This Thanksgiving, finding space for feeling grateful is of the season, but it also brings tremendous health benefits. When you actively cultivate gratitude and take time for self-care practices, you can open yourself up to true healing. Practicing gratitude, meditation and mind-body exercises such as yoga and Tai Chi are the some of the most powerful tools we have for unleashing our infinite healing capacity and achieving optimal health. This is true regardless of where we are currently on the wellness spectrum. When we take the time to practice mind-body exercises regularly, we can promote healing on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and psycho-spiritual.
Feeling Grateful, Mind-Body Medicine and its Impacts on Health
The feeling of gratitude and self-care practices like meditation reduce stress and allow us to expand our heart, increasing our innate love and compassion for ourselves and others. This love and compassion expressed by our heart is actually our greatest healer–something I’ve experienced consistently in my personal meditation practice and in decades of clinical work treating complex conditions.
Researchers have studied this complex relationship between mind and body, proving what spiritual experts have shared for millennia. For example, studies show that thoughts and feelings of gratitude generate significant health benefits, including lowered stress hormones.1
Regular meditation reduces inflammation, improves immunity and strengthens areas of the brain related to empathy and emotional processing, among other benefits.2
On the other hand, studies show that feelings of pessimism and negativity fuel inflammation, harm DNA, speed up the aging process and increase the risks of chronic diseases.3
Innately, we know these findings to be true. How do you feel physically when you experience negative emotions, compared to feelings of gratitude, love and compassion? The differences are obvious. Nevertheless, most of us are habituated to cycles of anxiety and negative thought patterns, dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Especially these days.
One meditation metaphor describes the mind as “a blind rider on a wild horse.” We have no control over what thought will take over, driving us into unknown territory.
The journey into mind-body healing begins by allowing us to take a step back and observe our thought patterns, so that we’re no longer a “blind rider.” These ancient practices offer us tools which can tame the wild horse, our stress-driven mental activity.
Finding Gratitude and Meditation When Stressed
When life is overwhelming or we feel stressed with added pressures of the holiday season, it can be easy to be negative and not see positivity around you. Feeling grateful is more than being positive. It’s about being honest, authentic, and finding the joy in the little things around us, despite the chaos. If you are feeling extra stressed this holiday season, finding time to yourself is key to hone in on your feelings, emotions, and find peace in meditation or a walk to recenter and balance yourself.
Meditation is a truly unique activity, because it allows us to shift from doing, to simply being. It cultivates a state of deep relaxation. If we can relax into a space where we don’t identify with our thoughts and emotions, then we can let them go on their way, like passing clouds. With practice, the space between thoughts becomes wider, calmer, and clearer. Within this spaciousness, a deeper, more authentic state of consciousness can arise and expand, expressed as genuine love, compassion, and greater clarity of awareness. Meditation has a naturally calming effect on mental chatter. Like a pond after a rock is thrown in, the ripples fade over time, leaving a reflective surface.
With regular practice, you will find that the space between your thoughts becomes wider and clearer—more expansive. Within this relaxed openness, your healing capacity will naturally arise and expand, as well as greater love, compassion, and a sense of connection with others. Regular practice can greatly increase these benefits.
Gratitude this Holiday Season
Besides finding space and peace within ourselves and our thoughts, making space to feel grateful is important for our whole family. When we overflow our cups with unconditional love, gratitude and compassion for all beings, we effortlessly offer this healing energy to ourselves and everyone around us. Writing down three things you are grateful for each day can be a daily spiritual practice that helps you review your life from a grateful heart, while helping your mind, body, and spirit heal on every level.
Healing Meditation for All Levels of Experience
There are thousands of styles of meditation, but one of the most profound also happens to be one of the simplest. This is the ancient Buddhist practice of Shamatha meditation, which means “calm abiding” in Sanskrit. Shamatha is intended to help access the mind’s natural state of tranquility and clarity. In Shamatha, we focus our gaze, breath and concentration on a specific object—such as a small stone—letting thoughts arise and dissipate, and gently turning our attention back to the breath and the rock.
Find a quiet place either indoors or outdoors where you will not be disturbed. Let family members (and pets!) know to give you this time of peace. Use a cushion that is comfortable for your body to sit cross-legged, or you can use a chair. Place the small stone (or other object) a few feet in front of you. Keep your spine straight and your chin slightly tucked in. Sense your contact with the chair or pillow and the connection of your feet on the ground. Take a few deep breaths and then just focus on your breath as it moves in and out naturally. Focus your eyes and attention on the stone in front of you.
As you breathe, breathe in from the stone and out to the stone in a continuous circle, relaxing and allowing any tension to dissipate away with your exhalation. Very simple, and yet you will see how easily you get lost in a thought. It’s OK – be gentle with yourself as you maintain the perspective of the observer. When you notice you’ve lost concentration, gently bring your attention back to your breath and the cycle of breathing to and from the stone. Developing this “muscle” of focus using your eyes and breathing, helps your mind and your whole being relax.
Resting in this tranquil, quiet space, we make room for our true inner nature of openness, love, peace and clarity to arise and expand. The layers of obstructions, in the form of attachments, hopes and fears, slowly peel away, and our inner light becomes brighter and clearer. This is where healing can take a quantum leap. But it does take practice, so be gentle with yourself.
This holiday season, regardless of how we celebrate, one thing we can all do is practice cultivating gratitude and thanks, both to ourselves and others. When we open our hearts and extend love, compassion, and gratitude, research shows we can experience a wealth of health benefits on all levels—physical, mental, and emotional. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy, healthy and vibrant Thanksgiving and Winter Holidays!
Lilian Jans-Beken, Nele Jacobs, Mayke Janssens, et al.Gratitude and health: An updated review.The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2020; 15:6, 743-782.
Pascoe, Michaela & Thompson, David & Ski, Chantal. Meditation and Endocrine Health and Wellbeing. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2020;31.
Scheier MF, Swanson JD, Barlow MA, et al. Optimism versus pessimism as predictors of physical health: A comprehensive reanalysis of dispositional optimism research. Am Psychol. 2021 Apr;76(3):529-548.