How can I give thanks when I don’t feel grateful?

Feeling grateful
Dr. Robert Emmons

Feeling grateful may be good for you.

Research on feeling grateful, summarised by Dr Robert Emmons University of California, has been conducted on thousands of people around the world. Those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude. Giving thanks makes people happier and more resilient, it strengthens relationships, it improves health, and it reduces stress.

The trouble is, you might doubt whether it is possible to cultivate a grateful attitude when you feel anything but thankful?  Five obstacles stand in the way to better appreciating the good things in life.

1. Lack of time for reflection

However busy you are e.g. seeing to the kids, earning a living, doing all the practical chores, chasing your tail, it is surely possible to create a little time just once a week to recall some good things you have experienced, and put pen to paper to focus your mind.

2. Unrealistic expectation

Instead of feeling disappointed about big things not happening for you, why not start noticing the small things that you can be more appreciative of, like the perfect parking spot you had on a cold day, the unexpected pound coins you found in your pocket and the pleasant act of courtesy from someone you don’t really know. Try not to take for granted the good things you have got.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

3. Lack of action

Rather than trying and then failing to feel thankful, you could try speaking words of thanks out loud — whether to a friend, the person who you wish you could thank or in prayer to your idea of God. Saying or doing something can focus on and thus develop that fleeting feeling. One possibility is to write notes to your family and friends to express feeling grateful even for small favours. Religious people share a thankful prayer of grace before a meal.

4. Believing you have nothing to be grateful for

Another way is to stop and use your imagination. If you were to pretend to yourself that you have lost some of the things that you take for granted, such as your home, your car, your ability to walk, or anything that currently gives you comfort, you could in your mind’s eye then picture getting each of these things back, one by one: consider  how grateful you would be for each and every one.

Similarly, you might ask yourself to what extent you notice the precious things around?  Things like the beauty in nature, the goodness in altruistic action, the innocent sphere of a baby.

The spiritual writer Roger Walsh has pointed out that this blindness to the sacred in the world, in others and in oneself, is particularly dramatic in modern Western culture, largely due to the influence of science.  I feel we are so bombarded by the scientific description of the universe as a great meaningless machine and the account of evolution as a random series of events, that these views can easily be seen to be the natural and only way of looking at things. Are we not in danger of living in a disenchanted world seemingly stripped of significance, spirit and purpose? To appreciate and be grateful for the sacred requires an additional way of knowing to the one scientists use. A perception of the soul.

The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. (Helen Keller)

5. Negative feelings

Some opposing feelings are incompatible. For example you either resent someone or feel appreciation for them. You can’t be both angry and thankful at the same time or both envious and grateful. The negative feeling is incompatible with the positive one. One tip I find helpful, is to first tackle the negative. Rather than sweeping a serious problem under the carpet, address it openly by expressing and resolving feelings of anger with the other person. Then you can make a conscious choice about which way you are going to turn. You either can nurse your hurts or look for their good points.

In their book Rise Above It, Ray and Star Silverman say that, in giving thanks for our parents, we are also being grateful for the divine source of all that is good in life. However, there is a danger that we might cling to childhood wounds, however real or imagined, like sacred scars. If so, they will discolour and distort our attitudes to other people and the experience of life itself. If we have seen anger in our parents we might ask ourselves whether this can be re-seen as determination, or a great concern for our welfare. Perhaps stubbornness or inflexibility should be re-seen as strength or conviction. In other words you can be a sort of tv remote control and change mind channels at will: the negative or the positive news channel.

Swedenborgian view

Emanuel Swedenborg the spiritual philosopher used the “as if ” phrase. He wrote that anything what is good within us is usually felt as if it is our own. However, he maintains that this is a necessary illusion for the sake of our sense of inner freedom of personal choice. Actually when the religious minded person comes to think about it, he or she acknowledges that all good things come from the source of goodness itself rather than from ones own merit. And so it is to this Source that one gives thanks. According to this view, even a grateful heart — which counts one’s blessings — is a spiritual gift that one can receive.

