Positive psychology is branch of psychology which focuses on what makes people happy and well. Gratitude has featured prominently in many studies in the field of positive psychology (see chapter Gratitude and the Science of Positive Psychology) since it has been shown that being grateful has many benefits for our emotional well-being.
Many world religions feature gratitude as an essential component to faith. One should express gratitude towards a higher being for all the good things experienced. Anyone who has felt gratitude can appreciate that it has a deep, spiritual quality just like forgiveness. Gratitude washes over us and gives us a glimpse of a higher, happier and more balanced state of being.
As such, practising gratitude is a prudent exercise to undertake in order to become more mindful and enlightened. The following simple practice aids with that:
- Take a deep breath in, then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
- Think about what a wonder it is that you are alive. Be grateful for the ability to think and feel and just be.
Many gratitude exercises suggested by positive psychology focus on identifying persons or events for which we should be grateful for. I do not doubt that this will help us to foster more virtuous emotions within ourselves and improve our relationships. However, I think that contemplating the very nature of our existence and finding within us gratefulness of the miracle of our being helps us become grateful in a deeper and more meaningful way. If we embrace this kind of gratitude, we are on the way to truly become more wise and enlightened.
If in contrast we would be grateful for particular things in our life, the question arises how to react if these are taken from us. For instance, one might be grateful for the good health of ones children – but what do we do if a child falls sick?
Buddhist teachings recognise this difficulty and instead encourage us to seek detachment and equanimity. This gratitude practise is somewhat in alignment with this strive for equanimity since we are less likely to focus on ephemeral situations in our lives. However we need to keep in mind that being grateful for being alive should not turn into an unhealthy attachment to our continued existence. To achieve true enlightenment, we must not be attached to being alive but accept in full that our lives are transient.
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I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.
Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs; for instance less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching TV and more time on more meaningful endeavours.
This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.
I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.
This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:
I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practices can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.
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Joy is what makes the little moments in our life worthwhile. We may play a game, we may laugh with friends, we may dance, or draw or swim; any of the things nature has allowed us to find pleasure in. We need this joy and it is a great source of strength for us.
In Buddhism joy is known as one of the four immeasurables along with compassion, love and equanimity. If we embrace these states of mind, we may become happier, wiser and bring more good to the world around us.
We have a natural ability to experience joy and to practice joy is less about mindfully seeking it and more about letting loose of the restraints modern life and adulthood place upon us.
We have many reasons not to experience joy. We are too tired, too stressed. We don’t have enough time. We are too serious a person to play or be silly. Therefore the practice to embrace joy in our lives is twofold:
- We need to think about what are the underlying factors preventing us from experiencing joy and how we may overcome them.
- Whenever joy finds us naturally in our lives, we need to embrace it fully and not feel guilty or be distracted by other obligations in our lives.
While the other practices lend themselves to be practised regularly, the practice of joy is something which needs to be woven into our everyday lives. As such, to not loose track of our commitment to joy, it may be good to schedule regular ‘joy reviews’ where we assess how we are tracking in bringing joy into our lives.
Image credit: The Roses of Heliogabalus
I think it is human nature that we are constantly disappointed with ourselves and others. One fundamental driver for this is our struggle between altruism and selfishness. We are programmed to be supportive and helpful to those around us but we are also programmed to look out for our own interests. Which ones of these directions we follow is a constant source of uncertainty for us and, if we inevitably choose the path of selfishness occasionally, we are bound to be disappointed with ourselves. Likewise, we are disappointed with others if we observe them doing the same.
Given this constant struggle and disappointment, I believe it is critical for us to embrace forgiveness in order to keep a balanced and happy mind. Thus I have developed the following very simple practice that may aid us in being more forgiving.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply until your lungs are filled with air. Hold your breath for three seconds and then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
- Forgive yourself for all the things you have done wrong, said wrong or thought wrong today or in the past. Remember that you are worthy of love, even if you make mistakes or are misguided.
- Forgive others who you feel have wronged you. Like you, they are worthy of love, even if they make mistakes or are misguided.
