The Season of Gratitude – Part 1

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve been often reminded about the importance of being grateful. I admit, there have been many times in my life when I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking I am not good enough, that my life is not exciting enough, or that I don’t have enough of the things that I want.

By and large, I think it isn’t just me that struggles with this. We humans have a natural tendency to want more and better, no matter the abundance that we already have. And then, the western economy is also built on this idea of lack – that there is always something more we should have, some other experience we need to feel, in order for our lives to be complete.

In acknowledgement of my problem, I kept a daily gratitude journal for years. In the evening before bed, I would list off 5 things for which I was thankful. On the whole, I think it’s a very good practice. And studies show that when people show more gratitude, they are happier.

But I have to admit, the practice started to falter for me when I noticed that I tended to list off the same things every single day: gratitude for a roof over my head, for my loving husband, for healthy kids, and the regular presence of my furry dog. I began to feel that I had only those 5 things to be grateful for. And even though those are not small things, depression started to set in, as it often does for me. The daily gratitude practice no longer seemed to be helping.

This past week is Thanksgiving in the US, so I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently, and those struggles I had with it in the past. I’ve also been wondering why I feel so much more gratitude now than I did then. Why didn’t that daily gratitude practice work for me? And what has changed now?

For an answer, I turned to my herbal studies and its discussion of feelings. Interestingly, in Chinese medicine, feelings of all types are held in greater regard than they are here in the west. In fact, they are considered such harbingers of illness that, for thousands of years, doctors treated people by helping them to resolve their feelings with counter-feelings, rather than prescribing herbs or acupuncture.

Here in North America, feelings are given nowhere near that amount of respect. If anything, feelings are thought to be a problem, an obstacle that gets in the way of forward progress. We are advised to ignore them, stuff them, or push past them. People who dwell on their feelings are considered soft and weak.

But feelings have a seriously negative effect on your health. In Chinese medicine, it is well known that anger congests your liver, sadness constricts your lungs, worry weakens your spleen, and fear depletes your kidneys. Before you dismiss this concept, understand that western medicine is starting to come around to the same conclusion. Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician with particular expertise in the treatment of addiction, trauma, stress and childhood development, has written a number of best-selling books on the negative effect emotions can have on your health. When the Body Says ‘No’ and The Myth of Normal are the two most recent.

In the intervening years since I kept that daily gratitude journal, I’ve done a lot of work with my emotions. I’ve spent hours sitting in meditation, I’ve discovered the power of restorative yoga for processing my emotions, and I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking through my triggers and trying to heal the emotions behind them. Although scary and difficult, I have found this work to be transformational.

Liver and gallbladder flushing can also prove tremendously helpful and many of our customers have testified to this. Your liver stores a lot of your emotions. Anger, frustration, envy, moodiness, and depression are all common emotions for people whose livers have become stagnant. When herbs are taken to clear away congestion in the liver, these emotions tend to leave too. It’s a fascinating process.

Once all those negative emotions are cleared away, a space is created for more positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, and love to take hold. An important discovery I’ve had as I continued my healing journey, is that emotions are things. They are not ephemeral nothings; they have weight and space and can’t just be shrugged away. If you avoid feeling them, your body will just hold on to them for later processing. And the longer you hold them, the sicker you can get.

If you’re struggling with gratitude this holiday season, consider the possibility that you’re holding on to some difficult emotions. It’s not unusual. We all have them. I know it’s scary, but the next time you feel them, recognize where the tightness is. It’s often in your chest, but it can also be in your belly or your shoulders. Try to soften into those places in your body, and when the emotions arise, allow yourself to really feel into them. But be gentle with them. Show these feelings kindness. They are there to take care of you.

One good practice I learned is to go to a quiet corner where you won’t be disturbed, and then purposely feel the emotion in all its intensity – really push it to the limit! If you feel anger, allow it to build and build and feel it to its completeness. Welcome the anger. Really revel in it. If you stop this process and still feel a residue of anger inside you, it means it hasn’t been fully spent yet. Cultivate it even further! Trust me, if you take the time to feel it fully, it will disperse.

Emotions need to be felt. Pushing them away only makes them toxic. So, try accepting them with kindness and grace instead. Allow them more space. By accepting them and allowing them, they usually start to shift a little. And into that space, amazingly, there will be a possibility for more joy and gratitude. And who doesn’t need more of that?

Boat-fruited Sterculia Seeds

Sterculia Seeds

According to Chinese medicine, autumn is lung time. This is the time of year when the lungs need to be strong. If they aren’t, health issues related to the lungs are more likely to be felt. If you regularly struggle with allergies, or asthma, or chronic bronchitis, you know what I mean. Symptoms tend to set in each year when we descend into fall and the air turns cold and dry.

