Caring for Someone With a Serious Mental Illness

While a lot of joking goes on in our community (and our society in general) about mental illness, actually having a serious mental illness is no laughing matter. On the contrary, it is a form of suffering that those of us lucky enough never to experience it cannot begin to imagine…and I’ll bet we would not make scornful jokes about it if we did.

If you are someone who looks after an adult family member with a serious mental illness (SMI), or are close to someone who does, you know how complicated and stressful that, too, can be. It can also feel incredibly lonely, in part because the demands of caregiving can be so consuming. And since an individual with SMI may not able to participate successfully in social situations, family members and other caregivers can find themselves socially isolated by —and with—the limitations created by the illness. Parents may irrationally blame themselves for the illness itself, and/or fear both the judgement and well-meaning advice of others—judgement and advice which unfortunately may be exactly what they receive, and which may just add pressure (“however much you are doing, you should do something more”) and/or shame to the game. As a result, many people are reluctant to talk openly about their situation.635983291937039786-276024670_Mental-Illness

The fact is, family members and others who are responsible for adults with a serious mental illness face intense, persistent, and often insoluble challenges in providing appropriate support for the person with the disorder, and the wear and tear over a lifetime can be substantial.

As with other chronic illnesses, SMI which begins in childhood affects the course of a child’s development in other areas (physical, social, and emotional), resulting in limitations and/or eccentricities in the way they function as adults. The illness can also put severe strain on the family system, since families often become organized around the needs and behaviors of the mentally ill child. These needs and demands may persistently require more of the family’s resources (of time, attention, money and energy), which can leave other children feeling neglected, with effects on the family system that persist over time. In addition, outside childcare can be hard to find, since coping with the behaviors and needs of a mentally-ill child takes more skill, wisdom and patience than the average neighborhood babysitter is likely to have! As a result parents may find themselves with no time away from caregiving to replenish their personal energy and refresh their own relationship. Adult siblings may feel torn between the needs of their own partners and children, and the needs of the sibling that requires ongoing care.

Single parents coping with adult children with SMI have their own unique challenges, especially as they themselves age, since they are often facing both a present with no-one to share the load, and an uncertain future with respect to their own potential care needs.

When it is the parent himself or herself who is the one with SMI, that person’s child may become (by necessity) exceptionally resourceful and “tuned in” to the needs of others, but at the cost of being able to feel safe and at ease in the world, since she may have needed, from early on, to not only make sure her own needs for safety and security were met, but also those of the adults in her family. As an adult, this child may find herself continuing to be responsible for the welfare of a parent who becomes increasingly less able to cope.

For some adults with SMI, the combination of medication and other treatments with family and community supports are stabilizing enough that the person with the illness is able to function independently and well. For others, SMI (which includes, by the way, such conditions as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, some more severe forms of bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury, and dementia disorders) simply does not respond to medication or other kinds of available treatment. And for some, medication calms symptoms but comes with side effects that the person is unwilling to accept.

For these reasons, the circumstance of a severe mental illness in a family member is something that can most often only be managed, not “fixed”. And the list of associated strains is long: one website devoted to the topic listed 28 individual “major stressors” that family caregivers may experience…for a start.

Fortunately, there is help available for family members and other caregivers of adults with SMI. While behavioral counseling can be of use for individuals with severe forms of mental illness, counseling can often be most helpful in assisting family members in meeting their own caregiving and coping challenges, and in understanding that SMI is not their fault!

As with everything, there is a lots of good information available online. The American Psychological Association website ( includes a “Caregiver Briefcase Homepage,” along with other educational information and links to many other support resources.

One of the most important resources to be found there is The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) which has a chapter in Oregon. By its own description, NAMI is the largest education, support and advocacy organization on mental  health in the nation, its mission being “to improve the quality of life of persons with mental illness and their families through support, education and advocacy.” There are currently two NAMI “friends and family” groups active in the Columbia Gorge: one which meets the 1st Thursday of every month  from 6-7:30 pm at One Community Health Center (1040 Weber St.) in The Dalles, and one which meets in Hood River on the 4th Saturday of every month from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Hood River Public Library (502 State St). For more information about NAMI Oregon, call the NAMI Oregon support line at 800-343-6264.

