Mindful Gratitude for Adversity: Lesson III in the Mindfulness Series

The strong in spirit wear bright clothes of fire. 

They dance and burn.  The light is worth the pain.

The light is worth the pain.

The pain stops when the flame dies out. 

-Hugh Blumenfeld, from The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

The lesson is the third in the mindfulness series I am working on with a small group of teachers and staff.  While I felt much warmer and calmer after the other two workshops, this one left me with the feeling of having uncovered some things which needed to be named and worked out in the future.

However, this topic in particular is probably the most important to me personally.  I also think that it provides the highest potential for personal transformation.  Below is a lesson plan of the workshop.

  1. Begin with the five-minute mindfulness practice. At the end of the practice, with your eyes still closed, reflect upon a positive experience for which you were grateful over the last week.  When imagining this experience, try to recreate all of the sensory information- sights, sounds and smells that were a part of this experience.  Take a moment to relive, and then fully appreciate in this moment.

2.  Reflect on Mindful Gratitude assignments from previous weeks; complete the entrance ticket using the List of Nature Metaphors

Part I: Using the nature metaphors provided, describe your experience with mindful gratitude over the past two weeks in the form of a metaphor or analogy.  

Part II: Name the biggest insight you have gained from the gratitude practice, setting a daily intention and from journaling thus far.

3.  Discuss entrance tickets

4.  Respond to the following quote (at the top of the handout)

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

-Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

5.  Share out responses

6.  Watch the TEDTalk video

7.  Read “What is Mindful Gratitude for Adversity?” (in the handout)

What is Mindful Gratitude for Adversity?

There is much research on mindful gratitude, and there is developing research on the benefits of adversity as well. This practice is combining the active, conscious attention of mindfulness and the recognition of awe in gratitude practice to deal with the true nature of reality: adversity. 

That being said, transformational adversity is humanity’s oldest story. One could almost say it is the human story. It runs deep in every major religion and myth and is the arch of the modern narrative.

Culture, however, sometimes portrays happiness as the “default” human condition, concluding that difficult mental and emotional states are transitory distractions, and are perhaps even atypical. Confirmed by therapist Tori Rodriguez in an article for Scientific American,“ In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity… Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.”

Despite this cultural phenomenon, “the flies are part of the picnic.” Darkness and light occur on a continuum and need one another to accentuate their true nature. Each is integral to the human experience, and to truly dive into the depths of one’s own growth, both will be felt with equal intensity.  

8.  Discuss this section of the handout

9.  Read “How Does Mindful Gratitude for Adversity Work?” and “Why Be Grateful for Adversity?” (in the handout)

How Does Mindful Gratitude for Adversity Work?

In the simplest terms, reframing challenges and “failures” as opportunities for learning and then reflecting upon what has been gained by these experiences are strategies that improve resilience and increase growth.

Developing upon this idea, Linda Graham states, “We have resilience when we know we have dealt successfully with anything before.”  The success needs to have left a feeling of competence, but it does not matter how large or small the feat. There is the same psychological benefit in reflecting no matter what the conditions of the original accomplishment.

If previous experiences are reflected upon and viewed as learning opportunities, than with each new challenge overcome one becomes more able to deal with difficulty in the future. When this happens, one’s resilience grows and personal transformation becomes possible.

Why Be Grateful for Adversity?

Hardship, unavoidable and pervasive in the human experience, draws out many emotions. The most apparent may not be gratitude, but it has a meaningful place in such experiences.

However, fear and stress are natural reactions to changes, challenges and difficulties. These feelings are necessary, but the lenses through which they are viewed can be either detrimental or beneficial to the individual. They can be debilitating, isolating and demeaning if physiological symptoms of fear and stress are interpreted as alarms for pending disaster. Conversely, these same physiological responses can also be interpreted as only a reaction to new stimulus and a sign of possibilities. Changes can mean growth, learning, empathy and connection with others. Feelings of shame, failure, and “not being good enough” are all the enemies of this process, however.

