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

96 Comments

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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 :)

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

  1. Great article, as alwyas Tim!
    T-nation.com, have released an article interviewing a great trainer named Alwym Cosgrove, and in it he names your book as one that has made a massive impact on his life. [http://www.t-nation.com/readArticle.do?id=1816784]
    Just thought i’d let you know.

    Keep up the good work, and good luck with LitLib :]
    Chris

  2. Hi Tim,
    I liked the gratitude post,I enjoy all your posts actually.
    Gratitude is all about living in the moment,to often we sacrifice the present for the past or future.
    Its like the person who can’t wait to go on vacation and when they get there all they can think of is how envious their friends will be when they get back and show off their tan.
    Live in the moment and be grateful.
    Its always easier to hate or dislike something than to love or like it.

  3. Tim,

    The blog on test drive the friends and the postscript has make it meaningfulness because it show the outcome. Like you said you got some nasty message from bloggers, it help emphasize your point in test driving the friends.

    Awesome posting.

    Joe

  4. Interesting post. Very Oprah. Personally, I preferred the one on testing relationships. Little nasty, and not all the way thought out, but a good read nonetheless. Whatever happened with the eBay date? Did I miss it?

  5. Hi Tim,
    Gratitude can work wonders and it is a simple habit to get into. I was ill for years and all I concentrated on was what I COULDN’T do or how badly I felt. When I became aware of the law of attraction and started studying that and the mind/body connection Gratitude was the first and the easiest quality to make into a habit. I did heal myself totally of chronic pain and I feel gratitude was essential in my healing and now use it for every day practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the negatives when you are feeling ill or something is out of whack in your life but it is just as easy to take 5 minutes and turn those thoughts around to what IS working and what IS good.

    I love meditation but with 2 young kids getting 1/2 hour is a luxury. When I have 5 minutes I use it to think of WHO and WHAT I am grateful for in my life. I do it upon waking and before going to sleep. I also will take the time to write things down if I hit a bump in my day and need to “reboot”.

    This is an easy time of year for some people to feel overwhelmed and to wish they had more or could give more. Instead why not take 5 minutes and think about what you DO have and what you CAN give to others. I LOVE your post, and your blog. I just subscribed and look forward to going through your posts and buying your book as time management is an area that “needs work” in my life.
    Gratefully,
    Jenny

  6. I posted in another thread and subscribed to it. Started getting tons of updates to every thread on this site. I would have emailed you but see nowhere to do that so am posting this here.

  7. Any info on Tim’s thoughts regarding love, monogamy and commitment? Can you have his life and share it with someone else or is this journey all about self? I am curious to know if there has been one special person along the way or has he maintained the cliched ‘travel guy’ when it comes to intimacy?

    gail

    ###

    Hi Gail,

    Good questions. This lifestyle is definitely not limited to the “travel guy” who jumps from port to port avoiding commitment. The journey is most certainly about both self discovery and sharing your experiences with others. I’ve had several special partners who have enjoyed the curious adventures of lifestyle design as much as I have.

    The tools of lifestyle design are all options, and few people will explore them all, much like a buffet. Travel is an option, but not mandatory, and the use of time and mobility — in my opinion — can actually make families and couples much closer.

    Hope that helps :)

    Tim

  8. Hi Tim,

    First of all, thank you for keeping this blog and writing the 4HWW. As a soon-to-be graduated Stanford senior who’s just finished reading your book, the messages you’ve written about life and time have touched me in ways I still don’t quite understand.

    Admittedly, I’m even more confused now about what I should do after college, where I should go, and how everything will play out (my love for travel, my pursuits of international development work vs. the private sector, etc). I can only imagine how you felt in your last year at Princeton.

    In any case, you’ve definitely turned my world upside down, and made me think of those childhood dreams which I thought I had forgotten.

    Take care,
    Deanna

  9. What is it about Thanksgiving…

    The past 6 months have been a major overhaul on my life. In that time, I ran into your book. Since then, I know I have purchased over 30 copies, signed them (for lack of your presence), and given them as gifts. One of the beloved receivers of this gift invited me over to Thanksgiving dinner. Two days later, I am still reveling in food poisoning and blissful daydreams of the future (not being sick). Nonetheless, I look at my life and I am unbelievably grateful. A very rare few get to enjoy the life I have. Yet, I want more. More of my own…

    I find your book to be the step-by-step to my focus in life. I have a million things I am pursuing, and many of them successfully. But you seem to have figured out how to pull off the most basic of it all:

    get it to run while you aren’t there!

