Gratitude opens untold blessings in our lives. The cultivation of gratitude requires constant discipline in an era often surrounded by a mentality of lack, of ever needing more material goods to believe we can be happy, or when we blame others for not meeting our expectations to make our lives better.
A technique that UTMB students and faculty practice as part of the Physician Healer Track comes from Naikan, a book, by Gregg Krech. You might recall my description that the aim of the healer track is to preserve empathy in physicians in training.
A week after my empathy piece, Time magazine ran a feature article on physician burnout, depression, and suicide. It described a program called The Healer’s Art that is being offered at Stanford University to residents to deter these negative spirals into dysfunction. This long-standing program, developed by holistic physician Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen offers reflection, insight, healing, and opportunities for including gratitude in medical education. It offers many similar skills and practices as does the healer track.
Naikan training is one tool that people of any age or profession can use to create greater awareness and cultivation of gratitude. Japanese businessman, Ishin Yoshimoto, developed it to encourage a reality-based examination of life. Naikan practice helps develop a natural, profound sense of gratitude for blessings bestowed by others, perhaps blessings that were always there but went unnoticed and unappreciated.
This simple practice asks three questions. You write down the answers in your journal on a regular basis:
1. What have I received from the people in my life?
2. What have I given to them?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused them?
Doing this you immediately realize how much all of us are supported by those around us, by unseen benefactors, all of whom have helped bring our food to the table, water and electricity to our homes, woven our clothing, kept our homes and homeland safe, and emotionally nurtured us from infancy to this day.
The list in answer to the “received” question quickly exceeds the list in the “given” list for most of us. For most of us, this is a profound lesson in humility, in connectedness, compassion, and gratitude. It brings appreciation for all the blessings in our lives and helps ground us in the here and now.
The “troubles and difficulties” question increases our sensitivity to how our inadvertent or unmindful words and actions can be harmful and hurtful. Taking for granted someone who provides a service, say a bag checker, cashier, or janitor may be just a matter of habit. Taking a few moments to thank them specifically for what they bring to your life gives a good feeling to them and to you both. How I act and feel when I drive, behave myself with a waiter, deal with a difficult co-worker or family member can be shelved in the “given” category or less optimally, the “troubles and difficulties.”
This kind of regular inventory can help us be more mindful, grateful, less selfish, and bring positive energy rather than negativity and chaos to our world.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.