Brene’s fourth guidepost is cultivating gratitude and joy by letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark.
She points out that she was surprised to find that people who reported experiencing higher levels of joy actually practiced gratitude not as a response to joy, but as an essential foundation for creating openness to joy. We all know that joy and happiness are distinctly different – happiness being more circumstantial and joy being a deeper upwelling of delight that is less conditional on the outward situation and more about the state of the heart.
We’ve visited joy and gratitude before, and in the past I have explored this practice by keeping a gratitude journal for a year. I didn’t find that it sparked joy in the way I was hoping, and that may be because it matters what you are grateful for. If what I note in my journal is gratitude for the beauty of the sunrise, for the moments of quiet in a busy day, for some kind words spoken or the most delicious meal then the chances are I won’t find joy rising in response.
But, if I am grateful for the people in my life, for the specific ways that I am enriched by their quirkiness, uniqueness and beauty, and in recognising that I let my heart open to them, I also open the door for joy to slip in on the heels of my appreciation.
This is the kind of abundance that we don’t notice quite so easily, I think, or even think of when we are asked to consider what we might be grateful for each day. Being grateful for people who challenge you, hold up a mirror to you so you see more of your dark side, push your buttons or seem to have a knack of off-siding you is definitely counter-intuitive. We’re more likely to want to focus on their faults than to wonder what they are bringing for us to treasure.
So there’s that piece about how to practice gratitude, but there’s also something to consider here about scarcity and fear of the dark itself. Because we all develop the scarcity mindset and we learn to be afraid of the dark from experience. And that experience is held, remembered, stored in our bodies. It’s with us all the time and it’s not easily dislodged. So if we want to practice gratitude and let go of being afraid of the unknown, we’ll have to do some preparation work in the scary places first.
Hilary has some great insights for us about that. First of all, she reminds us that our bodies have a natural response to scary and painful things, and that is to tighten around pain and to tense up when afraid. That natural reaction is designed to keep you safe or move you to safety. That’s all. It’s all your body is trying to do and even though you may actually be ‘safe’, your body may not be aware of that yet. So you need to treat yourself in ways that reminds your body that you really are safe. This piece is especially important if you experience a lot of anxiety or have a loud and hurtful inner critic.
Because your body can hear everything that you think and everything that you say to yourself, and it’s worth reminding ourselves, because we are so mind over body, that:
The scary thing you think about or remember from your past activates your body’s response as if it were happening now. And hurtful words, shaming tone or angry affect trigger the same stress hormone release – even when you are saying those things just to yourself. So being angry or frustrated with your body for slowing down, not healing fast enough, getting sick, stopping you from doing something you enjoy, interrupting your work schedule or needing more rest and relaxation than you think you have time for – that’s a scary experience generated from within. It stimulates the fear response of tightening and likely creates more pain and tension than you had to start with.
The first step to letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark is starting to listen to the fearful, lack-focused things we say to ourselves and noticing how that shows up in our body. Because it certainly does show up in your body one way or another.
Hilary offers the Two Arrows teaching, drawn from Buddhism, to help us deconstruct this destructive internal pattern.
The first arrow is shot by life when something difficult happens – that could be an injury, a loss, a sickness.
We shoot the second arrow when we add to our pain by how we respond to the first arrow – we add to our pain and suffering in the way that we talk to ourselves and others about what is happening with us. There are a few different kinds of second arrows you might shoot. Popular ones include: the self blame arrow (I can’t believe how stupid that was); the blame someone else arrow (they shouldn’t have) and the scary prediction of the future arrow (that awful thing will happen again, and I won’t be able to handle it). These second arrow responses are often patterned after the ways that people responded to our pain when we were growing up, and they happen lightning fast. You will probably struggle to catch yourself before shooting the second arrow, but if you practice noticing you’ll start to get ahead of it in time.
The first arrow shot causes pain. The second arrow adds another layer of tightness around the original pain. And then we get in a repeating cycle of decreasing ease and both physical and psychological distress.
So all that means letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark is not quite as easy as it sounds. (Sorry, Brene.)
Most of us have heard of the inner critic, even if you don’t have one that operates all the time. I have met some people who don’t have an experience of the internal judge who monitors speech, action and thoughts, but I haven’t come across many who don’t identify with some sense of ‘not enoughness’. It may be experienced anywhere between self-doubt to self-hatred, complete inner emptiness to ‘maybe this next thing will do it’. And for some people, the inner emptiness is held at bay by a whole lot of ‘la, la, la, I’m not listening’ behaviours. It may help to identify the type of ‘not enough’ that lives in your shadow – that way you can be more effectively specific as you learn to develop an inner nurturer.
The inner nurturer is a way to begin healing your relationship with yourself by responding with kindness to yourself when you become aware that you are hurting. It might sound like:
‘I’m so sorry you are hurting right now’; ‘This is hard, I’m with you’; ‘I haven’t left you, we’ll go through it together’; ‘you didn’t deserve this, and this isn’t happening because you are bad’.
If it’s been an ongoing pain that your body has been speaking up about for a long time and you haven’t listened, you may start with:’I’m sorry I didn’t listen before when you whispered about this. I’m listening now’.
Safe, loving touch is also healing even if you give it to yourself. And thanking your body for always telling the truth, even when it is painful, is part of the healing process. If we want to embrace life with gratitude and open ourselves to the flow and movement of joy, we’ll need to bring that same intention into the places of fear and pain – open embrace to the full reality of our experience.
Journal Reflection Questions
Hilary writes: ‘I refuse to shame, punish, ignore or discipline my body for telling the truth about what happened to me in those very scary moments, moments that somehow linger on in the present through pain and injury. My body is allowed to tell the truth for as long as she needs to, and I will not stop her.’
- How do you normally speak to yourself when you are sick or in pain?
- Where did you learn that?
- If you could choose some other loving way to speak to yourself, what would that sound like in your words?
Catching the second arrow
Contemplative practice helps us develop the space between the Self and the personality which is run by the ego. The space helps us catch the second arrow when it’s nocked but before we let it fly – the space between stimulus and reaction that allows us to experience instead stimulus and… response.
How do you make your daily rendezvous with deep calm, expansive presence and flowing light?
I’ve been enjoying a breath practice by my yoga teacher in Pennsylvania for the last few months, which you can find here: on instagram, and probably also on Facebook.
Tara Brach has a lovely guided breathing and body meditation on youtube.
Or Jack Kornfield’s offering for gratitude and generosity
Or you can return to the centering prayer practice we’ve explored before, using the sacred word to let go of thoughts without reacting, rejecting, retaining any thought and returning to rest in your consent to God’s loving presence and action within.
Lectio with poetry
The poem below has so many doorways into contemplative reflection. Read through several times and listen for that word or phrase which catches your attention, draws you into a deeper embrace or allows you to flow into a new awareness
What to remember on waking
In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.
What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.
To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.
Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?
Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?
— David Whyte