- Forgive existence for providing us with little guidance as to what our purpose is. You have been given this life; treasure what has been given to you.
Forgiveness for me is powerful since it is not only something we do through our thoughts but experience as a deep and revealing emotion. If I was angry with myself or others and I allow myself to forgive, I feel the relieving emotion of forgiveness washing over me. Maybe you do not experience this in the same way but I believe that we are all able to feel forgiveness as something special. For instance, think about how fundamental forgiveness is to Christianity: Yes, we may have sinned but God and Jesus will forgive us (the latter possibly more so than the former). If we truly believe this, this is bound to be a powerful emotion.
The practice above however does not assume that we will be granted forgiveness by a higher power. We ourselves forgive. And this matters. To be full of forgiveness is critical for journeying on the path of enlightenment, and we must not only forgive others but also ourselves. We are bound to be disappointed again and again, but the more disappointed we get, the more we need to forgive.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt. 18:15–22)
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Although our thoughts are arguably very important for who we are, we are often unaware of what is occupying our mind at any given moment. In this post, I describe a simple practice which helps in increasing awareness of our mind and thoughts.
These are the two simple steps to follow:
- Become aware of your breathing. Notice how the air passes through your nose or mouth. Notice how your belly and chest contract and expand.
- Observe your thoughts; whatever naturally comes to your mind if your thoughts are given free reign. Do not judge your thoughts. Do not try to direct them. Simply observe and accept them as they are.
This practice is based on mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to provide significant benefits to physiological and psychological health. Most mindfulness meditation practices are a bit more directed than the practice described here. This practice attempts to isolate a core tenant of mindfulness – which is to be aware of ones own thoughts – and provide a simple guide for achieving that. Trained mediators may later want to work on directing their thoughts during the meditation. However, just becoming aware of ones thoughts – without judging oneself of constantly drifting ‘off topic’ already provides great benefits toward a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
The above practice is simplified to a degree that it may almost seem superfluous to write it down here. However I still think there is value in keeping this practice as a reference. If it doesn’t consist of a sequence of dozens of steps; all the better, so it should be easy for us to remember and we have little excuse not to practice it from time to time.
With all the distractions in our life, we often forget what is most basic to us: our own bodies. We should take time to be mindful of how our body feels. Do we have pain somewhere? Do we feel relaxed or tense?
This is the first post of a series in which I will discuss various practices which may help in reaching happier, more satisfied and more enlightened state of mind. The practice I describe here may help us to become more mindful of our bodies, the temple from which we must utter all our prayers.
These are the two simple steps to follow:
- Breathe in until your lungs are completely filled with air, then slowly exhale until all air is gone again. Repeat for three times, then breathe naturally, simply observing your breath.
- Become mindful of every part of your body starting with your left arm and moving clockwise first to your left leg, then right leg, then head and finally core through the following
- Become aware of how that part of your body feels. Are you relaxed or tense? Is there any pain?
- Focus on the body part and make it feel heavier. Don’t press the part downward. Leave it as relaxed as possible, just let your thoughts flow towards it and feel how it slowly becomes heavier. Repeat the words ‘My right arm is heavy’, replacing right arm with the body part you are currently focusing on.
- Next direct your thoughts to make the body part feel warmer and even more relaxed. Repeat the words ‘My right arm is warm’. You may speak this softly or just verbalise it in your mind.
- Once you feel the body part being relaxed, warm and heavy, move on to the next part.
If your mind wanders during this practices to other issues but the object of the practices, gently redirect your thoughts to your body and the steps of this practice.
This simple practice is grounded in a number of foundations. Firstly, controlling breathing is a known way to use our body to calm our mind. Just being mindful of our breath, even without trying to breathe slowly and regularly, will help us to become more relaxed, happy and aware.
Focusing on various body parts and channelling concentration on making them feel warm and heavy is based on the ideas of Autogenic training which has been proven to treat various disorders. This kind of approach is also know as body scan meditation and is popular as part of the Vipassana tradition. Generally mindfulness meditation has been shown to provide a number of health and mind benefits.
Featured Image: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci