not only to help us practice gratitude but to remind us that, like Lauren, we can survive the challenges that life sends our way. This little story is a wonderful reminder of the importance of "saying our loves,"and how doing small things repeatedly each day will, over time, add up to really big things.
Challenge: Take any or all of the above ideas and reflect on them in an art piece. Try going into that quiet inner space while doing this.
Feel free to share your work or play on Instagram by adding #14SecretsChallenge to your description, or by adding your photo to our Flickr pool.