I praise the Lord here today. I know that all my talent and all my ability comes from him, and without him I’m nothing and I thank him for his great blessing. (Ernie Harwell)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

In a rut? Is life a slog? Time for inner change.

in a rutAre you finding the going a bit hard these days? Dissatisfied with life without knowing why? In a rut?

“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields” (John Steinbeck)

Reasons for feeling in a rut

The UK these days has a high pace of life, crowded driving conditions, and high cost of housing. Is this reason enough to be fed up and in a rut? Human existence of course is full of challenges and difficulties and this is normal. However some commentators point to what they see as materialist pressures of an acquisitive society resulting in both men and women spending more time in commuting to their jobs and working long hours, with a consequent squeezing of time available for relaxed living and quality home life. Such stressed people may be vulnerable to the growth of negative thinking about the unfairness of life and so on.

“People find themselves in a rut all the time. You’re in a complacent lifestyle where you work 9 to 5 and then you add a mortgage and kids. You feel trapped, but guess what, brother? You constructed that life. If you’re OK with it, there’s nothing wrong with that.” (Jeremy Renner)

You may not be able to easily alter the external circumstances of home and family life, parenthood, business, and social activity but you have an inkling that something needs to change within your soul but what it is and how to change you do not know.

Meaningful aims in life

Is it not the case that today in western culture adults are faced with a more uncertain future as concepts such as `marriage for life’ or a `job for life’ change, making it harder to achieve intimacy through marriage or identity through work? Is there not  also an increasing tendency for adults to delay commitment to an intimate relationship and to delay having children?

Arguably, healthy development in adulthood is characterised by our guiding and nurturing the next generation. Such a role has the potential to be deeply fulfilling. Of course, this may be done directly, in rearing one’s own offspring, or through a more generalised productivity and creativity. In pursuing such a role, adults will make personal sacrifices but problems arise for them when they do not receive an adequate degree of encouragement and appreciation. Sadly, when in a negative state, the ego demands even more recognition and thanks and fails to notice the happiness that a kind act generates.

According to spiritual theory there are ideas of conscience often hidden at the back of our mind that guide our lives, for example the values of patience, endurance, kindness or the principles of fairness, loyalty, truthfulness. These ideas are all about what one considers to be the important things of life.

Negative thinking when you are in a rut

The trouble is, when you are in a rut, negative thinking can take away the ability to believe in the importance and usefulness of, or interest in, doing any of the things that one is engaged in — whether it be sustaining the relationship with a partner with whom one has just had a row, caring for one’s yelling baby, or putting effort into supporting one’s colleagues at work who seem inadequate to do their job.

Sometimes we need to take our higher principles out into the daylight, give them a dusting down and keep them in sight as we grapple with the mundane and stressful side of things. Love is not always selfish. Doing things for others is not always a way of expiating guilt. Work is not just a means of earning a livelihood but is often something that produces what is good.

Giving thought to deeper issues

The amount of rational thought people can give to such deeper issues will differ according to their natural disposition and their situation in life. Is not the important thing whether the person deliberately shuts them out? Some individuals will be trying to control and deal with the day to day challenges of life in all its bewildering complexity without much  consideration of any higher values or principles. Instead they remain stuck in negative thinking — in a rut with their thoughts of resentment and pessimism.

As you seek to follow higher ideas, about how you should really respond to the difficulties you daily encounter, your old negative thoughts and ways are challenged – are you ready to leave them behind and move on? Or stay in a rut of your own making? I believe if you do respond positively, your growing enlightenment leads to great changes in relationships with others.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on12th October 2012CategoriesHealing emotions, Spiritual healingTags, , , , , , , , , ,, , , , ,, , , values,



Self-respect — How to find it if feeling guilt?

self-respectWhat you did wasn’t that bad. A hasty ill-judged remark, an over-indulgence, a minor act of selfishness. You want to forget about it but the memory lingers. What if somebody else noticed? You feel uneasy with yourself. Is this the tiny prick of conscience? A sense you have done something wrong? You want to feel self-respect after doing wrong. You want to feel better about yourself but you cannot change what happened.

