This weekend marks the beginning of many celebrations – Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Years, Chinese New Year. They are all celebrations of get togethers and new beginnings. Which, is also a great time to be grateful.
Why should we be grateful? Or why shouldn’t we be grateful?
We have a choice. And whatever we focus on grows. So you can imagine, when we focus on what’s positive, we also have a more positive outlook in life.
I have found keeping a gratitude journal to be very helpful. Depending on how much time you have, even listing three bullet points of what you are grateful for at the end of each day would do. It’s really that simple. (So not having enough time is not an excuse!)
I did a 21-day “challenge” when I first read about a gratitude journal because I wanted to validate the effects of it. I picked 21 days since a lot of books say that’s the duration of time it takes to create a habit. It was a fun little experiment I did on myself.
The first few days was just writing by routine. And gradually as the days built up, the effects were subtle. Subtle yet impactful to a point where after 21 days, I continued with the habit. The accumulated effects of practicing gratitude created prolonged internal moments of serenity. Also centeredness. And feeling more grounded. To validate those effects, I stopped journalling for a while to see if I would feel any different, and I really did. And so I picked it back up again. (yes I know I like experiments)
It’s been more than half a year since I started noting down my 3 bullet points everyday. I still continue this practice every day, both journaling and also taking mental notes throughout the day. I encourage you all to give the gratitude journal a try!
Friends who have known me for a long time have noticed changes in me since I started practicing meditation. It’s not too hard to notice.
I used to exude anger; now I am a chill pill.
I used to drink a lot (so much that got friends worried); now I can only do max a glass a night (I just don’t need it anymore!).
I used to feel empty and would question the purpose of life during my 3-hour daily commute, and now I feel so much happier and so much more satisfied with my life after making a career change as a meditation teacher.
A year ago, I would never imagine myself to become a meditation teacher.
So how did it all happen? During a low and stressful time of my life, a friend suggested that I learn meditation. I had the number one misconception, “No, I can’t meditate because I can’t stop thinking.” But sure why not - the app was free anyways. It also had these cartoons that explained the concept so well. Lo and behold, after a couple of months, I knew it worked. I was experiencing what they call neuroplasticity - changes in the brain. (You really feel it when it happens.)
I felt my brain got more toned, just like how you notice the difference in your arms after doing push-ups every day for a week. I noticed every moment felt longer because my mind was not as “jumpy” as it used to be; I could keep my focus. I didn’t wonder as often if there were any messages on my phone, or tried to “multitask” by replying e-mails and listening to a presentation at the same time, or distracted by a passerby in the midst of a conversation. I was living in the present moment and my engagement with the world changed. The feeling was magical.
My experience aligned with Harvard neuroscientist’s, Sara Lazar, research findings. She found that it only takes 8 weeks to rewire the brain. When we look at the MRIs of people in the study, they found the areas of the brain that changed include the amygdala (stress & anxiety), left hippocampus (learning, memory, cognition, emotion regulation), and posterior cingulate (focus, self-relevance). We used to think the brain is fixed after a certain age, no...no...no..., that is not true. You can change your brain with meditation just like you can build your core with doing planks.
I am 34, college educated, now living in Hong Kong. I had a corporate job for over 10 years. I am quite the typical profile in a modern city. If I can understand meditation and do it, anyone can.
Meditation is not mystical and very simple.
In a meditation practice, there is usually a point of focus. It could be a touch (body scan, breath, mala beads), sight (candle gazing, mandala), or sound (bells, mantra, prayers). The practice is to stay with the focus. Whenever you are distracted, you come back to the focus. Distracted, focus. Distracted, focus. Distracted, focus.…moving from distraction to focus is the meditation. It’s that simple! Meditation are practices and techniques that calms the nervous system down, and trains the brain to be more engaged, focused, and less reactive.
Meditation has truly changed my life.
There is no magic with meditation, it's all practice. It’s been 3 years since I started practicing and I have experienced so many benefits and shifts. I have gotten so much clarity to what I want in my life and who I really am (that's big!), just by spending time with myself on the meditation cushion. It blows my mind how we spend so much time attending to what’s outside of us (e.g. social media) and forget to connect with ourselves. A year ago I would never have imagined I would be a meditation teacher. But because I have gone through this journey myself, I want to show people who are suffering from stress (or feel stuck) they have the tool within themselves to be happier and healthier; you don't have to be stuck! I am not saying the reality of living in this age of hyper-connected technologies and gruelling challenges is going to change, but we can choose how to respond and integrate ourselves in the world.
At least that's what I learned from coming out of my rut - it is possible to tune yourself to have a different experience with the world.
Have you found yourself in a scenario where people around you are giving off this contagious, overwhelming stressful vibe and you are constantly “on” because either you have a high paying job or a crazy boss who makes you feel like he/she owns you.
And, and, and…
What is most annoying is when people unpredictably throws you a curve ball that tests your patience and tolerance. That shot of anger and frustration that manifests and penetrates at an uncontrollable speed. You wish you could just dump these emotions at the next convenient trashcan. Reality is, as much as you want to retaliate so badly, you have to hold yourself back because you have to keep your poise. These are “hardships” included in your pay check. Go on, swallow.
In this losing battle, how do we save our well being?
A Dose of Mindfulness at Work
Direct your attention to your breath and breathe into the sensations of the “pain.” Then, count your breaths.
Imagine yourself sitting on a park bench, and you are witnessing your emotions like strangers walking by. Don’t ignore them, but have awareness of them. Keep witnessing and do not identify with your emotions (remember they are just strangers), by going into a monologue involving judging or blaming or victimizing yourself. That will only be putting more fuel in the fire. Continue to feed your peace by focusing on your breath. Observe the changes that is happening, and be patient with yourself.
2. Focus on a pleasant (or neutral) part of your body
This is a useful suggestion I learned from Fully Present, written by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston.
The essence of this practice is to distract your attention from your pain point to a pleasant (or neutral) part of your body. Let’s say you are experiencing stress and have a knot in your chest. You feel heavy and just want to let out a big sigh. That’s fine, sigh. Then mindfully notice your breath and acknowledge the discomfort you are experiencing, then direct your attention to your feet (or anywhere you can resonate with as “pleasant.”). Focus on your feet. Breathe. Once you feel you have given sufficient time, mindfully transition back to your pain point and observe if there has been any changes. If you feel that you still need more time, transition back to the pleasant (or neutral) point of focus of your body as many times as you need and as long as you need, and don’t forget to keep breeeathing.
Turning to our breath sounds cliche, but there is a lot of research that shows how breathing can manipulate our nervous system, including calming the body and mind.
Our breath is always with us. It is a tool we can always take out of our toolbox.
Hopefully with the practice of mindfulness, we can gain resilience in the fast lane.