And if you are someone you know is interested in starting a “friends and family”  NAMI group in South Wasco County (I’ve been thinking about this), email me at

Do you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in this column, or other comments? I’d be glad to hear from you! email me at the address above, or you can leave a voice message at 503-838-6144. For more information about my therapy practice, visit therapist directory webpage or

And if you are interested in my new creative arts website, you can find that at


“An American Sickness:” News We Can Use

I don’t know anyone who isn’t distressed these days about the state of our American healthcare system, and the uncertainties about its future. We may hold differing opinions about what needs to be done to solve skyrocketing healthcare costs and unequal access to services, but what we all share is the worry: worry that we or our loved ones might, at any moment, be faced with an urgent health care need we won’t have the resources to meet, or insurance that we will no longer be able to afford, or that proposed new legislation (this seems to change daily) will allow insurers to once again refuse to cover the conditions for which we most need coverage in the first place.

In fact, many if not most of us have some kind of horror story already: maybe about being surprised by a six-figure bill for an emergency surgery procedure for which our insurance denied coverage (or for which we were uninsured); maybe we have our own equivalent of the “$2000 Bandaid” story in which a patient’s insurer was charged $2000 for an emergency room application of a Bandaid to a cut finger (the patient’s portion for the Bandaid was $200).

And when I say “I don’t know anyone who isn’t distressed,” I include myself. Maybe, like me, a large part of your distress has been a result of the belief (for me until recently) that it is all too enormous and complicated a problem to understand. Which belief has left many of us feeling helpless, bewildered and frustrated, with no clear sense of how to take effective action. Leaving us, in short, both stressed and distressed.

As you may remember from my previous columns, “stress” itself is actually a normal part of living, and not actually a problem. In fact, we need stress to motivate us to solve problems (“stress” is the feeling that lets us know that there even is “a problem”!), and it is stress that triggers the body’s immune system to attack viruses and bacteria. But stress becomes distress in the absence of the information, means, or motivation to take the kind of action that allows us to respond effectively to the “signal” of stress…and it is persistent distress that hurts our health.

So recently, when some friends gave me a copy of An American Sickness (subtitle: “How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back”),  I was initially hesitant to even open the book, afraid (I admit) of simply feeling even more overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the healthcare mess than I already felt.

410kNvpsHYL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_But since the book had been a gift, I thought I owed our friends the courtesy of at least starting it, so that I could say I’d tried to read it…

So I did start reading… and soon found myself reading…and reading…and reading. I am so glad I did.

Written by Dr. Elizabeth Rosenthal, who is both an MD and a long-time New York Times journalist, An American Sickness is a fascinating explanation (which reads like an exceptionally detailed “whodunit” ) of how the American health care system –which is made up of hospitals, insurance companies, physicians and drug companies– has gone from where it started (as a caring, not-for-profit industry with patients’ best interests at heart) to where it is today (a highly profitable, basically unregulated industry pursuing maximum profits at patients’ expense). 

While the details contained in the book are not likely to put any reader at greater ease, still, knowledge is power. For me, just having so much clearer an understanding of where we are and how we got here has been an antidote to my distress, by providing the information necessary to take action (instead of just feeling “reaction”), as a patient and as a citizen.HCCH_HDR

The thing is, the American healthcare system is one big machine, with many interlocking and interdependent parts. And as any mechanic knows, understanding how the machine works is the first step in figuring out how to work on it. Happily, this book includes sections at the end with concrete tools for ways that we as individuals can do just that, whether that be at the level of political lobbying, or when signing agreements or questioning charges regarding personal health care…since (as Rosenthal points out), a lot of the overcharging that goes on, goes on because it remains unquestioned and undisputed, including by consumers.  


As described in the book jacket,

This is about what we can do, as individual patients,

both to navigate the maze that is American healthcare

and also to demand far-reaching reform.

But don’t take my word for it— give it a read! Widely available through library systems, your local, independent bookstore, and (if you must:) online.

“Getting to Know You…” (…the veterans among us, that is)

In my May, 2015 blog post I wrote specifically about the topic of post-traumatic stress and military veterans.

But PTS and other service-related injuries are not the only challenges that returning veterans face. For all service members, returning to American civilian life means reentering a society in which the norms, values and training of military culture itself (loyalty, respect, duty, “service before self,” honor, integrity, tradition, and personal courage) are at odds with the values of the society that our military exists to protect: a society which values individual (above group) goals and interests, competition over cooperation, relief from pain over endurance of pain, and personal expression over personal restraint.

As a result, service members returning to civilian life can feel a profound sense of alienation from the very culture they have dedicated their lives to defending and protecting.

060522-F-3109T-1258 U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Ammon’s children run to him as he arrives in South Burlington, Vt., on May 22, 2006. Ammon is returning after deploying to Iraq. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Rob Trubia, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

For many veterans, the resulting “culture shock” of coming home brings with feelings of disorientation, loneliness and anger, for reasons that civilians may have no way to understand. Add post-traumatic stress to the picture and you’re looking at a world of lonely pain. As one veteran described it to me, “So when some guy cuts me off in traffic, and it sets off HUGE road rage, part if it might be my PTS that’s getting triggered, sure, but part of what gets triggered is moral rage! It’s like, ‘That guy just made his personal desire to get ahead more important than me and everyone else on the road…and that is just so wrong!’”

So what can we civilians do to more genuinely welcome, honor and better understand the veterans among us? Thanking them for their service is an important gesture, to be sure. But we owe them much more: we owe them our active engagement in the ongoing challenges of “coming home.” That might mean learning about and connecting vets and active service members with the kinds of resources available to help them retrain for civilian life, to connect with other vets, and to heal the wounds of war. But it also means actively educating ourselves on military culture and experience.

How? Like with everything these days, there’s lots of information available online at the click of a cursor. But the best way to make that education personal and meaningful is to ask a veteran or service member you know to teach you something about the military experience, from the point of view of their own. While many veterans are reluctant to respond to idle curiosity (and sometimes tactless questions) about their experiences, the same ones may be glad to talk about it with a truly interested, open civilian listener.Co-Counselling_(CCI)_counsellor_on_the_left_SS

And by letting the veteran or service member take and keep control of the conversation, we are likely to receive answers to much better questions than we could ever think of to ask anyway. (For some great examples of how not to start that conversation, check out the YouTube video  “Shit Civilians Say to Veterans” (

As for resources available for vets with transition challenges and service-related injuries: an increasing number of governmental and private, non-profit organizations offer a range of healing and support services for combat veterans and their families, many of them at low or no cost. In each Oregon county, the Veteran’s Support Office (V.S.O.) for that county (V.S.O.s are county government services independent of the V.A.) helps veterans with everything from navigating the VA to connecting with the growing number of education, health, recreation, counseling, financial and other support services available in our local area. For post 9/11-deployed war zone veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington, the “Returning Veterans Project” (“RVP”) based in Portland provides free (yes, FREE!) counseling and other health services. Similarly, “Give An Hour,” a national non-profit organization, offers free, confidential mental health services to any veteran, active-duty service member, and/or family member who requests services through their organization. In the case of both Give an Hour and RVP, services are donated by licensed professionals with practices in the community (I volunteer with both organizations). For more information and to request services through either organization, visit or

There is also a growing number of “veterans-helping-veterans” organizations, both national and local. In Wasco County, the just-established “Outside the Wire” project (which has its own space now in The Dalles Civic Center) is creating opportunities for veterans to come together for creative activity and fun. The project’s band, Got Your Six,  plays at the Oregon Veterans’ Home in The Dalles each 2nd and 4th Thursday of the IMG_0625month at 6:00, and the public is welcome. And in Maupin, the annual Poker Run benefit for veterans (June 10 this year; see the notice in the Chamber of Commerce column) is a great way for veterans to enjoy some food and fun together, while raising money for programs which directly support their health and well-being.

If you are a civilian friend or family member of a veteran reading this, consider making a deliberate effort to invite a conversation— not just to satisfy your curiosity, but with the intent of being educated beyond the comfort zone of your preconceptions.

If you are a veteran, I ask for your patience: we civilians may need you to help us to even identify what we need to know, beyond the maybe-thoughtless questions we ask. Thank you for that patience…and truly, for your service. 



It’s National Poetry Month…

“We have poetry 

so we do not die of history”2017npm-poster_0

(from the poem, Question Time by Meena Alexander)

& so, two poems for the season in lieu of prose,  both from my new-collection-in-progress, probably entitled The Listening.

