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Holiday Season the old-fashioned Way

8 Dec
Indiana Jones and Yoda at Imagination Park.

Indiana Jones and Yoda where there for the Holiday party at Imagination Park.

When i was a child in Germany, December was a fabulous month. Nature would bring us the miracle of snow, and at home there were many magical moments spread throughout the month. When my siblings and i were small children, my mother would sit the 3 of us on a sleigh and pull us through country winter wonderland. To this day i remember the sense of awe i felt looking at the transformation of trees and fields. When we were older we would build a snowman, and once even tried to construct an igloo. That was fun, and precious because snow was not easily to be had. It came or it didn’t. It was nothing you could go and buy in the store.

Apart from nature’s miracle of snow, we had plenty of indoor moments that elevated our spirits. From December 1st – 24th we had our Advent calendars. We would take turns opening the tiny paper doors, and marvel over a little picture or a piece of chocolate we found behind them. On December 6th we celebrated St. Nicholas Day, with treats of fruit, chocolate Santas and nuts. Every Sunday afternoon during Advent* we would burn one more candle on the Adventskranz, a reef with 4 candles, and sit around eating treats, and singing seasonal songs. I remember a Windspiel, a little metal ring with 4 candle holders on the periphery and a sort of mini fan standing up in the center of the ring. From the fan cutout angel shapes were hanging. As the heat of the candles rose up the fan began to turn, and the angels were sent flying in a circle, as if they were on a carousel. I was hypnotized by this little wonder.

The real moment of magic happened on Christmas eve when a little bell rang and invited us kids into the living room which had been locked all day. It was just after darkness fell and that tiny bell we heard was said to belong to the Christkind, the Christ child. Next, the double doors to the living room opened and our eyes went to the huge Christmas tree alight with candles and sparklers in the otherwise dark room. My father sat at the piano and both my parents were leading us in singing Christmas carols. I could sense the proximity of the Christkind who, according to the legend we were told, had just been visiting with my parents to drop off presents. In my state of awe it all made sense; i could feel the presence of the divine. It manifested in blissful, speechless elation.

Recently i read that the Greater Good Science Center at UCB received a major grant to study the effects of awe on well-being. Several studies have shown that what Kant called the experiences of the sublime–awe evoked by beauty, or nature, or something powerful or majestic—has been connected with more joy, satisfaction, and health. Nature is a store house of awe–inspiring places and occurrences. A study performed here in Berkeley showed that study participants were more likely to help others after contemplating the majesty of North America’s tallest Eucalyptus tree–which happens to be right on campus–than those who had been brought to the exact same location but had been asked to point their view in a different direction, to a science building. The experience of awe humbles us and lets us forget momentarily what otherwise may preoccupy or burden us. Lifted above egocentric self-talk, unstoppable mulling over the past and worrying about the future–things in which the mind engages readily–kindness emerges. The explanation for this increase in altruism is that in the face of something bigger than us we are more likely to feel the connection between all beings.

Brief experiences of awe boost happiness, kindness, altruism, and health. If you are not yet convinced yet, consider this: It has been shown that cytokine levels, cytokines being a marker for inflammation in the body, decrease in study participants who experienced awe. To me, just remembering the sweetness and the awe-inspiring elevation i experienced decades ago puts a smile on my face and gives me a positive lift. To inject a fresh dose of awe and sweetness, i joined friends with their 8 month old baby yesterday for an old-fashioned Christmas lighting event in Imagination Park in San Anselmo. (That’s where i took the photo with Indiana Jones and Yoda.) What can you do to present yourself with an experience of awe?

PS: For a gift that can instill awe in the recipient consider a gift certificate for a collage workshop–the gift of creativity–or one for coaching–the gift of transformation. Tip: those who do not consider themselves artistic usually are particularly awed when they leave my workshops with a self-created piece of beauty in hand. More valuable than the collage they take home is that they have discovered a new trait in themselves, creativity. They will be moved by the presence of creative energy within them and it’s sure to make them feel really good about themselves. Gift certificates are available at http://evaruland.com/gifts.html.

© Eva Ruland, December 2014

How easy is it to be grateful?

19 Nov

With Thanksgiving around the bend, there is a lot of talk about gratitude. From boosting your happiness to improved health, there are real reasons to cultivate gratitude.

Gratitude is easy when golden opportunities fall into your lap or when you fall in love. It is also easy to be grateful when you are comfortable and without worry. But what about those days that are challenging?

how easy is gratitude?

Yesterday, i was not feeling well. I went through my day and skipped doing things that were not essential. In the evening i soaked in a hot bath tub by candle light, and drank a grog—a northern European home remedy, in my case consisting of a shot of aquavit with hot water—to sweat out the bug. Then i went to snuggle up under a cozy comforter and topped my medication with Oscillococcinum (a homeopathic flu remedy).

What does this all have to do with gratitude? When you’re not feeling well or when things don’t go in your favor, the last thing most of us think of is gratitude. Can you remember ever thanking your boss for firing you? Or being grateful to your partner when they dumped you? Usually, our thoughts are caught up in our misery. We focus on the negative, not on any upside. Most of us need a little distance to see the positive that can arise from a negative experience. After finding new opportunities, or meeting a more loving partner, we can, in hindsight, see the wisdom in negative experiences. For example, i can look back and say: Yes, i thank the guy who broke my heart 20 years ago. Without that experience i would most likely not be living here in California and writing this newsletter to you.

The big question is, how can i gain a positive spin on experiences that do not please me in the moment? I can use the power of my intellect, my insight, and my experience with the ways of the world. Coming back to the example of coming down with a cold or flu, i could be grateful for the simple home remedies i have learned. I could also tune into gratitude for a warm house and indoor plumbing that allows me to effortlessly pour a warm bath. And, i could tune into gratitude for all the times when i am not sick, when my body works well.

In more serious cases of disappointment, frustration, and pain i can train myself to see the opportunity for growth. “Wow, i am invited to look at this issue some more!” “I can get closer to healing my fear of [fill in the blank].” Or, i can say: “Wow, the universe has something else in mind for me. What could that be?” I am not saying that this is a universal truth. I am aware there are really tough challenges that are not easily turned into obvious opportunities. Sometimes, we have to surrender to the darkness and make peace with existence. Sometimes the only question to ask is “What can i do to make it easier to go through this?”

That said, for all of us there are many easy things to be grateful for. What are 5 things you can come up with? Anything goes.

Here are some examples, meant to inspire you to find your gratitude for today:

“I got a parking spot right in front of the theater.”
“That chocolate was delicious.”
“It was nice talking to my friend on the phone.”
“I am going on a dream vacation!”
“I got to read a little before going to bed.”
“My daughter did her homework without being asked.”
“I enjoyed a wonderful walk on the marina.”
“So glad my friend is feeling better.”
“I love this new book.”
“I sat with my cat/dog for an hour.”
“It felt great to be acknowledged by … today.”

To read up more on gratitude, and the wisdom of paying attention to the small things, check out my blog entries What went well? and The Magic in Gratitude.

And if you are in the Bay Area and want to do something special for yourself, treat yourself to my Gratitude Collage worksop this Sunday afternoon. This is a great workshop to bring a friend to. You share the fun of creating, plus you up their chance at happiness. I make it easy to be generous with my Gratitude Special: 2 for $130

Sunday November 23 | 2-5:30pm | Berkeley | Register at http://evaruland.com/collage_gratitude.html

© Eva Ruland, November 2014

What went well?

2 Oct

Generating Happiness: Part 1
Researchers and practitioners agree that gratitude possesses a magic power to bestow happiness. Why would that be? As brain researchers have found, our brain is structured to respond to the negative. Negative information sticks with us immediately, even minor negative experiences, whereas it takes an average of seven repetitions to remember minor positive occurrences. This neuro-mechanism is an evolutionary trait of the Paleomammalian brain in complex vertebrates, including humans, meant to improve their chance to survive. Think about it this way: when you live in the wild an inbuilt alarm system that registers danger and does not allow you to ignore it but prompts you to act on it, is a powerful, life-saving advantage. However, our life conditions have changed. In today’s world, there is little need for this inner alarm system. In fact, for many people today this trait of our Paleomammalian brain complex is an obstacle to happiness and well-being. For us, the question of how can we free ourselves from the constant alarm of this sensitive system has become important. Since it is hard-wired into us, we will not be able to disarm the system. But we can retrain ourselves and our brains so that we notice the positive more. How? That is where gratitude comes in.

gratitude

Gratitude is a marker of a turn toward the positive. Our inbuilt alarm system prompts us to create mental lists of problems. It nudges us to pay attention to all that goes wrong and to emphasize bad experiences. Practicing gratitude aims at turning the emphasis toward the positive. That does not mean that our Paleomammalian alarm system becomes defunct. It continues to exist. But, when we begin to list positive experiences we add a new dimension. By practicing gratitude we create new neurological pathways that begin to register the positive. Instead of mentally listing everything that goes wrong, listing things that go right adds a new perspective. We create a new positive feedback system. Gratitude trains us for a more positive outlook. And what does a positive outlook do to us? It conditions us to more fully enjoy life.

How can you begin a gratitude practice?
Today, i want to invite you to widen your understanding of gratitude. In the most widely used sense of the word, gratitude is directed toward generalities. We are grateful to our friend for supporting us; we are grateful to our mother because she gave birth to us and hopefully nurtured us. We might be grateful for nature, or grateful to the earth, because it sustains us. These are all incidences of the general sense of gratitude. If you get stuck with this sense of gratitude your list may be short and full of repetition. You might soon feel silly writing down the same things every day. That’s why i suggest that you expand your understanding of gratitude to specifics. Think of things that went well and include them in your list.

What went well?
Mentally, revisit your day and note the moments in which you felt good: remember the cozy moment with your pet that gives both of you comfort; the moment of heart-to-heart connection with a friend over the phone; the understanding smile you received from a clerk; the way your body relaxed after you exercised; your delight in a beautiful flower. Even finding a parking spot right in front of your destination, or an easy commute, make for things that went well. It does not matter how mundane these incidents are, or how fleeting the moments of pleasure. All that matters is that they uplifted you for a moment, and that you take note of something going well. Start a journal and begin to write down your what went well moments.

The how of starting a gratitude practice
The word practice implies repetition. Our psyche and our body are slow to change. That’s why it is important to create a structure with built-in repetition. Make writing down your what went well moments a daily habit. Choose a regular time everyday to make your journal entries. It’s most powerful to choose to do the exercise just before going to bed or in the morning, just after waking up. At night, your positive thoughts can effortlessly flow into your dream world. In the morning, you start your day on a positive note. But if neither of these times are practical for you, find another recurring event and connect your journaling with it, for example before you go to lunch. List at least three things that went well in the last 24 hours. Stick with the practice—repetition is what creates a habit. In the beginning you might have to think hard to come up with your list of three moments. Over time, you will notice that your lists flow with more ease and grow longer. If you miss a day, forgive yourself and get back on track right then and there with a new journal entry. Your journal is your witness. As you fill it with positive moments you give credit to the positivity in your life. The effect of training yourself to notice what went well is astounding. All of a sudden your life seems to change from a life that is full of problems and things missing to a life that is full of grace. Try it. Stay with it.

© Eva Ruland, October 2014