Easy Gratitude Exercise

As we enter this week of Thanksgiving, I thought it would be helpful to share with you an easy gratitude exercise.

So easy you can practice it anywhere and anytime.

I learned it while reading Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World which is a great resource book for anyone looking to take back their life from stress and fear.

So as an early Thanksgiving gift, I offer you the

Ten Finger Gratitude Exercise.

easy gratitude exercise

When you are in a time of stress or worried thinking, simply look at your ten fingers. If their existence is not miracle enough to snap you out of your worry loop (I mean come on, opposable thumbs, how cool is that!?!) proceed to use them in counting off things you are thankful for.

For me the first three are easy, family, friends, health or something of the like. The next few come pretty quickly too. Having a house, a safe community in which to live, clean water, and free education.

But by the time I get to eight, nine and ten, I find I have to really think about it. What am I thankful for? What is good in my life?

At this point I start re-wiring my brain to focus on what I am grateful for instead of what I am worried about, which is really the whole point.

Pretty soon things get re-framed. Instead of complaining about the cold, I am grateful the hard freezes have killed the weeds I am allergic to which made the pollen count go down. Now I can enjoy walks outside again, even if said walks require a heavy coat.

So when you encounter times of stress and worry this week, just turn to your ten fingers and focus on the good things in your life.

Hopefully then you’ll remember those stains in your carpet or your fallen cake aren’t such a big deal anymore. Even Uncle Joe getting tipsy and ranting about politics isn’t the end of the world. He’s getting pretty old anyway and one day you might miss his curmudgeonly ways.

Remember friends, take a breath and focus on the good things, the big ones and the small ones. But most of all:

Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

The interconnection of it all: how one thing always affects another

The past few months have been a study on the wonder and intricacy of the human body for me. As a former pre-med biology major, I have been geeking out a bit at physical therapy and doctors appointments learning more and more about my amazing (but painful) body and how it operates. It has been a frustrating yet fascinating journey to figure out what is actually wrong (or diseased) in my body.

Though I first felt the pain in my neck, I soon realized that the place you feel the pain is not necessarily the place that has the disease. 

For instance, when the doctors were first examining my neck they kept asking me if I had tingling and numbness in my hands (nope). It turns out the most obvious signs of cervical disc damage are not just felt in the neck but in the arms and even fingers.

Likewise as I kept telling people about my migraines they would always ask me where I felt the pain the most (just over my left eye). I had always assumed that the pain over my eye meant the headaches were sinus related. But in truth the source of the headaches has been a spasm in the muscle where my left shoulder meets my neck. There is a nerve that runs from that muscle up to the place above my eye which is why I feel the discomfort there. It is called referred pain. I always thought it strange that my sinus headaches caused a knot in my left shoulder. Who knew I had it backwards?

My latest revelation is that the source of my neck and shoulder pain has been my TMJ all along (well that and anxiety). And the TMJ is caused by… wait for it … poorly aligned teeth.  Yes, it is my stress inducing bite that is making my neck and shoulders so out of whack. I never dreamed three months ago that all the problems in my muscles were caused by the angle of my front teeth. But there are muscles and nerves and ligaments whose names I don’t know and had never imagined that connect these separate but interrelated body parts.

The body is an amazing organism indeed.

After I got over the shock of learning I would need braces, I began to meditate on the interconnectedness of it all. It really shouldn’t surprise me that my teeth could affect my neck. After all, one of my favorite Scriptures passage is 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul talks about how all the parts of the body are dependent on one another for their overall health.

And as you might imagine, this is true for more than our physical body as well.

In my husband’s mental health work, he sees a good deal of families. The first person to come in is almost always one of the children. The parents are upset because the child is acting out or having problems in school. But about two sessions in he usually realizes the root problem does not lie with the child, the child is merely the one expressing the pain. Maybe the parents are fighting or the family is in a particularly stressful time. Because a family is an interconnected system the disease affects everyone within it, especially someone as vulnerable as a child. To truly help the child, he usually end up treating the whole family. When the parents marriage improves, so does the kid’s grades.

