Don't Like Meditation? Try Gratitude Training. (Plus: Follow-up to "Testing Friends" Firestorm)

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and zen teacher once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., has a knack for making the esoteric understandable.

In discussing what some call “present state awareness”–experiencing and savoring the present—he offers a simple parable:

Let’s say that you want to eat a peach for dessert one evening, but you decide to only allow yourself this luxury after washing the dishes. If, while washing the dishes, all you think of is eating the peach, what will you be thinking of when you eat the peach?

The clogged inbox, that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, tomorrow’s to-do list?

The peach is eaten but not enjoyed, and so on we continue through life, victims of a progressively lopsided culture that values achievement over appreciation. But let’s get specific.

If we define “achievement” as obtaining things we desire (whether raises, relationships, cars, pets, or otherwise) that have the potential to give us pleasure, let’s define “appreciation” as our ability to get pleasure out of those things. To focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter is like valuing cooking over eating.

How then, do we develop the skill of appreciation, which is tied so closely to present state awareness?

There are a few unorthodox tools that we’ve explored already for state awareness, like the 21-day no-complaint experiment, but the most common mainstream prescription is meditation.

The problem with meditation is that it too often gets mixed with mysticism and judgment (attempting to forcefully exclude certain thoughts and emotions). Who really wants to visualize a candle flame for 30 minutes? It can work, but it doesn’t work for most.

Here’s where we enter the 60-second solution: gratitude training. From Cornell to the University of Michigan, scientists are looking at the far-reaching effects of practicing gratitude just like exercise.

Here is one example from Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas:

“The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day… the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences, [and] the last group made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.

The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved.

McCollough and Emmons also noted that gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people since one act of gratitude encourages another… McCullough suggests that anyone can increase their sense of well-being and create positive social effects just from counting their blessings.”

In practical terms, here is one example of how you can test the effects of gratitude training in less than 10 minutes over the next week:

From Thanksgiving to next Thursday, November 29th, ask yourself the following question each morning, immediately upon waking up and before getting out of bed:

What am I truly grateful for in my life?

Aim for five answers, and if you have trouble at first, ask yourself alternative probing questions such as:

What relationships do I have that others don’t?
What do I take for granted?
What freedoms, unique abilities, and options do I have that others don’t?
What advantages have I been given in life?
Which allies and supporters have helped me to get to where I am?

Thanksgiving shouldn’t just come once a year. Use it as a system restart and a chance to put your appreciation back on track with your achievement.

Don’t forget the peach… and Happy Thanksgiving!

###

Odds and Ends: Postscript to Test-Driving Friends

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Am I really a bastard? (photo (c) sgs_1019)

I returned from a media fast this weekend to quite a firestorm over my last post. Suffice to say, there have been more than a few flame wars.

I’d just like to point out a few things that are easily missed:

First, this is the “Experiments in Lifestyle Design” blog! I go out of my way to try unorthodox things for limited periods of time, after which I share what was interesting, what worked, and what failed. The 21-day no-complaint experiment is another good example. I covered AJ Jacobs’ attempt to follow the bible word-for-word for one reason: it’s thought-provoking and causes people to test assumptions about what can and can’t be done, not because I’m recommending everyone go out and stone adulterers, for example.

Some of what I explore will naturally be controversial because it’s unusual or even the opposite of common practice. I don’t do it for “flame baiting” (I can do without the headaches) but because that’s the nature of this blog. Test new things and share the outcomes. Some of it will be extremely effective and useful, some of it will be impractical but funny, and some of it will end up impractical in all but a few contexts. I just hope all of it is thought-provoking on some level.

Second, I find it funny that a few smart bloggers have personally attacked me with every 4-letter word under the sun, all in the name of criticizing how rude I am! One thing noticeably absent from my blog is personal attacks. It’s too bad that people who are otherwise civil sometimes use the informal nature of their blogs as an excuse to attack people instead of ideas. It’s a waste of intellectual horsepower. C’mon, guys. I’m not rude in person, and the blog post didn’t hurt anyone. Take a breather. Please don’t miss the end of the post in question, where I write:

“A good long weekend of getting lost with someone will reveal most of the character you need to see. No need to orchestrate bad service at a restaurant, for example, if you can achieve the same end doing something fun but uncontrolled.”

No need to get nasty. Happy Thanksgiving to all… including my dear attackers :)

Posted on: November 19, 2007.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

96 comments on “Don't Like Meditation? Try Gratitude Training. (Plus: Follow-up to "Testing Friends" Firestorm)

  1. Oh, I thought it was a great post, and definitely in keeping with the lifestyle experimentation ideal. It’s important to both eliminate toxic relationships, and to test one’s own comfort zones, so I think the topic was great. Meanwhile, it’s your cheeky, sometimes-irreverent tone which both sold the book, and apparently makes you happy.