Joan had become preoccupied with her sense of guilt. She had badly let down her life-time friend Sally. Not gone to her best pal’s wedding. There was a good reason or so she had tried to tell herself. The conference was one she had keenly wanted to attend.  But she could have put it off until the following year. She knew she should have put her life-long friend first. Sure, Sally was still speaking – after a fashion — but Joan couldn’t forgive herself. Couldn’t get her self-respect back.

We all do some wrong things but there are actions that some people take that cause immense hurt and damage. But whatever it is we have done, we need to feel self-respect, to be liked and accepted without feeling bad about ourselves. So how does one get rid of guilt?

If you are not unfairly being hard on yourself, the first step is to stop making up excuses to justify, what deep down, you know you shouldn’t have done. Be honest and own up at least to yourself. And resolve to try not to do something like it again. If you want, you can be a different person from the time when you behaved badly. The self-respect can return.

Okay there are some things that can’t be remedied that we will regret for ever. Yet you can ask yourself, is there really nothing I can do to right the wrong? Sometimes you can and then a sense of pardon might be felt from the offended person after you apologise or attempt to make amends. This happened to Joan. Not only did she confess her selfish error to Sally, she did her best to make it up to her by later throwing a surprise wedding anniversary party. And that cost her a pretty penny and some valuable time but she was really glad she could do it. She and Sally were the best of friends again.

Reconciliation can be a wonderful thing, for example following marital breakdown, but how can this be achieved following serious crime. How on earth do people live with themselves after committing murder or abusing a child? I guess if they have little conscience then they suffer little guilt. But if they do have genuine remorse then sad indeed is their torment unless they can find a way to stop condemning themselves for that one mad moment when they completely lost self-control. Self-respect for this kind of person must feel like a mile away.

Some people have experimented with psychedelic drugs and report the experience of love and forgiveness, as well as benign and blissful moments of cosmic unity whilst under the chemical influence. But these effects don’t seem to last and the ‘trip’ can also include horrible visions of filth and torture.

So where can we get lasting help for a stricken conscience? Those with strong feelings of anxiety and guilt have been drawn to the promise of religion for their redemption. But traditional Christianity talks about the “forgiveness of God for the repentant sinner” thus using a language that has unfortunate connotations of punishment and judgement.

Instead, why not think of the image of genuinely loving parents? These have nothing to forgive when looking at their children who go off the rails. Just hope and encouragement for better days ahead.

Or think of non-judgmental counsellors who adopt an accepting attitude towards their clients. This stance allows confessions of guilty secrets and the encouragement of self-insight and attitude change. The aim of therapy is self-respect and self-esteem.

Counsellors don’t need to forgive, for it is not they who have been offended but they do foster self-acceptance. Likewise the divine Counsellor, as the origin of infinite mercy and compassion, does not need to forgive. For to forgive implies condemnation which Love itself is incapable of feeling. Such an idea of God as a Counsellor can be thought of as providing healing of guilt.

Emanuel Swedenborg taught that there is a huge mistake in an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ that correct religious belief is sufficient for salvation. Instead he said that what is wanted in the heart and what is done by the hands, in addition to what the head thinks, is what really matters. He claimed that to feel divine acceptance, belief alone is insufficient: one also has to put into practice one’s belief  and that this means  changing the ways one deals with other people by following Christ’s way. Through gaining a sense of God’s respect for what we do we can find self-respect.