Kelly McGonical’s research shows that the physiological reactions to fear/stress can have positive benefits if the feelings of shame and defeat can be replaced with perceptions of growth and opportunity:

In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict…. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease… But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed… It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage… And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.

In her talk she discusses how stress releases oxytocin, which encourages connection to others and is considered a “feel good” hormone. If this craving is followed through with action, then stressful and challenging life circumstances can deepen connections to others as one seeks to share experiences and find comfort, a proven way to increase resilience.

Adversity is the one of the most primary opportunity for humans to grow. In fact, Graham states the definition of learning as, “training the brain to respond in new and more effective ways to the challenges in our lives” (115). She continues,

The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you.  The difficult things provoke your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth.  You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot. (321)

The field of psychology confirms that adversity can create transformational change that might not have occurred otherwise. This phenomenon is called posttraumatic growth, and it can include changes in the following categories:

  1. Opportunity: A recognition of previously unseen possibilities and options
  2. Relationships: A deepening and strengthening of one or more relationships; a growing sense of empathy for all those in pain
  3. Strength: A renewed sense of personal empowerment
  4. Gratitude: Appreciation and awe for the experience of living
  5. Spiritual Growth/Depth: A deepening sense of one’s spiritual existence, possibly accompanied by shifting beliefs

Posttraumatic growth does not occur for everyone. There is, however, a key truth for all who have experienced it: the loss or challenge faced meant accepting the reality of never “coming back together” in the same way again. Something died, something was birthed, and never the twain shall meet.    

Many who have faced adversity, the death of a loved one, the loss of a meaningful relationship, major illness or something else, understand that it is through this fire that the inessential is burned away and the most primary and necessary is exposed. In times of adversity, what is not working breaks down and fails, and what is most important is discovered.

This is something for which to be very, very grateful. Humans have the power of transformation even in, perhaps especially in, the times of most difficulty. However, the key point of transformation is the individual’s ability to release the gravity of all that came before and fall into the weightlessness of the unknown.  

10.  When finished with the reading, answer the following questions:

  • What do you think transformation means? Do you think you have you ever experienced it because of something difficult in your life?
  • What would meaningful transformation mean to you right now (in your personal experience)? What would you be willing to go through to experience transformation in this way?

11.  Discuss responses to the reading and questions

12.  Read “Does Mindful Gratitude for Adversity Eliminate Pain?” (in the handout)

Does Mindful Gratitude Eliminate Pain in Difficult Times?

The answer is no; it doesn’t. As much as that might be appealing, denial of emotions and reality is the opposite of mindfulness and is in fact harmful to the posttraumatic growth process.  

Psychologist Todd Kashdan told the Huffington Post, “The science is very clear that when we try to conceal the distress we feel, we are less productive and less effective, and we end up feeling emotionally worse.” When one is suffering alone, the relational benefits of stress and challenge don’t come to fruition. In addition, the “concealed distress” does not disappear. In fact, hiding negative thought patterns and emotions can actually accentuate the development of what one is trying to avoid. David and Congleton explain, “…ample research shows that attempting to minimize or ignore thoughts and emotions serves only to amplify them. In a famous study led by the late Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor, participants who were told to avoid thinking about white bears had trouble doing so; later, when the ban was lifted, they thought about white bears much more than the control group did.”

Mindfully holding pain and discomfort in one’s awareness and learning to share vulnerability with others in times of distress are both skills. It can help to use specific strategies to develop these skills.

For example, naming emotions and recognizing the physical sensations that accompany them can be helpful. It also helps to recognize that we (humans) are not our thoughts and feelings. These are experiences, fleeting and sensory, and they will pass. We can choose to act upon them or not. Given the space created by mindfulness, one can make this decision. Finding someone with whom you feel comfortable thinking through feelings and thoughts can also help one find objectivity and provide a venue for reflection.

These are strategies for coping, but they will not make the pain go away. Part of the human experience is built upon suffering; one might say it is the price of growth. It is a price that can make life truly meaningful, however.

13.  Discuss reading

14.  Read “What are Some Strategies to Increase Mindful Gratitude and Resilience in Adversity?” (in the handout)

What are Some Strategies to Increase Mindful Gratitude and Resilience in Adversity?

