Launching into a new calendar year is a classic time to take stock of what's working in life and what could be improved. Living life fully is a "work in progress," and taking time for reflection regularly is a great way to keep up the good and set aside what no longer serves. Many people make resolutions by coming up with strategies for achieving goals like losing weight or making more money. This operates under the assumption that something is missing (or needs to be shed) and overlooks the good that already exists.
The challenge of creating motivation for making changes by using resolutions is that they are notoriously hard to keep. The notion of practice, however, has an appeal because practice is a part of learning a new skill, moving toward improvement, and it is both a noun and a verb! As a noun, it implies a ritual or habit that becomes part of life's rhythms. In action, as a verb, to practice is to prepare to perform, like to practice a musical piece for a concert. What a great analogy: to see life so aesthetically and to be "in concert" with the rhythms of the universe.
What are some great practices to launch the day, create positive feelings for oneself and others, and to wrap the day as well? Being grateful is at the top of my list. For years, I have written in my morning journal at least five and sometimes as many as 15 things for which I am grateful in order to jumpstart my day. Sarah Ban Breathnach, renowned for her book Simple Abundance, refers to this practice as "joyful simplicity," and indeed it is both joyful and simple. She prefers to journal her gratitude list at night. While I incorporate gratitude practices at night, I find I am eager to start my day by putting in writing this act of appreciation for life's gifts. Items can be as general as "opportunities" and as specific as "having lunch with my 91-year-old friend."
Another practice incorporating gratitude, which I use on days when I am not on a tight schedule, is doing yoga nidra. It translates as "yogic sleep," and I rotate between the shorter (27 minutes) and longer (47 minute) practices of Relax into Greatness, recorded by Rod Stryker. At the beginning and end of each recording, there is an invocation to express gratitude, followed by repeating an intention (called "sankalpa" in Sanskrit) three times. It is a powerful practice of gaining the benefits of sleep without making me sleepy. During stretches of waking up too early, listening to these recordings filled out the rest I needed.
Gratitude practice is a wonderful finale to the day as well. At bedtime, while settling under the covers, it's a great time to reflect on the day, recalling all the gifts it held. Part of my own spiritual practice at night is thanking God for my health and a comfortable place to sleep, plus acknowledging possibilities that are unfolding and being grateful for the wonderful people in my life.
A growing body of research is demonstrating the multifaceted benefits of practices incorporating gratitude. For example, preliminary results of an online gratitude journal study launched around Thanksgiving 2012 show an increase in subjective happiness and reduced symptoms of stress in just two weeks of daily journaling.
To get a dose of good feelings about gratefulness, I highly recommend watching the TedX talk by Louie Schwartzberg, which includes the short video, "Gratitude," narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast. Brother David founded an online community offering many gems like a reading list and links to an array of gratitude practices (www.gratefulness.org). I recently showed gratitude to my 87-year-old parents on the last day of my holiday visit. The tears in my eyes reflected my pending departure but also my gratefulness for all that my parents have done for me and our family members in nearly a century of living. They were also deeply moved by the beautiful images of nature and smiling faces from around the world captured so perfectly by Louie Schwartzberg, and Brother David's invocation to recognize the gifts right before us.
Back to the notion of practice, as the saying goes, "practice makes perfect." How can you incorporate the practice of gratitude into your everyday life? How can gratitude form the basis of other practices you see yourself implementing, such as being more conscious of the food choices or purchasing choices you make?
Practicing gratitude everyday, in many different ways, creates an abundance of good. It's a perfect way to start a new year or any new venture and does not require much resolve; it starts with appreciating what is rather than what is missing. Acknowledge what is working and allow gratitude to be the platform for your vision for your life.
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