Over the past 25 years, Neuroscience is exponentially growing elucidating the positive influence meditation has on our health. Cultivating constructive qualities of mind such as lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, and empathy, continue to provide very rich data of the neuro-hormonal activations that occur essentially priming our systems with good health. Multiple brain regions are involved in the generating the embodied process of these mental states. Studies are often cross-linking, reporting many of the same brain area activations that stimulate the nervous system, giving us the elixir of well-being.
Last year, the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Research Institute released a research paper, Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Eminent Neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Demasio was one of the researchers, which brought my attention to this article.
The study hypothesized that brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment, and theory of mind would be activated. These areas are seen to be activated in the above mentioned mind states as well. In eliciting the quality of gratitude, various scenarios drawn from the Holocaust were told to the participants. Stories ranged from being given food, a place to sleep, and someone saving their life. Participates were asked to put themselves into that experience (which is an empathic experience) and rate their level of gratitude, 1-rating lower level of gratitude and 4-rating high.
There were 26 participants, none of which had any connection to the Holocaust. The overall rating was 2.6. The participants stated they felt as if they could live in the experience that the Holocaust survivor had lived and the gratitude that must have been felt. As researchers hypothesized, the area of the Prefrontal Cortex, the seat of moral cognition, was activated, as well as, regions associated with prosocial behavior, interpersonal relationships, and social support.
Gratitude considered a virtue in all religions, does appear to have a place in the brain. With the stimulus of imagining a scenario to elicit gratitude, we can activate the center of moral cognition affiliated with positive emotion and mental well-being. While many of us know the felt sense of practicing gratitude, this study, demonstrates the neurological correlates. Also remembering, our brains are neuroplastic, therefore, what we fixate on wires neurons, for better or worse.
We are wired to experience gratitude as this study suggests. Our brain circuitry has gifted us with a byproduct of gratitude when we have benefited from the goodwill of another, imagined or real. Not only that, but he next byproduct of this experience is resiliency, emotional stability, and well-being. Amazing, how we are gifted again.
With gratitude and may all being know gratitude.
“Once there was a tree....(read the story)…..and the tree was happy.”
- Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
Just take this moment and check in with your day so far. Since your day began, how many thoughts have you had about what you want? How many about what you don’t want? How much of the wanting is about getting an object of desire such as a new job, relationship, sex, food, clothes, house, car, etc., fill in the blank. How much of the not wanting is about the exact same things?
Like a Tasmanian devil, we are frantically seeking endeavors that consume our time and energy on gaining something, getting pleasure, improving our status, and getting approval. Yet, we can also assess that these same conquests bring pain, loss, disrepute, and attack.
The Industrial Revolution changed our lives, yet most of our desires began to revolve around acquisition of “things.” In the late 1880’s, Sears and Roebuck started mailing consumer good catalogues to customers. Their motto was “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake” because there’s a money back guarantee and these "things" could be returned or replaced. Catalogue advertisers spent approximately 90 million a year (2.3 billion in today’s dollar). Today, a whopping 100 billion is spent for online advertising alone.
At any given time, we have just about any possible desire at our fingertips, literally. Google anything your heart desires and within seconds hundreds of thousands of opportunities will present itself. If your desire is for food, check out how many restaurants offer delivery to your home so no need to go anywhere. If you want entertainment, it’s endless. Sex, check out pornography, or the 2,500 dating websites promising your soulmate. And, of course, shopping opportunities galore for clothes, appliances, books, yoga mats, shoes, cars, homes, etc. all awaiting a buyer. And, in "The Giving Tree" as Shel Silverstein writes, “You may cut off my branches and build a house … then you’ll be happy," but not really.
The United States is one of the most unhappy countries on the planet despite what’s available to us. This “what’s next syndrome” keeps us seeking and hoping and fused with a “believable” reality outside of ourselves. Consider making your “what’s next” a pause. Slow down the process of getting, having, wanting, and craving and take note of what's present in those moments. Observe how the wanting is mostly tied into a very frenetic, panicky energy and the not wanting with aggression and discontent.
There is a way of not falling into the trap of what’s next. Think of what’s been on your mind regarding a desire or some dissatisfaction. Now take it through this mindfulness exercise called RAIN (by Jack Kornfield):
Next time you feel the urge to “get something” or “get rid of something,” practice this process. Happiness is an inside job. Rearranging the furniture, so to speak, is only an attempt to keep you away from what’s really going on inside. It may be that the new pair of shoes or ending the relationship or enjoying sex is the most authentic way to proceed. But until we pause and look at what our mind wants us to believe or not believe, then we will continue on the “what IS next syndrome” ride that produces more of the same – unhappiness.
After the boy had taken everything the tree could give, it's leaves, branches, and trunk, the tree invited him to sit on his stump because the boy was an old man now and needed rest. Before we waste our entire lives on "what's next," rest now. Rest with ease and peace of what's now. Just as it is. However it is. Be mindful. Be authentic. Be happy …. and the tree was happy.
"Time=Life, Therefore, waste your time and waste of your life, or master your time and master your life."
- Alan Lakein
It’s already later than you think.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a patient that imparted the most beautiful wisdom to me about being in relationship. Relationship meaning all those people that we call family (whether blood related or not). She talked about the “plan” she and her husband of 20 years had for their life. Well, their “plan” was interrupted by his diagnosis with cancer and soon thereafter, his death. He was my age when he passed.
Some short time passed and she fell in love again and after four years with this lovely man, she came home to find him dead from a heart attack. In four short years, she lost two wonderful men. Now her mantra is “It’s already later than you think.”
Image the grief of loosing two partners that you dearly love. Her courage and wisdom inspired this blog because she touches a very profound wisdom teaching of being very grateful for the people we have in our lives in this moment as things are impermanent, changing and it’s always later than we think.
The reason I feel compelled to write this is because many of the patients I treat, tend to forget this very fundamental reality of life. That it’s impermanent, changing and at some given moment we take our last breath. Holding grudges, resentments, and casting blame, keep each of us from this truth that it’s always later than we think. There are daily tragedies we can read about in the paper or watch on TV to remind us that life has a tenuous quality to it. It slips away.
Remembering that the human condition reflects imperfections, flaws, fallibilities, yet it is exactly these qualities that hold a treasure. When we recognize such states arising within our relationships, be grateful. Be grateful, because life is asking you to expand and let go of our tendency to get angry, be resentful, judge, and criticize. Instead, breath because you still have the life force to do so (remember another person is taking their last) and think of all the good reasons this person, that you call “family,” is in your life.
Life is short and it’s always later than you think. Be wise with your mind and practice gratitude for your family. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean that you will feel good about your life and should the inevitable impermanence of life wonder upon your doorstep, you know you can greet it with humility and not regret. Be present. Be alive. Be grateful.
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