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Antidote to Negativity

I wonder how much we really pay attention to our thoughts, and especially to how much of our thinking might be negative and unhelpful?

I typically consider myself an optimistic, glass half-full person. But I realize that I’m more than capable of negative thinking, frustration and whining, all of which get me nowhere but grumpy, miserable or feeling bad about myself. 

There are all kinds of things that trigger our whiny, negative, critical selves from driving in rush hour and dealing with health insurance, to the weather, canceled appoinments, and nagging children. I'm sure our lists could be endless.

Spiritually and emotionally this type of thinking does nothing for us. NOTHING.

The antidote is so much of a no-brainer that I hardly ever preach on it. The answer is gratitude.Geri Larkin, who is a Buddhist dharma teacher, wrote in her book, The Chocolate Cake Sutra, “[G]ratitude helps to kickbox our spiritual selves into gear…” I love this image! Truly, sometimes it seems like we need a swift kick in the ass to get us out of the downward spiral of negativity and back into balance.

Here's how gratitude works: have you tried to be negative and grateful at the same time? Go ahead, try it. It is next to impossible.

  • My kids are driving me nuts… but I’m so grateful that they are healthy and alive and I have time with them.
  • Ugh, I really don’t want to spend all afternoon cleaning the house for Thanksgiving… but I’m so grateful that I have a beautiful home with enough room to share it with others.

Gratitude completely diffuses a whole host of negative emotions!

Geri told a story in her book about how she decided to do a solo 7-day meditation retreat. Heading into day three, she said her whining started. “This is stupid. No, this is stupid and too hard.” “This is stupid, too hard, and wrecking my legs.” On and on through the first sitting until for some reason that she said she would never understand, this thought surfaced: “I am so grateful for the refrigerator.”

Following a flash of “Oh, now I’m completely nuts. It has finally happened,” was a rush of, “The weather is perfect. Cold and clear.” (It was seven degrees below zero.) By the time she caught the thoughts and went back to her meditation, she felt rested and balanced and quiet.

Two hours later, more resistance. She needed to check her email, to call the hospice to check on Mary, to get some soup out of the freezer. Then gratitude again, “I’m so lucky to be able to do this, to have limbs that work, a roof over my head.” From that moment on, every time whining or worrying started to surface, she picked something random to be grateful for. In the process she suddenly realized how powerful simple gratitude is. She says, "It can slice through all sorts of egomania, and it slices quickly. Irritation. Worry. Fear.  Depression. You name it. Gratitude is a frigging sword."

Perhaps gratitude is a sword we need to wield as the holidays come upon us and we’re apt to find ourselves in any one of those egomania states of irritation, worry, fear, depression, anger, frustration.

Let's make a list,  what sorts of random things can we be happy for in addition to modern appliances? How about being able to breathe, walk, see? How about sliced bread, a roof over our head, a car that runs, a job? Maybe it is as simple as a hot shower, a good movie, a fuzzy blanket and a good book. 

So, when Aunt Mary goes on and on in her second grade teachers voice and it is grating on your nerves you can say to yourself, “I’m so grateful for sliced bread!"

Sometimes we simply need to use gratitude to remind ourselves of what we have instead of dweliing on what we don't have. When you’re disappointed that you can’t be with your kids for the holidays, you can say, “I’m so grateful for the friends who are also my family.” Or when you miss a loved one who has passed away, you can say, “I’m so grateful for the memories and the love we shared.”

Finishing the retreat, Geri wrote a list of everything in her life she was grateful for. She said, "At the end of five single-spaced pages, I realized that I had no excuse to whine about anything – including death – because life had given me, gives all of us, a huge opportunity to grow spiritually in all sorts of unimaginable ways. For the first time I understood why a few people I knew who faced unbearable diseases – leukemia, brain tumors, ALS – told me they were grateful for the diseases because their situations forced them into living their lives honestly, to shed the stuff that just didn’t matter and to appreciate everything from a flower in a vase to a simple hug."

The scripture that I used for this message was Luke 17:11-19, the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers by sending them to the priests. All were healed, but only one came back to Jesus, and he was a foreigner, he wasn’t even Jewish like Jesus! Jesus asks him what happened to the other nine? Weren’t they all healed? Why did only the foreigner return to give thanks?

Clearly Jesus wasn't the kind of person who needed recognition and appreciation. So, why was he asking those questions? What if he was asking because being grateful is a big part of our spiritual journey? What if he was asking because, while curing the lepers of their disease healed them physically, gratitude would help them to be whole spiritually?

Fr. John Kavanaugh told a story about the most grateful person he’d ever heard of. She was an old woman in an extended care hospital. She had some kind disease that took away her abilities one at a time. One of Kavanaugh's students met her while visiting someone else. But he continued to visit her because he was drawn my her amazing sense of gratitude and joy. "Though she could no longer move her arms and legs, she would say, 'I’m just so happy I can move my neck.' When she could no longer move her neck, she would say, 'I’m just so glad I can hear and see.' When the young student finally asked the old woman what would happen if she lost her sense of sound and sight, the gentle lady said, 'I’ll just be so grateful that you come to visit.'”

While I think gratitude can be immensely helpful in navigating the sometimes emotionally challenging holidays, I think being grateful needs to be more than something we do around the table on Thanksgiving Day. It truly needs to be part of our spiritual practice. And we need to practice it daily until it becomes simply who we are, because gratitude helps us to live more fully honest lives, remember what truly matters, and leads us to a deeper peace and wholeness.

Love & Light!