Sunday, August 23, 2009

About being grateful . . .

[video - a song I'm grateful for.]
My latest reading is a slim book by Pema Chodron, Practicing Peace in Times of War. It is nothing about large political action, and all about working on yourself to develop non-aggressive habits of mind. It has led me to watch myself as I skip away from some feeling toward some action, desiring to Do Something.

Just now I saw myself do that as I read a friend's note on difficult change. He wrote, "I need to live in the moment, to appreciate and be grateful for what IS," and my hackles went up. You can count on that - I hate it when people tell me how to feel. In the same mail I received a letter from a woman whose husband is slowly dying. She wrote that she wanted to throw a visitor, Ms. Sunshine, bodily out the door. Yes, some things are just pain, and we don't want anyone telling us to cheer up. We just want our experience to be acknowledged.

Ann has it a lot worse than me. I am actually grateful to remember that, since I am not very grateful right now. I just got out of the hospital (again) yesterday, after three days evaluating the atrial fibrillation that manifested hugely on Wednesday. I am on two new meds and expected to do fine. Atrial is the kind of fibrillation you want, if you get to choose. I am actually grateful for that, too, as I was afraid it might require a pacemaker. I waited all one day for the doctor who had said he would read the tests and be back. Abstractly speaking, I'm glad I got through the long night somehow, and in the morning the news was good.

Feelings can arise when the body does some thing pretty independent of what's going on, neurotransmitters remarking the phase of the moon, hormones marking it their own way. But most of the time I can trace my own feelings to thoughts. Like, "I didn't sign up for this!"

I am not so against feeling grateful as I once was, since I read about research on the subject. Oh, these busy people, many of them closet Buddhists, who study happiness. Here is a researcher's overview of the science. I'll just quote one finding:
In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.
It seems that one way gratitude accomplishes this is by increasing our sense of personal control over our own life. That would certainly be good for me, as all this that keeps happening medically has given me to think a lot about the bad karma in my father's family, with all those deaths from "heart," all that alcoholism and bipolar. And generally bad attitudes, now that I think about it.

One way to intervene with your negativity is to keep a gratitude journal, to write down (or express in art, say collage) what you are grateful for. What if you are just NOT grateful for a heart event that scared you almost to death? Well, I was grateful for a nurse who brought a glass of water, no ice. This inspired more heart-felt (sic) gratitude than the good luck of decent health insurance, which is rather abstract when you're sitting there on oxygen and IV Lopressor, panting. So often the direct physical experience trumps all our ideas. On the other hand, I was so grateful that night when a close friend surprised me with a visit that I cried.

Still, the resultant exhaustion, and the clear promise that I'd better slow down, really slow down, or else . . . all this change has left me inclined to count the things I don't like, don't want. And that's the truth. I am not grateful for the deconditioning of three days in bed, just as I was progressing slowly with physical therapy, learning to walk again. NOT grateful for "another _______ growth opportunity." Don't need more growth, I say. Give me some not-growth.

Really, I have a lot to be grateful for, abstractly speaking. It wasn't a heart attack, I have "a young heart," undamaged. They got my heart back in rhythm (though it bumps a little now and then, and that frightens me). But I find what I am really grateful for is the homemade zucchini bread Carol Wilhelm brought to church today for us. It tasted wonderful. There, that wasn't so hard. Maybe I'll begin a gratitude journal, at last.

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