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?
About the Author: Rebecca Wong has a BA in English Literature from the University of Waterloo and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She studied at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine under respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le, and graduated from the East West School of Planetary Herbology under Michael Tierra. She received training as a yoga teacher at The Branches in Kitchener/Waterloo, and therapeutic yoga teacher training from the School for Somatic Soulwork under Deniz Aydoslu. She now teaches yoga for anxiety, depression and burnout at Rebecca's Restful Yoga Studio in Toronto.