In other words whilst in humble supplication we can pray for God’s mercy but in so doing  we need to remember our own responsibility for accepting other people. As the Lord’s prayer says:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

As HT Hamblin put it:

“If he will love, or hold in thoughts of good-will the one who has wronged him, then his life will become happy and peaceful, and in its highest sense, successful.”

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Resentment – How to feel less of it?

resentmentHow would you feel, if, as part of your job, you had to shake hands with someone who probably ordered the murder of your cousin? A similar situation faced the Queen when she met former IRA commander Martin McGuiness. I would not be surprising is she had felt at least a little resentment.

The meeting was a good thing for the peace process in Northern Ireland where the thirty years of  ‘Troubles’ has cost 3,600 lives. However, McGuiness is reputedly the former IRA commander who authorised the blowing up of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. Did she inwardly feel resentment or did she feel a sense of acceptance? We will probably never know.

Tim Knatchbull,  Mountbatten’s grandson, writes in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, that McGinness and his Siin Féin allies ‘deserve enormous credit’ as a modernising ‘force for good’ in recent years.

Overcoming resentment when remorse is shown

Usually it is easier to let bygones be bygones when the person who has done you wrong shows real remorse. But how often does this actually happen? According to Max Hastings in the Daily mail newspaper, McGuiness has never made the smallest
admission of contrition for all the atrocities under his command as late as
1987, the year of the Eniskillen bombing.

How have you actually felt when driving home towards someone who dangerously cuts in front of you and drives off into the distance? Towards someone who is rude
to you or who shows inconsideration for you?

It seems that those individuals, who have had angry and hostile tendencies
throughout their lives, are more likely to harbour resentment, avoid their transgressor and fantasise some form of revenge. On the other hand survey polls show that a majority of people would like to feel less resentment yet report not knowing how to do so.

Benefits of reducing resentment

There is reason to believe that the regular practice of forgiveness can reduce anger, depression and stress, leading to greater feelings of hope, and confidence as
well as better relationships and physical health. Forgiving is thought to open
the heart to kindness, beauty, and love.

Here are some suggestions about how to feel more forgiving.

1. Get in touch with how you feel about what happened and why you are aggrieved and feeling resentment.

2. Make a decision to try to let go of the incident and your negative feelings towards the person who did you wrong.

3. Remember that your main feeling of distress is coming from what you are
thinking and feeling now rather than what the person did some little while ago
to offend or hurt you.

4. Forgo expecting people to behave according to your own rules and let them stay
free to do their own thing.

5. Think about the power over you that you are giving someone by attending to the
hurt they have caused you.

6. Consider the Christian prayer “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we
forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.” (Matt 6:12) How can we
feel forgiveness unless we are also willing to forgive?

7. Remember you are not in a position to judge someone as deserving of
condemnation for you do not know all the mitigating circumstances that provided
the context of their actions towards you. For example you may not be fully
aware of what is going on in their life to create stress, or their upbringing
with its standards of conduct and moral values.

8. Consider what worldly or selfish desires  in you that have been thwarted by the
other person and reconsider their importance. Pride been wounded? Well what’s
so bad about a little humility? Time wasted by someone? Never mind there is
plenty of time left in life to make up what was lost.

9. Doing well to others and forgetting their wrongdoing may not always be wise if
the behaviour is harmful and persists. Violence within the home and sexual
infidelity are two more serious examples. Acceptance of the other person’s
limitations rather than simply saying we forgive him or her may be a more
realistic goal if there is no remorse or effort to change.

10. In extreme cases sometimes it is better to part with someone who is persistently abusive. Consider receiving professional counselling if the decision is very difficult.

The spiritual philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have
conscious communication with the spirits of dead people.  He points out that evil-minded spirits love to find fault and take pleasure at the thought of punishment. On the other hand there are angelic spirits who if they happen to notice anything bad in someone, make allowances for it. He says the attitude of looking for the good in someone is the essence of heaven.

I would say you couldn’t feel much resentment towards someone if you are busy looking for the good in him or her.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems