Christmas is fast approaching and, with it, we often find a build-up of our emotions. These may include excitement, happiness, dread, and perhaps sadness. Other festive stressors may also play havoc with our well-being at this time. These could be financial pressures, family expectations, missing loved ones, the passing of loved family members and dealing with estrangement. These stresses can combine and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, ingratitude, an inability to cope with competing deadlines or an inability to meet set/perceived expectations.
“Being thankful is not always experienced as a natural state of existence, we must work at it, akin to a type of strength training for the heart.” – Larissa Gomez
This quote really sums up my journey to being grateful for what is around me at Christmas time. I had to work hard at being thankful for all that I had and learn to build resiliency with family interactions and not allow them to affect me too personally.
During this time many of us can express opinions based on our personal emotional states and this can create imbalance or hurt. Many of us feel pulled in many directions during this time and this can disrupt our daily routines. My family is based in Australia and my husband’s in the UK and, for us, some little things used to become big issues, such as meeting postal deadlines, late evening/early morning Skypes, organising travel and, in the UK, dealing with occasional weather-related disruption.
I learned to love the wintry UK Christmases and stop comparing them to my hot Australian Christmases that I associated with family breakfast BBQs and swimming at the beach followed by kicking back with friends and enjoying shared leftovers. For a long time, all I could see in the UK was lack of light (dawn after 8am, dusk before 4pm!), bitter winds, cold rain, fog, ice, frosts, low cloud, greyness, being stuck indoors…
“At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Albert Schweitzer
I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and, in the winter, my mood could dip very fast into depressive thoughts. Christmas could heighten this state and being away from family and friends could be a strong depressor for me. Seeing them on Skype enjoying the sunshine, BBQs and water activities made me pine for those activities too. During a particularly bad SAD episode my doctor suggested Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. A counsellor suggested I write down everything I was grateful for each day and evening – a list of five things each time. This was exceptionally difficult at first; but as I continued I found I could write down five things very quickly for each slot. That counsellor relit my internal light which had dimmed and it was the beginning of rekindling the spark of life within me.
Gratitude is the quality of being thankful – a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness – and it has two positive aspects:
- It is a positive emotion felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift; and
- It is a social emotion often directed towards a person (the giver of a gift). For some people this can include a feeling towards a higher power.
Working with my counsellor I built a reflective gratitude structure that, with practice, allowed me to be more mindful and thankful for everything I had. I was developing a conscious choice for gratitude, able to stand back and look at my perceived negative experiences with new, fresher eyes. I learned that negative experiences are an opportunity to learn, grow and change. I could identify my triggers more easily and know when to walk away to be more still or when a ‘fight’ wasn’t worth my time. Repeating cycles don’t have to continue.
The gratitude attitude can really work. For some complex issues, it can take time. For myself I have learned I deserve recognition, compliments, laughter and joy. I have learned to accept surprises with love and wonder. With my own growing awareness, I have been able to return to giving to others with no expectation of a response or recognition.I now thoroughly appreciate this time of year: the Christmas light switch on; sparkling shop window displays; Christmas parties; putting up the Christmas tree on 1st December and decorating it with baubles and tinsel that twinkle and shine; choosing gifts for family and friends; and baking Christmas gingerbread biscuits or cakes to share with friends, neighbours and colleagues. There are many things to enjoy and for which to be thankful; but I had to learn to enjoy my new environment and re-learn to see the joy around me.
Time to Have a Go!
Creating a gratitude practice has many benefits and can be applied in all situations (work/personal/community, etc). This is the beginning of your new attitude towards gratitude.
Here are some gratitude exercises that I found helpful. (Some are challenging but you don’t grow without these!). Where appropriate, add in why each answer is important or supportive or inspirational to you.
Using your journal consider the following:
What does gratitude mean to you?
- I am grateful for…
- I am grateful because…
- Gratitude makes me feel…
- Some things that make me happy are…
- Some things that inspire me are…
- Some things that nurture me are…
- Each morning and evening list a minimum of FIVE things for which you are grateful…
How you can actively shape your own life with gratitude
This part of gratitude asks you to consider your emotions, thoughts, responses, people and experiences in your life. Take time to consider these:
- Feelings that I want more of in my life are…
- Thoughts I want more of in my life are…
- Experiences I want more of in my life are…
- Who cheers for me?
- Who are my support group?
- Why are these people important to me?
- What environments do I enjoy?
- How do I support myself or show self-care?
- Why did that situation cause me that emotion (e.g. anger/hurt/laughter/happiness)
- How do I express my gratitude?
- How I can invite in more joy?
- How I can respond positively to a surprise/compliment/unexpected gift?
Meditation on Gratitude and Joy:
This beautiful meditation, to read aloud to yourself, is from Jack Kornfield (https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-gratitude-joy/).
Let yourself sit quietly and at ease. Allow your body to be relaxed and open, your breath natural, your heart easy. Begin the practice of gratitude by feeling how year after year you have cared for your own life. Now let yourself begin to acknowledge all that has supported you in this care:
With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day.
With gratitude I remember the care and labour of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.
I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the blessing of this earth I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the life I have been given.
Just as we are grateful for our blessings, so we can be grateful for the blessings of others.
Continue to breathe gently. Bring to mind someone you care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. Picture them and feel the natural joy you have for their well-being, for their happiness and success. With each breath, offer them your grateful, heartfelt wishes:
May you be joyful.
May your happiness increase.
May you not be separated from great happiness.
May your good fortune and the causes for your joy and happiness increase.
Sense the sympathetic joy and caring in each phrase. When you feel some degree of natural gratitude for the happiness of this loved one, extend this practice to another person you care about. Recite the same simple phrases that express your heart’s intention.
Then gradually open the meditation to include neutral people, difficult people, and even enemies until you extend sympathetic joy to all beings everywhere, young and old, near and far.
Practice dwelling in joy until the deliberate effort of practice drops away and the intentions of joy blend into the natural joy of your own wise heart.