I’ve experienced a lot of loss this year. Most of the loss has come as my own choice, which in some ways makes it even harder. I can’t even fall back on feelings of victimhood because I’ve brought all this loss upon myself, not because I’m a masochist, but because I’m being called to align with the integrity of my Inner Pilot Light in radical ways. It’s hard and scary and wildly uncomfortable. And it hurts. My heart feels heavy as big changes have uprooted me. I’ve had to really lean into my spiritual practice to stay grounded, avoid the downward spiral into fear, find peace with uncertainty, and allow loss to grow my soul, rather than shrink it.
Eckhart Tolle says that if you’re enlightened, there are three responses to what happens in life—acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. In other words, even when you’re facing the worst life throws at you, peaceful acceptance can be your baseline. Clearly, I’m not enlightened, because today, a yard full of roots thrust me into despair. The house where I live just changed owners, and the new owner, very well intentioned I'm sure, just sent over gardeners who ripped up every plant in my entire yard, including my beloved rosemary and artichoke plants. I've experienced a great deal of loss this year, and I keep saying that all of my roots are getting pulled up so I'm free to flow to whatever is most aligned for me. But as I came home from dropping my daughter off at camp and looked at the piles of literal roots and the barren, vulnerable nakedness of my front yard, I burst into tears. It's all so . . . empty and ugly and dirty and lonely. I’m sure the new landscaping will be beautiful, but right now, I’m feeling a little tender. Not quite up to peaceful acceptance, much less enjoyment or enthusiasm.
[caption id="attachment_2066" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The audience of empowered patients and conscious health care providers in Munster, Indiana[/caption]
I was scheduled to speak in Munster, Indiana at 7pm in front of 300 cancer patients, their support people, and their health care providers. Mapquest said it would only take 48 minutes to drive from the North Shore of Chicago, but knowing Chicago traffic, I left at 2:30pm, thinking I'd avoid traffic, sit and work on my next book in a coffee shop with plenty of time to spare, and show up fully chillaxin’ in a relaxation response.
Good thing I did.
I inched my way east in bumper to bumper traffic, past downtown Chicago into eastern Illinois, until finally - still with 2 hours to spare - the traffic speed picked up. I was cruising along at 60 mph, listening to Pandora on my iPhone, when suddenly something in the road jumped up and blew out the two driver’s side tires on the car I had just borrowed from my BFF from my Northwestern days.
So there I am, at 5pm, in a full on stress response. My amygdala is rightfully screaming “DANGER!” as I try not to careen into the car next to me or get crushed by the car behind me. Full of cortisol and epinephrine, I wrangle the big minivan into control and limp my way to the highway shoulder, where my whole body shakes from an overdose of adrenaline.
Knowing what I know about stress responses from all my research for Mind Over Medicine, I take a moment to assess myself. I know that stress responses only last 90 seconds if we don’t add more stress response-inducing stories to them. As soon as my amygdala realized I was safe, my stress response should have shut off. But then the stories start.
I watch myself in slow motion, like I am an observer, watching myself in a movie, realizing how we let one real, healthy life-endangering stress response spin into dozens of them. ("Oh no, I'm going to miss my speech and I’ll disappoint 300 people! Oh no, it's not even my car! Oh no, how much will it cost to fix this? Oh no, I don't even have my AAA card because it got stolen in Miami!") And so on...
For those of us in the United States, today is a day of giving thanks, of counting our blessings, of expressing gratitude, of remembering how far we’ve come. But even if you live elsewhere, I invite you to give thanks not just today, but every day.
It’s no accident that I put Gratitude in the healing bubble of the wellness model I introduced in my first TEDx talk and will be teaching further in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine. Along with Love, Pleasure, and Service, Gratitude is essential to living a whole, balanced, optimally healthy life.
The Science of Gratitude
In her book The How Of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares that the happiest people were not the richest, most beautiful, or most successful. Instead, as it turns out, the golden ticket to happiness lies not so much in changing our natural tendencies or even our life circumstances, but in adopting certain behaviors that have been scientifically proven to increase happiness. In her study, happy people shared similar traits.
They devoted a lot of time to nurturing their relationships with family and friends, they were first to lend a helping hand, practiced optimism when imagining their futures, savored life’s pleasures and made efforts to try to live in the moment, exercised frequently, were deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions, and showed poise and strength when facing life’s inevitable challenges. She also found that you can be happier by avoiding over-thinking, cutting yourself loose from ruminating thoughts, eliminating social comparisons, taking action to solve problems right when they arise, seeking meaning amidst stress, loss or trauma, practicing forgiveness, engaging in activities that get you “in the flow,” smiling more, and making efforts to take care of your body.
But perhaps the single most potent factor affecting how happy you are - and the one most easy to change - is how much you make gratitude a practice.
As described in his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman conducted a study and taught a single happiness-inducing strategy to a group of severely depressed individuals. Although these people were so abysmally depressed they could barely climb out of bed, they were instructed to do one simple task every day: go to a website and write down three good things that happened to them that day. Within 15 days, their depression improved from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed.” 94% of them reported feeling better!
I thought I found my calling back when I was seven, when a chimney sweep found a nest of hairless, newborn baby squirrels I vowed to nurse back to health. Those squirrels were just the first of dozens of baby squirrels I raised over the next fifteen years, earning me the title of “The Squirrel Girl.” In the moment I saw them, I knew I was supposed to be a healer, and I figured that meant I had to be a doctor or a veterinarian.
Not until years later did I realize how broad the definition of healer really is. I didn’t know it at the time, but the truth is that healers aren’t limited to medical doctors and vets. I now know that they can be acupuncturists, nurse practitioners, herbalists, massage therapists, life coaches, psychologists, energy medicine practitioners, shamans, intuitives, and spiritual counselors, as well. They can also be lawyers, secretaries, school teachers, artists, writers, sex therapists, monks, and truck-drivers who practice their profession with love, compassion, and a cracked wide open heart, in service to Source. In truth, anyone who lives their life in service to others - is a healer - including YOU.
Those of you who know my story know the on-again-off-again love affair I have had with medicine, which I always assumed was my calling, until I found myself in a medical practice that required me to sell out my integrity every day. I’ve been honing that calling ever since I left my clinical practice five years ago. It’s still evolving.
I just took a workshop with Sera Beak, the badass, spiritual cowgirl and author of The Red Book. In the workshop, Sera asked us to do an exercise she learned from Katherine Woodward Thomas and Claire Zammit, and I’d like to invite you to do a variation on the same exercise, because I found it so profound.
Grab your journal or a sheet of paper and write down five things you’d like to achieve before you kick the bucket. Don’t think too hard. Just write.
(Do this before reading on. Promise you will!)