(& since I can’t figure out how to format the poems to preserve the line and stanza breaks, click the links below to access them as PDFs:) 

This Winter’s Cold

Spring’s Turned

Good Vibrations: Healing and the Biofield

img_0933Installing the “Canyon Wren Wellness Center” sign at my new building in Maupin a few weeks ago, the reference to “Reiki” on the sign reminded me that the topic of biofield healing (of which Reiki is one modality) would be a good topic for this blog, since these gentle, powerful, and age-old methods of mind-body healing are at the forefront of the “new big things” in western medicine today.

In fact, the term, “biofield healing” is a fairly recent one, having been coined in  1992 (at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Health) to refer to those healing methods that work directly with the fields of information, energy and other vital forces that surround and permeate all living beings. Some frequencies of this field are
measurable: for instance, electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram machines (on which western cardiology and neurology depend) measreal-human-aura-kirilianure biofield frequencies of the heart and brain. And Kirlian photography can register and display –in color–  visual images of the layers and pulses of that electromagnetic field surrounding the body of living beings known as the “aura”.

But while  biofield healing practices have been used for millennia in various cultural communities for the purpose of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing, they have only recently begun to be seriously studied by Western science.

As western medical science does more research on these modalities (which include both self-healing practices such as yoga, Tai Chi,embracing_tai_chi meditation, prayer and Qigong, and “laying on of hands”-type guided energy practices used to heal others, such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch and internal Qigong), a rapidly-growing number of studies have found solid evidence of a wide range of psychological, behavioral and physical benefits associated with these approaches and methods. And since these generally come with no known risks or negative side-effects, and do not interfere with other forms of treatment (in fact, they generally help to increase the positive effects and minimize the damage of medications, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy), what’s not to like?

Which is exactly what I thought three years ago when my husband was facing cancer surgery. Talking about it to Dr. Mary Zega, my friend and chiropractor in The Dalles, I said that I wished there was something I could do to help ease his experience and support his recovery.

“You should learn Reiki!” said Mary, explaining that Reiki treatment can be a great help in accelerating recovery from medical procedures, and in decreasing pain and anxiety, among other benefits. In fact, I learned that Mary herself was a Reiki Master, and incorporates Reiki into her chiropractic work (which explained why her treatments always seem to do much more good for my general well-being than can be accounted for by simply realigning my spine!)

“Where do I sign up?” I asked.

Mary put me in touch with master teacher Jacquie Hashizume in The  Dalles. While Jacquie didn’t have classes scheduled in the near future, she said, she kindly offered to train and attune me individually at the basic level, given the circumstances I described.

To make a much longer story very short, the Reiki treatments I was able to subsequently give my husband during and after his surgery helped him so much (by his own report, not mine) to recover quickly and completely, with minimal need for pain medication, that he eventually became trained and attuned himself (since a wonderful thing about Reiki is that you can give it to yourself as well as others).

For my part, in the months and years that followed, I pursued more advanced Reiki training and attunement levels, with the objective in particular of becoming able to train and attune others in our community interested in having this gentle, powerful healing tool available to help friends, family members, and (in the case of our local doc and medical clinic manager, Sharon DeHart), patients who would like to incorporate Reiki into their medical care. I was also interested in incorporating Reiki energy work to support the effectiveness of traditional psychotherapy. Since it is possible to do so without the need for hands-on treatment, this is how I most often use it in my work (I do give hands-on Reiki treatments when people come for that, just not when I am practicing under my psychotherapy license). 

What is Reiki?

The word “Reiki” itself is a combination of two Japanese kanji (word symbols)reiki-symbol-1“Rei” means “universal source” or “highest spirit”  and “Ki” is an individual’s “life force” or “vital energy.”  Reiki can therefore be described as “spiritually-guided life-force healing” Therefore, while Reiki itself is not a religious practice (religious and non-religious people alike practice it, the same as other kinds of medicine), conservative Christians and members of other faith traditions who are concerned about the “spirit” part may be reassured to know that the term in Japanese means, in effect, “Holy Spirit-guided healing.” In that way, Reiki can be considered to be a  “technology” for practicing the healing touch demonstrated and encouraged by Jesus (John, 14:12).

The technique was discovered and developed in Japan in the late 1900s by  Mikao Usui, and was brought to the U.S. in the 1940s by a Japanese M.D. and a Japanese-American woman who developed a school for practitioners in Hawaii. It has developed and flourished in the U.S. and worldwide ever since, and is now one of the most respected and accepted-as-effective biofield healing modalities in current use. 