    I applaud you and send kisses on the cheek.

    At some point, I sent a funny letter to one of your emails to check your auto-response. I was playing with you just using your words out of your book. I didn’t think much of it. Then, I moved to Austin TX for biodiesel and to pursue playing music in my spare time. At a show, I ran into a friend/collegue of yours. It was ironic. That said, I would very much like to meet you. I don’t know how often you actually read these, but I think it would be an interesting meeting nonetheless. Certainly not a waste of time…

    There is much fun and trouble to be had when you get here.

    Take care and safe travels,
    B

  10. I’m thankful for new beginnings.

    My mother visited me for Thanksgiving, and since I’ve been talking to her about the 4HWW, I showed her one of your interviews on YouTube. In watching it for the 2nd time, I more readily absorbed the emphasis on completely unplugging and being unconcerned with making “popular” decisions.

    So, I quit the writing job (which lasted less than 3 weeks – I’d feel bad except I know I delivered some great ideas in the short time I was there), I’m scanning all my files, setting up a PO Box and have decided to spend the rest of the holidays with my family in the Midwest. It feels good to be a dropout. I excel at many things, but I’ve always loved being a dropout.

    Of course, this is going to afford me maximum time to work on my muse. My current direction is to create content and a product to market to women 50 . I’m reading Marketing to Women by Marti Barletta right now, and it presents a very strong case for this segment of the population being the largest consumer base of products across just about all industries. It’s a fascinating book on many levels – psychology, relationships, marketing, etc. – I imagine most people reading this blog would enjoy it.

    Beyond my muse, I’m looking forward to a slower pace of life in a place with little plastic surgery. I’m really taking the idea of re-designing my life to heart. I’m a little apprehensive about leaving the place I’ve been for the last 10 years, but I know that there is a better life waiting for me to show up in it – I’m just not sure where, with who or when.

    In any case, thanks for being you, Tim.

  11. Great post on gratitude. I have been looking into it more and more since this summer. I have found that I am much happier and much more content with what I have after being grateful.

    My question is who do you give gratitude to? I give it to the universe since I am no into a particular religion. I believe in a higher being, but after teaching many different cultures I have come to believe that no one is exactly right.

    So if you believe in a higher power (God, Allah, Vishnu, Bhudda) but are not sure which one is right, then who do you give thanks to?

  12. While many will express their gratitude to God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe (whatever you may call it), I think practicing gratitude is more about the feeling of gratitude, being grateful, than it is about who you express it, or attribute it, to.

  13. Not surprisingly, gratitude training is the very FIRST part of the Martin Seligman improved-happiness program.

    BTW, Thich Nhat Hahn has also advocated short bursts of quiet — at least if you are near Quebec. Merlin Mann found this reference a couple of years back (Hahn speaking):

    “Years ago I was in Montreal on the way to a retreat, and I noticed that the license plates said Je me souviens-’I remember.’ I did not know what they wanted to remember, but to me it means that I remember to breathe and to smile (laughter). So I told a friend who was driving the car that I had a gift for the sangha in Montreal: every time you see Je me souviens, you remember to breathe and smile and go back to the present moment.”

    For myself, each morning and night as I pass through the garage I look up at an old US license plate hanging on the wall there and remind myself about being in an “Aloha State” :)

    (oh, and BTW, deliberately putting effort into discovering a person’s true character is a complement to them. You’re not a bastard)

  14. I find in my gratitude training that it’s helpful to avoid comparative statements. Comparative statements suck time and attention by asking me to make a fair evaluation of others when I should be focusing on what I have that is a blessing to me. For example, I am grateful for nourishing air to breathe. I don’t need exceed others to enjoy that.

    The best experience of satori training I’ve ever had was not in meditation but was being a scorekeeper at a martial arts tournament. I’d been a student for four years at that point but spending six hours at a desk watching judges and competitors intently for the whole time really demonstrated to me that I had a much bigger capacity for staying in the now than any mantra whispered over doing dishes.

  15. You can find a person’s true Myers-Briggs personality when they are put under stress. Otherwise, the most learned of personality types is able to mimic the skills they need to succeed.