The lungs are delicate. They are the only internal organ exposed to the outer environment through our breath. This is by necessity! We have to take in air in order to survive, even though this does expose us to smoke, chemicals, and other contaminants, all of which can injure the lungs over time.

The lungs are even affected by the air itself, becoming more parched in dry air, or more moist and heavy in damp air. It’s no wonder they are considered the “princess organ” in Chinese medicine. They are incredibly vulnerable.

Western medicine doesn’t provide much help for the lungs. Doctors can prescribe you an inhaler, which will relax the muscles of the airways into your lungs, making it easier to breathe. Or they may prescribe a nasal spray, which reduces swelling in the airways and dries up mucus. Both can be useful for short periods of time when you just can’t catch your breath, but neither will get at the root of the problem, which is often dry lungs, weakened by the presence of phlegm.

Luckily, there are herbs that can help with this! This is where sterculia seeds come in. The pinyin name for sterculia seeds means “big, fat sea”, which describes both the seeds themselves, as well as what they do. Julia also used to refer to them as “Expanding Seeds” because when you add hot water to them, the seeds will start to expand and soften, looking somewhat like a strange sea creature.

But what do they do? Firstly, sterculia seeds cool and moisten the lungs. This can feel incredibly healing in and of itself. If you’ve ever dealt with a chronic dry cough, a parched throat, and tight chest for any length of time, you know you’ll do just about anything to relieve it. Sterculia seeds will help. They act just like the sea, moistening the lungs and soothing your throat, while also healing a hoarse or lost voice.

Secondly, they dissolve phlegm. This is what causes that tight sensation in your chest – the presence of hot phlegm. As sterculia seeds moisten your lungs, they also start to break down rubbery, difficult-to-expectorate phlegm, loosening and healing your lung tissue in the process. Again, magical relief!

You’ll know that sterculia seeds are helping when the phlegm starts to come up. You may notice that you need to blow your nose more frequently as phlegm in your nasal passages starts to loosen. This discharge will likely be sticky and yellow, green, or even brown in colour, depending on its age. You may also notice phlegm coming up from your lungs into your throat, causing frequent throat-clearing or coughing. While uncomfortable, these are all good signs, indicating that old, rubbery phlegm is finally being discharged and brought up to be expelled from your body.

Ideally, you will continue to prepare sterculia seed tea until any discharge is thin and clear, your chest no longer feels tight, and there’s no longer any phlegm in the back of your throat.

A customer recently asked me how to cleanse the lungs. I told him that you don’t usually cleanse your lungs. However, upon reflection, it is true that your lungs can easily pick up toxins from the air, which can irritate lung tissue, and then cause the formation of phlegm. I’m now thinking that it certainly can’t hurt to spend a few weeks each year drinking sterculia seed tea to bring up whatever has gotten stuck down there. And honestly, it’s such a relief when it comes out! Autumn is a great time to do this.

As a side effect, sterculia seeds will also help dry constipation [1], and have been shown to lower blood pressure [2]. They have even been used to successfully treat children with acute tonsillitis [3]. I would consider those potential effects a bonus. Really, their lung-moistening and phlegm-dissolving properties is reason enough to use them.

If you are interested in trying sterculia seeds, you can find them in the tea section of our on-line store.

  • 1. Chang Yong Zhong Yao Xian Dai Yan Jiu Yu Lin Chuan (Recent Study and Clinical Application of Common Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1995; 468:469
  • 2. Ibid
  • 3. Zhe Jiang Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Zhejiang Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1966; 5:180

Remembrance Day

“I’m not a hero,” said the old man, a veteran of the Korean War. It’s a moving refrain you often hear from soldiers who feel guilty for having survived something their comrades-in-arms did not.

“Yes, you are!” assured the reporter beside him. And the old man shook his head and looked like he might cry, even all these years later.

I was profoundly moved by the annual Remembrance Day services this morning. Maybe it’s because of what’s currently happening in Gaza, or because of the war in Ukraine, but I seem to finally understand, now, that we will never be at peace. There will always be conflict somewhere.

I grew up in the 1980’s, during the time when there was a Cold War between the US and Russia. I think we really believed, then, that the next war could never be fought because it would mean the end of all humanity. And yet, here we are. Still at war. Still maiming and killing one another. We just took a step back from the nuclear option so we could keep on hurting one another without the mutually assured destruction that inevitably comes with it.

Yes, I know that there have been many wars fought since the Second World War – roughly one every decade – and many more fought without the involvement of the US and its allies. I suppose I just thought that these were “smaller” wars that would eventually play themselves out as humanity continued to mature as a species. You can call me naive. I’ll admit to that.

