It’s that time of year when we are encouraged to “count our blessings.” To remember all the things in our life for which we are grateful. It can be a powerful practice. Part of the positive effect has to do with the way our brains have evolved. Rick Hanson describes it beautifully in his book Buddha’s Brain. He terms it the “negativity bias.”
Negative trumps positive
In light of evolution, there are two mistakes we could make:
1) Thinking there is a tiger in the bushes when there isn’t one.
2) Thinking there is no tiger in the bushes when there is one.
We evolved to make the first mistake a hundred times in order to avoid making the second mistake even once.
Although positive experiences are more common, it’s the negative experiences that have more impact. Because it was the negative experiences that generally had the most impact on survival. Threats usually determined mortality, while rewards did not. If you failed to get a reward, you would likely have a chance at a reward tomorrow. If you failed to avoid a threat, there may be no tomorrow.
Because of this, the brain preferentially scans for, registers, recalls, and reacts to negative experiences much more powerfully than positive ones. The brain is like Velcro® for the negative and Teflon™ for the positive.
Knowing that negative experiences are perceived more quickly, stored more easily, and have more impact, we can make a conscious effort to increase the impact of our positive experiences, rather than letting them slip by.
And that is what the active practice of gratitude can do for us. It gives us the opportunity, right down to the micro-circuitry of our brain, to gradually shift the emotional tone of our interior landscape towards the positive.1
Initially we practice being grateful for the blessings in our lives – all the good stuff. But as we move further along on our evolutionary path, just being grateful for the “positive” things in our lives is not enough.
As we evolve, we learn to become grateful not just for the good things in our lives, but also for our challenges, our struggles, our suffering. We actually become thankful for the pain.
The great yoga teacher Krishnamacharya was known for saying, “Thank God for dukha (pain). It is the unavoidable motive for practice.”
At this point, if you haven’t completely dismissed this post, you’re probably wondering why in the world a person would be grateful for pain. Stay with me.
The soul’s guidance
Everything in our lives is happening for a reason. For us. The soul will often create a positive experience to encourage us to continue moving in the right direction. And the soul will often create a negative experience to course correct when we are moving in the wrong direction. It’s like the parent who raises her voice and shouts “no!” when her child is walking toward the street. It startles the child just enough to cause them to stop and turn around.
If, by chance, that doesn’t work and the child continues walking toward the street, the mother will run, grab the child by the arm, and yank them back. Perhaps even physically hurting the child in the process, to prevent them from being hit by a car.
The soul speaks to us in a similar way. At first, subtle messages to help us get back on track. If we don’t listen, the messages will continue to get louder and eventually, painful.
In this way, we can see that painful experiences serve a great purpose. There is nothing like the sting of pain to push us in the right direction. Pain is a great motivator. And it is often the most painful times in our lives that we finally do the work necessary for our growth. So, why not be thankful for them?
The bigger experience
But let’s go further. Because there were a lot of events in my life (and probably yours too) that were quite painful, but not necessarily about course correction. How could abuse at age 6 be about course correction? What could I have been doing wrong? And at that age I didn’t have the cognitive ability to take negative, painful experiences and use them for growth. Only as an adult, who has done the necessary work of healing, can I see the purpose of those experiences.
Why did my soul choose to be abused? What purpose did those experiences serve?
First, they shaped me into the person I am today. They showed me what I am capable of. This is the reality of all survivors of abuse. We survived.
That doesn’t mean that abuse does not affect us. The impact of abuse can linger for a lifetime if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to heal. And it is in the process of healing that we reveal what we are truly capable of.
My experiences resulted in a great deal of anger. Anger became my go-to emotion. With each occurrence, the anger would grow. I saw the world through angry eyes – an unfair place full of people with bad intentions. A place where I had to defend and protect myself. I built a fortress around my heart that was impenetrable. It served me at the time, but later became one of the biggest obstacles I would have to overcome. As I began to heal I had to allow that fortress to crumble. I had to allow myself to be vulnerable. I had to face the immense fear of what might happen if I let someone in. Stepping into that proved to me what I am truly capable of. As the walls of protection began to collapse, I opened myself to a new world view. One that embraced beauty, grace, and divinity. The anger began to melt away and I opened myself to love.
Second, these experiences gave me the ability to relate to and empathize with other survivors of abuse. Even when I didn’t have the explicit memories. Throughout my life I have encountered people who were also abused. And unexplainably I was able to offer them understanding, empathy, and guidance. I am sure it is also part of what guided me as I worked with Kim through her process of healing. A part of me understood. A part of me knew, at least to some degree, what she had been through.
This blog, the book that will follow, and all the work I am doing to help others heal from trauma is part of my purpose. I could not do it had I not been through it myself. I always tell my students, “You cannot lead someone somewhere you have never been.” I had to go through it and heal myself in order to be able to help others do the same.
And finally, these experiences are part of the bigger purpose. Which is to experience our selves as who and what we really are. And we cannot experience anything in absence of its opposite. I can only experience what I am in the presence of what I am not. What is the experience of hot if cold does not exist? What is the experience of up if there is no down?
This is the purpose of a world based in duality. A system where we can exist as a thing only in relation to something else.
Experiencing self as love
These “negative” events in my past allowed me to experience fear, disappointment, sadness, desperation, anger, hatred, and ultimately, hopelessness. None of these states are who and what I really am. Because I know I am love. But in order to experience myself as love, I have to experience “not love.” Abuse (and the events surrounding the abuse) gave me that opportunity.
Through the process of healing I have been able to experience myself as forgiveness, understanding, and compassion. And now, as I consciously choose to be thankful, to love and honor those that came in to play the roles of the villains, to be grateful for each and every experience, I am able to experience myself as love.
And that experience is beyond what words can describe.
When I can see it this way, the gratitude for what happened to me is immense. What a perfect plan my soul laid out for me. Understanding is the key. Look at your pain. Look at the negative experiences in your life. What is the purpose? And when you find that, you will find gratitude.
And not only will the energy of gratitude change the presentation of the events themselves, it will transform your entire life.
Have you ever wished you could break the chains of fear and step fully into love? Shanon and Kim share their journey of healing from trauma, abuse, and programming through acceptance and love. Do you want to step out of fear? Subscribe and follow their journey.