  16. Hi Tim,

    I’ve only recently began reading your blog (which I have thoroughly enjoyed), and I was thrilled to see a picture of Thich Nhat Hanh as I scrolled down. As a testament to the breadth and depth of your writing, you have made a loyal fan out of me. I actually have been on several weekend retreats at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Escondido, CA (http://www.deerparkmonastery.org/, picture from a retreat: http://floria.tumblr.com/post/19707392) and have been fortunate to practice the specific forms of mindfulness that he teaches, mentioned in your post. Every time I go, I feel renewed, re-centered, and ready to go back to my normal life with greater focus and appreciation for the things that really matter. Unfortunately, the LA traffic and hectic lifestyle quickly cause this feeling to wear off, but I do my best to make the most of it. Gratitude is most definitely the fundamental thing to take away from it all nonetheless, as your post seems to focus on.

    Some easy ways to be “mindful” (I don’t like using the word “meditation” as much, since it tends to intimidate people that aren’t used to it, but “mindfulness” to me is the essence of meditation, and can be applied much more broadly)…

    - Eating meditation is by far the most enjoyable for me. Like the peach anecdote alluded to in your post, imagine this: sitting in the park, with your dog by your side, really taking a moment to savor an ice cream cone– really BEING THERE for your ice cream cone. After all, your ice cream is there for you, so why shouldn’t you be there for it? What does it mean to “be there for you ice cream cone”? Appreciating where it came from, who contributed to it being there, and realizing that you have been blessed with tastebuds (and money/time for leisure) allowing you to taste it for all its yummy goodness.
    - Walking meditation is simply being mindful of your steps. The best way for me to get in the “zone” is just to physically tell myself to walk a little slower, and LOOK UP. We are often so caught up in thinking about where we need to go (our destination) that we miss many of the things we pass on the way (our journey)- which can be taken on so many levels. Rather than being stuck in a 2-D world, just looking up and noticing the trees (or amazing architecture, clothes hanging out to dry, a bird, even just the blue sky) force me to stop and really appreciate the world around me… being in the present moment.
    - Deep listening. When talking with someone, really give them your full attention. Don’t let your mind wander- it’s not fair to them. Listen deeply. For example, if someone is angry at you, listen and think about where that anger is coming from, and maybe you will gain insight and forgiveness.

    Alright, well enough tips from me. I should just turn this into a blog post. I probably will eventually.

    Btw, I’m going to give your gratitude experiment a shot. Possibly make a tumblog to log what I’m thankful for, once a day. Hopefully it will result in me exercising more (ha!), as it did for those subjects. First thing to appear on my list: you, for reminding me to be grateful.

    Best wishes,
    Floria

  17. Hello Tim,

    I’ve been browsing your site for the past couple of hours. Something strikes me as .. odd or missing. Though it’s addressed indirectly through this blog.

    The issue of chronic stress and its effects on the human body – especially on (I hate this word) overachievers or people who keep going and doing things thought to be impossible — like yourself :)

    How do you do the things that you do (to quote the old Bond theme) without burning out? What is the degree of emotional or psychological attachment that you attiribute to your succession of achievements? Do you — just do it? — is there a larger meaning to it all? Do you ever feel stressed?

    I ask the question as I’ve accomplished (but — not appreciated) quite a bit for my 21 years of existence. But my body has recently just collapsed due to the sheer weight of psychological tensions and burdens that I’ve kept suppressing in order to keep doing the things I want to do. These stressors come in the form of things often external to me and beyond my control, however, which have significant impact on my psyche, e.g. a loved one’s illness, etc.

    B.

  18. I was excited to see The Gratitude Experiment is going to be made into a movie by the creator of The Opus. I saw the Opus and loved it. In fact, I loved it better than the Secret. I am very curious to see what this movie will be about. Maybe you should try and get involved with it?

  19. Hi Tim, firstly ur great!

    2ndly, mmm.. quick story.
    A girlfriend (who has long bn my friend & is quite sweet & spiritual USUALLY & does some good works) & I went on holiday for a wk & we argued about a £7 cab fare. (She was the aggressor- I held it down as I ws shocked at her pettyness & paranoia at thinking the cabbie ws trying to rip her off.

    I also thought my temper -if I lost it – she cld not handle, plus I love my friend). I should probably have argued back, but I couldnt do it.