    So, yes, 3 cheers on the test-driving post, 3 cheers for the civil riposte, and don’t let the flamers get you down :)

    Peter

    Like

  2. Hi Tim,

    I agree that appreciation is a powerful thing. I did this exercise with a slight variation for about a month at the beginning of the year. Each night before bed, me and my partner took turns asking each other and writing down what we were grateful for, as well as what we wanted to add to our lives.

    Sometimes the most interesting part of documenting such things is stumbling across them weeks, months or years later. Whether it’s intuition about my own life – or a form of self-fulfilling prophecy – I have frequently been astonished by the accuracy of my own statements.

    As far as meditation goes… when I was a freshman at ASU I stumbled upon a book called “The Orange Book of Meditation.” I don’t remember it well, but do remember one of the methods being to force yourself to laugh continuously until you’re not forcing it anymore. I’ve since done this in group Kundalini yoga settings and it is a riot! The point is, of course, to get beyond a pre-conceived notion of what meditation is – because it can literally be anything that serves your purpose.

    How do you know what will serve your purpose? If you don’t naturally have your own answer, you could consider finding a teacher. This is because some techniques are indicated for certain conditions, and some techniques might be contra-indicated. Tratak, or candle gazing as you’ve mentioned above, is a specific meditation with specific goals. It’s probably too much for me to go into in detail here, but it affects the mind, the physical eyes, and the “layers” of ourselves as outlined in yoga and ayurveda. Because it involves fire, it could be contra-indicated to anyone experiencing excessive fire in their lives – such as in the case of anger, a skin rash, or acid indigestion, for instance.

    Changing the subject, I just realized today from another person’s comment that your war ship party was Saturday night. Oddly enough, I dreamt about you for the 2nd time that night. In my dream, you were having a big party – but it was at a large 2-story white house with a pool rather than on a war ship. And, it was really dark all around. How weird is that? You’ve really got to stop stalking me on the astral plane. ;)

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  3. Your advice on gratitude is very useful. So often we distract ourselves with what we want or don’t want and forget to be happy about what we already have.

    I do want to point out that meditation doesn’t have to be tied to ‘judgment or mysticism’, it also doesn’t require staring at candles. It’s simply the acquired skill of quieting the mind. A calm mind has a myriad of benefits, from better mental focus to less stress to increased happiness.

    I always find it interesting that people can easily work out 30 minutes per day to make their bodies physically fit, yet they can’t sit still with themselves and meditate for half that time to make their minds mentally fit. A physical workout may not be easy, but the benefits of having worked out are very positive. Meditation may not necessarily be easy as well, but the benefits are profound.

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  4. ###

    Hi Geo,

    I completely agree that meditation doesn’t have to be tied to mysticism and judgment.

    The most effective types, in my opinion, aren’t at all. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for many people to get through all the misinformation to find them, hence the suggestion that gratitude training be considered as a simple alternative. Ideally, it would make the perfect compliment, not a replacement.

    All the best,

    Tim

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  5. Dude.

    Please, please, please, don’t feel you need to respond to the crazy critics. They are just looking for attention or trying to rationalize some poor behavior of their own. None of the crazies are going to receive your explanations, and the super-enlightened (like me, of course) don’t need them. Just lay it out there. Hey – I might not choose to venture into a crowded market with you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take the advice in the spirit intended.

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  6. Hi Tim,

    Gratitude is a great virtue. But it often becomes a “should” and has a future oriented connotation too it. (“If I can just be grateful enough then …..”)

    There are also many misconceptions about mediation – which is often also taken up as an “end-goal” future-oriented practice. (Ironic, since it’s so often touted as being about “living in the now”!)

    I meditated for years with just this attitude until I realised that I wasn’t actually as peaceful in my daily life as I thought I would or “should” be.

    By luck, chance, or Grace, I was introduced to a series of meditations which are incredibly easy and effective, and which “work” in a short space of time – even for those who are *really* “time-poor”!

    Best Wishes,
    Tim

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  7. Hi Tim,

    I am grateful for your unorthodox experiments and perspective.

    I feel it necessary to challenge any beliefs that I find active, because as Robert A. Wilson said, “belief is the death of intelligence.” You’ve helped discover some I may never have found.

    Thank you,
    alex

    Like

  8. I’ve been on a few meditation retreats where the first few days were spent on concentration (usually on the breath), then the next few days on ‘insight’ (vipassana) meditation where you simply (try to) stay present and notice what you notice – hopefully resulting in some moments of insight. After that, we moved on to ‘loving kindness’ (metta) meditation – where you hold other people in your awareness (friends, family, even people you’ve fallen out with) and wish them well.

    I remember noticing a feeling of disappointment when we moved onto the loving kindness meditation – as if part of me were saying ‘Oh well, we’ve finished the serious business of achieving insight, I’m not really sure about this touchy-feely stuff’. It’s amazing how easy it is to turn a spiritual pursuit into more ‘me me me!’ – wanting peaceful states of mind and insight for myself, instead of widening my awareness to include the bigger picture and other people.

    And the funny thing was, once I relaxed and focused on other people, and really felt that sense of gratitude you’re talking about, it suddenly became much easier to concentrate on my breathing, and the moments of insight started popping up all over the place…

    Thanks for a great reminder of that.

    Like

  9. Thanks so much for that great thanksgiving message. That actually just made my day. You are a REALLY good writer! Cheers!

    ps: am on the 3rd read of your book! It’s had a HUGE impact on my work and our company. (Much more risk-taking, big financial results, lots of sales energy, etc.)

    Like

  10. Excellent post. The Eckhart Tolle work “the power of now” also makes the message or meditation very accessible. He dismisses the notion of long stretches of meditation being required to have any real value…and suggests people work on 30-60 seconds when they can.
    I’ll be starting my gratitude log today. I greatly enjoyed the book and value the blog. Thanks!

    Like

  11. Hey Tim,

    Great advice on gratitude. Martin Seligman, the happiness movement’s big kahuna and a major researcher in the field has spent a lot of time on gratitude, too, and found that keeping a daily gratitude journal–waking every morning and quickly jotting down what you are grateful for–measurably increases overall happiness throughout the day.

    Also, on meditation, there are a wide array of practices that are very straight forward to learn (I teach many of them) and work well with the unfoofy set. In fact, a report last month out of the University of Portland showed researchers were able to create much of the benefit of long-term meditation in only 5-days practice with a technique they called IBMT (integrated body mind training).

    A fun way to play with mindfulness-based meditation, too, is to just focus deeply on enjoying each bite of food when you are eating. Then begin to broaden that out into small things throughout the day.

    Cultivating a seated meditation practice is a fair bit more challenging, but not only are the health benefits huge, it can also increase your creativity, problem-solving ability, executive function, reaction time and let you see things most everyone else misses. I write on this a lot and have collected a heap of research if you are ever interested.

    Thanks, again, for the great lead-in to Thanksgiving, have a great one!

    Like

  12. Happy Thanksgiving from Valencia, Spain
    from a fellow vagabonder, thanks to a country with a voice over industry which will forever provide me with students to teach English to
    thanks to yerba mate
    thanks to 350 days of sun (or more) a year
    and thanks for free hugs

    Like

  13. Tim,

    First of all, THANK you for your work, for all that you do and for inspiring the world around you!!! And although your post on gratitude was not necessary to prove that you’re not a bastard, it’s great to see it here and it provides a lil’ balance… If you or anyone else feels inclined to practice gratitude this week, please visit http://www.IAmThankful.com for a little inspiration.

    Here’s another thought. As I read your book, I thought “Wow, can I hire this guy for a week to get my butt in gear implementing this stuff?” That was immediately answered by “Of course not, he’s on a mini retirement!” Which is followed now by …. Are you training the trainers? Are there women who can teach and implement your concepts? Yes please! Friends are getting together in my very circle to work through the text and exercises as they apply personally. This is really rich and guidance would be much appreciated. I know of brilliant coaches who would gladly do just that… the 4Hr-Work-Week Life Transformation in action! I can’t possibly the first one to suggest that, right?

    It may be helpful for the more critical folks to step back and look at the bigger picture. What you are teaching is discernment, in a really big way. We are flooded with information and choices at an accelerating rate, our happiness and effectiveness are in direct correlation with our ability to say “no”, even (and especially) to a lot of things that are appealing, not just the unpleasant parts. Our attention is truly the most precious thing, impossible to measure, the currency of the New Rich and everyone else. Choose wisely.

    Thank you for living it all out and for creating such a ripple.

    Blessings and Happy Giving Thanks,
    Damaris

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  14. It is amazing how internal iteration of memories can lengthen the decay of their associated feelings. Buddhists sure know how to get there feel on. Greatfullness is a killer elicitation tool.

    I’m currently experimenting with changing deep rooted beliefs to see how they can affect my internal experience. The idea started with a self induced hand levitation, which led to things like creating beliefs that I enjoy cold showers or a certain type of pain. However, I’m finding self created beliefs, although effective short-term, aren’t long lasting. Maybe because the knowledge of their fabrication lingers. More iterations needed?

    Any ideas on this?

    Also – love the book. Halfway through it. I’ve already restructured my German studies and started going to dance classes with my girlfriend.

    Love stretching the comfort zone.

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  15. Tim, great last two posts.

    Very insightful about the gratitude training. I think there are lot of people in this world that gloss over the good things simply because they are bombarded by all of the negativity in the media. As you mention in your book, it’s good to fast, and just release yourself of that.

    Also, on the last post about test-driving, while it is initially out of my comfort zone, I think it was VERY thought provoking of how I actually view my relationships. So thank you, I believe that to be one of the best points out of it, whether the negative nellies want to think that, or it’s maybe that those critics just didn’t take a another minute to truly understand what you were saying.

    Great stuff. Thanks again for your thoughts.
    -bryan

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