Reimagining Failures and Setbacks: While self-recrimination is never helpful, reimagining failures and setbacks can increase learning and resilience.

  • For this strategy, choose a moment where you wish you had made a different choice. Consider what you think “went wrong” in the situation. Oftentimes these situations are interpersonal, so it might help to imagine the scene as if you are the other person.
  • When you feel as though you have settled on a better course of action, then recreate the scene and situation in your mind, but instead of reliving what happened, visualize yourself making the new choice and imagine how the scene plays out differently.
  • If it is helpful (it is for me) write the situation and reflection out in a journal.
  • This strategy impedes the existing neural pathways that might cause one to dwell in self-recrimination. In addition, it strengthens the neural pathways for the new, desired behaviors.

Reflecting upon Learning and Experiencing Gratitude for Hardship: Some difficulties, many in fact, are totally out of one’s control. For these situations, reflecting on learning and finding the points for possible growth, transformation and beauty can be helpful in increasing gratitude and resilience.

  • For this strategy, choose a difficult life situation you have faced in the past or are currently facing. Begin by recognizing the thoughts and emotions you currently have about the difficulty. Be completely honest. Gratitude is not about denial.    
  • After this recognition, consider the following questions:
    • What were you able to overcome in the situation? How might this help you later?  
    • What insight(s) did you have about yourself, others, or life?
    • Did you or anyone else exhibit admirable qualities in the process that you might be able to emulate in the future?  
    • Was there a relationship that was strengthened and deepened in the process of the experience?
    • Is there a person (or people) that you understand or empathize with more because of having lived through this?
    • Are there people or things you appreciate more?
    • What was beautiful in the situation?
    • Did you have any meaningful shifts in perspective or belief in the process?
    • What, or whom, was changed or transformed?
    • Do you see your life or your role in the world differently because of the experience?
  • You may choose to journal the answers to one or more of these questions. These insights can be reflected upon later to increase resilience during difficult circumstances.

Recognizing and reflecting upon times of accomplishment: In times of difficulty, remembering past successes is one strategy to feel more competent and resilient.

  • Recall a time when you were able to express your own competence in overcoming an obstacle. It does not matter how large or small this obstacle happens to be. For example, one of my recent accomplishments was setting up an account for, and getting home insurance on, a rental property I inherited. These things were not difficult, but they were outside of my normal scope, so I felt very accomplished when I did them.
    • What skills did you use to accomplish your task or express resilience in the situation?  
    • What did you learn about yourself in the process?
    • Does any quality or learning you expressed in that situation apply to challenges you are currently facing? How so?

Other Strategies:

  • Remember times that were difficult for you, perhaps even harder than the current moment, and recognize the differences between then and now
  • Imagine difficulties you have escaped because of good fortune and chance

15.  Complete the activity “Reflecting upon Learning and Experiencing Gratitude for Hardship” (in the handout)

16.  Discuss reading and activity

17.  Complete the exit ticket (3-2-1 Exit Ticket)

18.  Give Assignment for the “Mindful Gratitude for Adversity” workshop

Assignment for the Next Two Weeks

Part I: PTG (post traumatic growth) Inventory (Optional)

  1. Take the gratefulness quiz from Greater Good from the University of North Carolina (hard copy provided)
  2. Reflect upon what you learned about yourself

Part II: Practicing mindful gratitude

  1. Set an intention to notice where you can give yourself space to explore your emotions and thoughts non-judgmentally in times of difficulty for the next two weeks; see if you can create a “moment” between the stimulus and response and explore staying with, and then letting go, of difficult emotions
  2. Continue to commit to five to ten minutes of silent mindfulness practice and five to ten minutes of journaling on how your intention and practice are developing for five days of seven each week for the next two weeks

On a final note, thinking about personal adversity can be difficult.  Please use the next two weeks to take advantage of the oxytocin-related benefits of sharing your experience with someone else in a meaningful way. There are many other benefits of doing this, too, that we will talk about next workshop.  I would be remiss if I did not strongly encourage you to do this.  

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