One thing affects another. For we are much more connected than we could ever imagine. 

Though it scares me to think that this interconnection is true on a global scale as well, I know that it must be true. And not just in a “if a butterfly in Madagascar beats its wings” sort of way.

What scares me most is that I know my life affects and is affected by the child in Africa that will die later today because he contracted a preventable disease from dirty drinking water.

And that my life affects and is affected by girls in Afghanistan who are not allowed to get a proper education.

We look at the world and see all of its problems, but what if the root of the problem is not in Africa or Afghanistan? What if Africa and Afghanistan are just the members of our global body expressing the most pain?

Where is the root of the disease? And dear God, what if the root disease has something to do with me?

Does it matter if I get a new sweater for Christmas instead of donating money to Living Water?

To be honest, my eyes have probably been so blinded for so long I can’t even fathom the ways that my first world lifestyle impacts a teenager in Indonesia, but I know it does. And moreover that teenager in Indonesia’s life affects me. Until they are truly well neither will I be.

We are bound together by ligaments and nerves whose names I know not nor ever dreamed of.

But somehow, somewhere they are there. Tying us all together into one big body.

If you like me worry about how the body of our world is suffering from all manner of illness and war, will you join me in prayers for clarity? To understand where the disease truly lies? For until we can make the crooked places straight, there will always be pain.

Dear God, bring us healing. And not just for us, but for all.

For when you are so tired of striving

Do you and God have any little short hand messages? 

Something you see in the world that is an instant reminder of God’s love and grace in your life?

For some people its rainbows or feathers or a pretty sunrise.

For me it is hawks.

I know you are asking how a bird of prey reminds me of grace. Let me explain.


We live in an area where there are a multitude of hawks. I see them perched on neighbors rooftops and  swooping down in the field near our highway hunting rats and snakes (Go Hawks!). But the most common sight I see is them soaring up in the sky.

See that is the thing about hawks. They don’t go around flapping their feathers all the time like other birds. Not like the jays in my backyard that are always beating their wings and defending their territory. Or even the hummingbirds that flap at blindingly fast speeds as they drink our sugar water.

No hawks fly different. They just make a few big beats of their ample wings and then they are up in the wind currents that blow over our land. They get up in that stream of air and then they stretch their wings out full and far and SOAR.

So quietly, so peacefully, almost effortlessly.

photo credit Richard Graves http://rgravesphotography.blogspot.com/


They have learned to fly by riding the wind instead of working and striving through their own efforts.

And that is exactly how Hawks speak to me of grace.


They remind me to stop flapping my wings all the time and just ride the current God is blowing in my life.


They remind me to stop all my striving and soar.


But of course this is harder than it sounds. Because in order to do this, you have to trust that the wind will hold you. You have to trust that your wings are big enough and sturdy enough to catch the current. You have to believe if you stop flapping your wings you won’t automatically plummet to the ground.

So I am grateful for the abundance of hawks in my life, just like the abundance of grace. I watch them every day. Big hawks, little hawks. Young hawks, old hawks. Even hawks with feathers missing from their wings. They all fly beautifully. For it is more about the wind current than the bird. The bird just has to learn to drop into the wind.

So today, I wish for you the grace to stop flapping and striving and to rest into the current of grace God is blowing your way.

Isaiah 40:31

But those that wait on the LORD shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.


Conquering Our Fear of Death

Conquering Our Fear of Death

One of our greatest fears is the fear of death.

Scholars from Freud to Thich Nhat Hahn actually propose that our fear of death is the root of all our fear. Whether we fear our own death or the death of people we love, this primordial fear can be a powerful force.

Just ask any person who has ever suffered a panic attack.  When your heart races crazily, you feel like you cannot for the life of you breathe, and those familiar life ending fears rage in, you become like a wild eyed animal willing to do anything to save your life on this earth.

I will not claim that death will ever be a subject that does not engender some fear or sadness on our part.

But I do know that fear of death does not have to have such great hold over us.

