Today I’d like to explore deeper the benefits of practicing gratitude and the relationship between mindfulness and gratitude from a scientific point of view. I’m incapable and unauthorized to write a scientific academic essay on this topic, but I tried to simplify the explanation into a very basic introduction – one that even I can grasp. I used excerpts from the movie “What the bleep do we know”.
To begin, I’d like to take a step backwards and discus briefly the way perceptions are created, how our identities are formed and the human tendency to lean towards negative thoughts.
Hope you’re working on your 100 List.
Where perceptions are created
The birthplace of perception is the neural net. The brain is made up of tiny nerve cells called ‘neurons’. These neurons have tiny branches that reach out and connect to other neurons to form a neural net. Each place where they connect is incubated into a thought or a memory.
How perceptions are created
The brain builds up all its concepts by the law of associative memory. Essentially, it means that any information that we process, is coloured by the experiences that we’ve had and an emotional response that we’re having to what we’re bringing in. Every thought process produces a chemical response in the body which re-enforces the thought process which in turn re-enforces the chemical process and so on and so on.
If we repeat a thought pattern over and over, the nerve cells involved will create a long-term relationship with each other and they will “play” with each other every time they are stimulated. In practicality it means that if we regularly get angry or frustrated or if we are fearful or blaming on a daily basis–we’re rewiring and reintegrating a particular neural net on a daily basis. That’s the simplified meaning of neurons that fire together wire together.
The creation of “identity”
To take it a step further we go back to the neural net. Each nerve cell interacts with countless other nerve cells and together they create a large neural net. The neural net of a repeated pattern creates a long-term relationship with countless other nerve cells. That constant interaction creates certain repeated thoughts and behavioural patterns or what we refer to as our “identity.”
Leaning towards the negative
So far the explanation is quite neutral. Unfortunately, if we pay attention to content of our repeated thoughts and behavioral patterns we will notice that (most of us) tend to dwell of the negative. Negative in a sense of things that causes us to feel unpleasantness. If we really take a close look at our thoughts pattern we will notice that we “chew” on the things that went wrong. Angry, fearful, anxious thoughts just replays themselves over and over again. Even if our day was OK with no special negative incidents we would somehow dwell on the thing/s that went wrong. We would repeat in our mind an argument or a disagreement we had with someone, an offensive remark or the way someone dismissed or ignored us that morning. We would run countless scenarios in our minds of what could have or should have been done differently. For most of us, it will eventually come down to feeling not good enough to a sense of unworthiness and to contemplation of our faults and mistakes.
While we waste our time dwelling on how “not enough” we are we regularly miss out on the fact that actually most of our reality is between neutral to positive. We miss out on being healthy, well fed or warmly dressed. We miss out on finding a sit on the tube during rush hour, miss out on clearing our desk or on the fact that our partner took the rubbish out although it was our turn to do so that day. We also miss out on the thousand shades of green, the smell of the earth after rain or the little flowers that grow to the side of the road.
I love the way Dr. Hanson, a neuropsychologist and Dhamma teacher, puts it “and that’s just not fair” But besides that not being fair. Living and re-living negative thoughts of fear, anger or unworthiness is unpleasant. It makes us shut down, hesitant and self loathing. It also makes us not being able to joyfully participate in life.
Why are we doing that, than?
The simple answer is that neurons that fire together wire together – a force of habit and years’ long practice. Scientists go further to explain that our human tendency towards negativity is a result of our evolutionary development stage. A result of thousands of years of “living on the edge” literally fearing for our lives, protecting ourselves from different predators. That behaviour resulted in a disposition in the human consciousness towards looking out for dangers and perceiving life as an unsafe environment.
Personally, when I first heard that explanation I was relieved. It was a relief to know it’s not just “me”.
Breaking the chain – Being mindful
The good news are that physiologically nerve cells that don’t fire together no longer wire together. They lose their long-term relationship because every time we interrupt the thought process that produces a chemical response in the body, the nerve cells that are connected to each other start breaking the long-term relationship.
When we apply mindfulness, when we become less entangled in our automatic reactions, when we become the observant, we break through the body-mind that’s responding to its environment automatically.
Essentially, the practice of mindfulness/ insight/ vi-passana is the way to transcend our thoughts and patterned behavior. To see thoughts for what they are – an imprint of reality, empty, repetitive, random.
How does practicing Gratitude helps?
So, how does practicing gratitude helps? we must bear in mind that practicing gratitude is not about looking for rapture or ecstatic experiences – doing so will eventually lead to more tension and distress. Rather, practicing gratitude is expanding our awareness to include more experiences. When we actively practice gratitude and intentionally look for things to be grateful for – we in fact realize that most experiences in life are neutral or pleasant.
Practicing gratitude essentially puts things in perspective. It gives perspective to our challenges and place them in a much bigger context. It also makes us joyful. It opens our hearts for love and compassion and makes us more receptive to other’s needs.
Re-firing and Re-wiring
When we intentionally look for the “good” we are creating new memories deep down in our brains. The more we get our neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive and neural structures. That is first stage towardss changing our identity and destiny.
The next stage is creating positive “fire”. More about it – next time.
Here I am – Bryan Adams (unfortunately I was unable to embed this time)
May we all live with awareness and a grateful heart. May we always remember out blessings and good fortune. May we be happy. May we always be happy.