    It was an eye opener to see that she could act this way. She had just split wth her boyfriend. Maybe we have to see how much other pressure the other person is under, & possibly the ‘test’ they get given is the straw that broke the camel’s back’. What do u reckon people?

  20. Hi Tim,

    Must admit after reading you book it did accelerate my completion of my online gratitude journal.

    My true appreciation of expressing gratitude was through my 3 year old son who expresses his appreciation for both positive and negative experience in his life, been truly inspirational. We learn so much from them.

    I eventually finished my site gratefulfor.com and since using it each morning I definitely feel much happier and life seems to be moving in a much more positive direction.

    I’m grateful to all :)

  21. Hi:
    I really enjoy the concept of thoughts of gratitude every morning what a perfect way to start the day on a very high note. I am currently going thru a really rough time so finding things to be grateful for I sense will really help. Will keep you posted.
    Regards,
    EagledancerinOntario

  22. I really liked this blog post, and am planning to start the exercise as soon as I next wake up.

    However, I recognized something that things I have learned in reading your book, listening to some of your lectures, and checking out some of your blog posts can be applied to what you said about Meditation not working for most people.

    There are too many choices.

    If you go around and try to learn all the beginner meditations from all the different angles, whether it be Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Yoga, or the lesser known Western Mystery Traditions(think the School of Pythagoras). There is one thing you end up finding as you sit there and fume over your wasted time, or jump in your seat with glee if you like to learn about such things like I do. This is……*drum roll*……

    They are all exactly the same.

    They may use different words, or slightly adjust their methods, but every single one of them is essentially the same. Aim for the same goals, do the same things, usually at the same speed. (Though some are faster if combined)

    So, after 10 years of looking into this stuff, and finally finding a method that has the dross cut away. I want to offer the simplified “Beginning Meditation”

    1. Sit comfortably, but not so that you could fall asleep easily.
    2. Close your eyes.
    3. Let your mind drift.
    4. Try to just relax your mind, let it think, and watch it like a TV that your not really interested in.
    5. in 10 minutes, get up and do something, but not before.

    Tada! that is all of meditation whittled down into a 5 step method. I must give credit to Franz Bardon and his first book Initiation Into Hermetics as being where I found such a paired down, non-religious, but effective method.

  23. Dear Tim
    Only reading your book makes my blood flow faster!
    Giving inspiration is your absolute talent!
    You are a true “disruptive innovator”!
    Thank you for your book.

    For me, “appreciation” is that what you might loose and might be irreplacable. Wheter it is a person or a feeling of comfort, safety and sanity.

    I hope you sourced out the reading of all these comments
    Ruth
    (I apologise for my incorrect use of English)

  24. No, it isn’t a meditation technique.

    It is a mental exercise, like doing sudoku, studying for a test, finishing a crossword puzzle, or playing Mafia(where memory and logic is big).

    Some people might call it meditation, but that would be an incorrect description as Meditation means either, in western parlance, to think very intensely on a concept or problem or, in eastern parlance, to effect a sort of indistinguishable awareness between you and the item of concentration.

    It could lead to a method of meditation, or be slightly adapted into a meditation, but by itself is not. I am familiar with it by the name of Thought Observation, a very straight forward name.

    This is just becoming aware of which thoughts are actively going through your mind. After a while, the extra attention paid to this hither to unnoticed activity slows this process down until you are able to choose which thoughts or problems you want to devote all of your focus onto.

    It is the Mental version of the “E” in Tim’s DEAL.

    If you want to ask me anything more, click my name on this post, and then figure out how to get on there and send me a message or such. That way I won’t get lots of spam D:

  25. Hey Tim
    I was just wondering whether you know something about stretching to improve posture or stretching in general.( or improving posture in general )

    It´s a very interesting topic and there are thousands of corses out there, but I bet you have a 80/20 method which yields the most measurable success with a few exercises in short time.

    I´m looking forward to your boook, I will get both of them shipped to germany in a few days and am really excited!

  26. I don’t know if you can call this meditation or not – but the semantics are not really important. The important piece is the area of focus . . . and this seems to be a great experiment. I’m going to give it a shot. I know this is an old post, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. I’m assuming it will still work as well this year as it did in 2007 :)

  27. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement? My website has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my agreement. Do you know any methods to help reduce content from being ripped off? I’d certainly appreciate it.