What I feel now is sadness. And also profound empathy and remorse for those who are currently caught in the familiar snare of hatred and violence. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to stop this regular flaring of vengeance.

I’ve been reading a lot about trauma recently, and so I can’t help but think about how much pain the victims are in and whether it’s even possible to heal them. If it’s true that hurt people hurt people, then how do we ever stop the hurting?

I read a book recently about the World War II bombings in London. In it, a bookshop owner says to the young protagonist (who is struggling with what to do with all the suffering around her): “Just do what you can, when you can, whenever you can, and don’t worry about the end results. It’s all any of us can do”. I found that really inspiring.

And so, I will keep on trying to heal people, through herbal medicine, and through yoga. I will continue to remind them to inhabit their bodies and feel their emotions, and in that way, to begin to alleviate their suffering. It may not make a great difference to the world at large, but it may prove helpful to someone in their time of need.

In the coming weeks, we will have a new offering at our humble yoga studio. One that I hope will remind us of our similarities to one another. That will help us to feel more connected. After all, we are essentially all the same. We all suffer, we all have people we love who we don’t want to see harmed, we all want to belong. We all know pain.

It is my fervent hope that we learn to know our connectedness better than we do our separateness. That when we feel most hurt and alone, instead of lashing out, we learn how to lean in instead. It may not be realistic, but it’s a vision I will keep fighting for.

Trust the Flow

Rainbow over Niagara Falls, Canada

Recently in my yoga classes, I’ve been focusing on flow. The flow of your breath, the flow of energy in your body, and the flow of your emotions. It’s so easy for this flow to become stuck.

This can happen due to stress, when we tense our muscles and hold our breath, allowing energy to become constricted. Or, it can happen if we hold on too tightly to an idea of how the world should be, rather than allowing life to play itself out as it is. We can also become stuck in our emotions, refusing to let go of sadness, resentment, anger, or frustration.

I know I’m regularly guilty of all of the above. In recent years, I have experienced stuckness all over the place, and seem to have lost a basic sense of trust. Trust that things will generally work out, trust that certain people will come through for me. I don’t believe any of those things anymore.

And yet, if I allow myself the time to sit still, I can still sense the flow. I can still feel that my breath is a wave. That air flows in, and it also flows out. There is a natural exchange in that flow of energy. And it’s beautiful. I’m trying to trust in that.

A couple of weeks ago, we said a final goodbye to my father-in-law as we spread his ashes in the Niagara River. We gathered in a park by the water, and my husband and his brother took turns emptying the contents of his urn into the river. The sky was a slate grey above us as we watched the proceedings in silence.

His ashes were an interesting tan colour, lighter than the dirt around us, and as the waves gently washed in, they mixed in with my father-in-law’s remains and carried them out to sea. Accepting them, diluting them, spreading them. My father-in-law is now one with the river.

On that day, I looked out at the horizon beyond the water, and then turned back to look at the pretty autumn leaves all around us, and felt that my father-in-law was at peace. He’d always loved Niagara-on-the Lake, and had visited this place regularly during the last few years of his life. I could feel his approval of our choice for his place of rest.

The next day, as we were heading out of town, we decided to stop by the falls. It somehow seemed wrong to leave the area without taking a look at what has always made it famous. As we stepped out of the car into a sunny day, with a clear blue sky, we noticed a big rainbow over the falls. One of the biggest and clearest rainbows I have ever seen.

As legend has it, the rainbow is a Biblical sign of God’s promise, that He will never flood the earth again. But it’s also a sign of hope. Of beauty. Of impending good fortune. On that day, it also felt incredibly fragile, like we could lose it at any moment. So, we all grabbed for our cameras and took plenty of shots, trying to capture the moment forever. Holding on. Blocking flow, as we humans tend to do. Knowing that this moment may not last.

And then, as we slowly walked back to the car under the shadow of the trees, the wind suddenly picked up and showered us with red and gold leaves. They fell all around us, dropping lightly, and swirling, like feathers to the ground. It seemed to me in that moment that the trees weren’t losing their leaves, they were giving them to us as a gift. It wasn’t loss. It was reciprocity. Unlike us, they weren’t trying to hold on. They were giving back to the earth. The natural give and take of life.

In that moment, I could really feel the flow of the universe. The flow of the water that carried away my father-in-law’s ashes, the sudden appearance of a rainbow above the mist the falls, the shower of leaves as they cascaded over our heads – it was all movement. Nothing was stagnant here, except perhaps myself.

The universe was showing me how to inhale and exhale. It was showing me how to trust in the flow. It was reminding me that, even though we may lose things, we can still gain them too. The world will go on – if we let it. We just have to keep breathing, keep moving, and keep watching for that rainbow in the sky.