By Agapi Stassinopoulos Author of Unbinding the Heart: A Dose of Greek Wisdom, Generosity, and Unconditional Love
My mother used to say, “You can’t be unhappy and grateful at the same time.” Over the years, I have found how right she was, in matters of the heart.
Often, we think of love as a big emotional experience and we put conditions on it. We think, if X, Y, and Z happens, I can experience love. We think of it as something outside ourselves that we suddenly arrive at one day. But actually that is not so.
I think of love like the air we are breathing. It’s always there, even if we don’t notice it. However, when our minds, emotions, pre-occupations, “shoulds,” worries and doubts take over, they can profoundly interfere with experiencing the simple state of loving.
How do we access it? We need triggers so we can remind ourselves that love is always there. How do we know it in our hearts as a breathing, living, knowing, practical grounded state of our daily existence? How do we know it when we feel challenged, when we’re running to our jobs and our kids are throwing temper tantrums, and we’re late for the train and we can’t find our keys?
How do we find that love in the hustle and bustle of life? When we feel criticized and rejected? When we are judging ourselves and our circumstances? When we don’t get what we want? When our colleague gets promoted for a job we wanted? When we ask for a raise and we don’t get it? When the bills are mounting and we don’t know how to pay them? Where is love then, and most importantly, how do we find it? How do we get back to our hearts? And why does it matter?
Here is the quickest fix for getting into your heart: Being grateful. I believe that true gratitude can shift even the most negative emotions. As my mother used to say, we cannot occupy two conflicting states of emotion at the same time. If you are unhappy, challenged and feeling stuck, here is the key to shift: gratitude. “Change the channel to what you want to experience,” another one of my mother’s favorite sayings.
Think about something you are grateful for. If the kids are screaming and they don’t want to put their jackets on, maybe take a deep breath and pause, feel grateful that you have kids who have jackets and that you have enough money to get on the train and even the fact that there is a train. If you’re upset that your colleague is getting a raise and promotion, can you take a moment to be really, really grateful that you still have a job?
I was recently watching the Oprah Lifeclass, where a mother talked about the call she got 11 years ago, when she learned her three daughters were in a terrible car accident. One daughter was told she’d never walk again. The other two daughters were in critical condition. They all survived to tell the story. The daughter who was told she couldn’t walk now walks and is pregnant. When Oprah asked the daughters what they learned from this tragedy, they all replied, “Never take anything for granted.”
Life can change in an instant. I have never forgotten a quote I read in a Time magazine interview with Christopher Reeve, where he spoke about watching people do everyday things, like unbutton a jacket, pick up a fork, tie their shoes or walk up steps. He said, “If they only knew how lucky they are.”
He said this as he lay there with doctors and nurses trying to help him move his limbs, hooked up to all kinds of medical machines, including a ventilator. I wonder, why is it that we have to wait for something so tragic to happen to be grateful for the miracle of our lives?
I had an experience the other morning that brought this point home. As I was getting out of bed, I was overwhelmed by the day’s schedule, which was packed because I’m in the middle of my book tour for Unbinding the Heart. As I started to worry about how I would do it all, something inside said, “Get back to bed and start your day by being grateful.” So I spent a half hour going over all the things I am grateful for, starting with the miracle of my body, my family and friends, and the opportunity to do something I really love. It’s remarkable how, as I got out of bed, I had so much energy, joy and kept moving from one thing to the other without feeling overwhelmed. Riding the wave of gratitude can definitely keep your spirits high.
Gratitude leads to great-fullness, and this feeling of fullness is the entryway to our hearts when they are closed and shut off. Once we are in our hearts, we find solutions to the problems that once seemed overwhelming. Once you start on the road of gratitude, there is no limit, because there are so many things we take for granted and so many things we can be grateful for. Being in a state of gratitude can move you into a state of power and presence. From a state of gratitude, we can ask for help, and people are moved to help us. A state of gratitude puts us in a state of worthiness. In a state of worthiness, we know that we are not alone.
Here is the five-step, quick fix to get you back to your heart:
- Suspend all judgments of what is going on.
- Change the channel to being grateful for every little thing.
- Continue to be grateful and appreciative for things that are right in your life.
- Observe how with gratitude things can shift for you.
- Express your gratitude in words and actions to those around you.