Thich Hnat Hnah in his book No Death, No Fear talks about how death is not so much an ending, but a transformation of life. If we can trust in the continued presence of ourselves and our loved ones in the universe, the physical loss of them in this earthly life loses some of its sting.

Similarly, the Christian faith upholds the belief that death does not have the final say. Through Christ, Love conquered death. Therefore our future is one of resurrection and a heavenly afterlife. None of us cease to be, we just pass into another and better realm.

And this other realm is not even one that is entirely separate from the one we inhabit on earth. Most of us who have lost loved ones have had those moments when we feel the veil is lifted. We may mysteriously sense our loved one’s presence with us or connect with them in a dream. At the very least, we can sense reverberations of their spirit among us and their love remaining in our hearts.

Tonight, All Hallow’s or All Saint’s Eve, is actually a night when we remember death, the constancy of souls, and the transparency of the veil.

Ancient cultures celebrated October 31 as a night when the departed souls came back to their earthly homes to visit their loved ones. Other cultures marked this day with remembrance of and praying for the dead.

Our contemporary Halloween has evolved from this a bit, but vestiges of the old traditions remain. At worst, people get a little spooked out that ghosts and gouls are out and about in the world that night.

But at its best, Halloween puts fear in its proper place.

I’ll never forget the night several years ago when during our church’s All Hallow’s Eve service (yes, we are Episcopalian so we have a service for everything), the priest asked the kids why we celebrate Halloween.

One of the boys gave an answer I’ll never forget:

We celebrate Halloween so we can laugh at fear.

This is so spot on. We can dress up in our scariest costumes and run around laughing because we know that death has no hold over us. There is a power much greater than this force that we can trust in and hold onto in our darkest days.

Because of this knowledge, we are free to laugh at fear in all its faces.

For our ultimate place in this universe now and in eternity is resting in the arms of Love.

What that looks like will change and transform over time, but it will always, always be true.

So whatever your tradition is for All Hallows Eve, may you have the grace tonight to laugh at fear. And know that today and in all your days Love is reigning over you. Winning you over death and darkness and difficulty.

And that is good news indeed.



Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and Depression

For many people who suffer from anxiety, depression can be an added struggle (two mental illnesses for the price of one!!)

I know that when my anxiety flares high I often have a bit of depression as well. This is one reason that SSRI drugs like Zoloft can be so helpful.  Not only do they treat the anxiety at its root, but they ease the depression as well.

I am not exactly sure why depression and anxiety go together so frequently. Apparently this is even more true with panic, possibly because the drama and exhaustion that come with panic attacks leaves us so drained and discouraged.

For me I know that with great anxiety comes a loss of abundant life. High anxiety is just plain limiting in a way that makes you feel your life is slipping away from you.

This loss of abundant life and ability for me leads to grief. Grief for the life I had before anxiety hit, grief for the way I wish life could be.

In addition to the grief I think there is often self blame. We can feel like failures for struggling with anxiety disorders. We may blame ourselves for not being able to “just get it together.”

For me the combination of grief and self blame can lead to depression. Once I can get some traction and see some progress in healing, the depression often begins to lift.

Another big factor that seems to link anxiety and depression is that they both are fed by and perpetuate negative thinking. The negative thoughts that come with one disorder can play right into the other.

When I asked my therapist husband about the relationship of anxiety to depression, he suggested looking into learned helplessness research. My understanding of this theory is that after someone has suffered a negative outcome so many times (in this case anxiety), they begin to lose hope on things being any different. They just give up and relent to the unpleasantness of their circumstances with no thought of things being any different or better.  If you want to know more about this you can click here. Be warned though, in the experiment they detail the researchers doing not so nice things to dogs, so if you are like me, that might upset you.

The biggest thing to remember about the anxiety and depression combination is that they are both very treatable.

In fact as I mentioned before the same medication and also same  talk therapy interventions help both.

So whether your anxiety led to depression or visa versa, know that it can get better.

There is always always hope for better.

So hold onto hope. And may healing come to whatever struggles you deal with.