The practice itself is a holistic method of stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing, and is administered through a series of hand positions on or above the body. reikiIt brings about deep relaxation, dissolves energy blockages, detoxifies the system, accelerates cell regeneration, reduces inflammation, and supports and increases the body’s general vitality. At the psychological/emotional level, it can relieve depression, anxiety, and even heal the long-term ravages of trauma on the nervous system.

While Reiki practitioners do not diagnose (nor do they need to, as Reiki energy itself knows where to go), a skilled practitioner is able to “read” the body in such a way as to know where to place his or her hands to do the most good. And since it is also a quality of Reiki energy to only go where it is welcome, no-one ever receives any healing they are not ready for or do not want.

A Reiki treatment itself often feels like a warm, relaxing radiance that flows through and around the person receiving it. Reiki treats the whole person including body, emotions, mind, and spirit.

However, it is recommended that if someone receiving Reiki has a serious medical or psychological condition, they also consult a licensed physician or other licensed health or mental health care professional, since Reiki works well in conjunction with all medical or psychological care. For this reason, Reiki and other biofield healing methods are considered “complementary medicine” practices, since they both work on their own and also support the effectiveness of other medical, emotional and spiritual care of all kinds.

Getting Back to the Biofield:

While I have focused in this blog on Reiki in particular because it is the modality with which I am the most personally familiar, the field of biofield therapy includes many powerful and effective modalities (internal qigong, Therapeutic Touch, Healing Touch, “toning” and other methods using sound, and Sufi healing practices are just a few of these) for inviting the loving, benevolent field of higher intelligence that is Consciousness itself to vibrate more fully with our individual fields of vitality, with healing results.

And since I have really just barely scratched the surface of what biofield science and biofield therapies are about, those interested in learning more might check out the article on Biofield Science and Healing in the Huffington Post, and/or this podcast interview with Dr. Shamini Jain of the Consciousness Healing Initiative.

Then do yourself a favor and choose one of these methods (your own intuition/attraction is probably your best guide to which one), find a practitioner, and…receive. Your biofield will thank you for it.

How to Love


But just this morning I noticed spears of some daffodils bravely poking through snow, and Valentine’s Day cards have replaced winter holiday cards in the Maupin Market.

Everyone has stories about the cold and snow, and I imagine we are all ready to see it end…but I’ve also noticed how many of the stories I hear about the winter weather are also somehow stories about the power and action of love.

The other day, for instance, a friend told me about traveling to attend the wedding of her brother and his boyfriend in a distant city. She was in the Portland Airport, she said, when she learned that the wedding celebrant, who was coming from a distance also, was stuck in an airport mid-way because of a weather-related flight cancellation, and would not be able to make it in time to conduct the ceremony. My friend, a celebrant herself, quickly volunteered to stand in, “But I was in a panic—the wedding was the next day, and I was completely unprepared!” So she ducked into an airport bookshop to look for something which might inspire some words for the occasion, and saw a copy of How to Love by Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. 51dsb9jvlll-_sy344_bo1204203200_The little book, with its short, clear readings on the nature and practice of love, was just the ticket, she said, “and by the time I arrived, I had my wedding homily!”

Along with the many blessings of that story for me, the book title itself (which suggests that love is something you do, as distinct from something you feel) has inspired me to reflect on the question of how we know love when we see and experience it, and on how we can protect it and help it grow in ourselves.

Defining “Love”

While Valentine’s Day is the day on which we celebrate the sentiments and feelings of love, the great spiritual teachers from all traditions and ages have taught us that love is not really an  emotion, but a practice, and can be recognized not by what we say, but by what we do: by the attitudes we choose and the behaviors we commit ourselves to daily. We may feel emotional about our love, that is, but the emotions are not the love.

In the Christian New Testament, the apostle Paul, in his “First Letter to the Corinthians” (13:4) emphasizes this point in describing what the presence of love looks like when it is speaking through our behaviors and attitudes (as distinct from our emotions):

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful  or arrogant or rude; It does not insist on its own way;  it is not irritable or resentful  […]

Similarly, Buddhist teachings on love emphasize the “elements of love,” which Thich Nhat Hanh names as “lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

So because it illustrates these qualities and descriptions for me, here’s another story: In December, in Portland, my friend S. found herself —along with thousands of others— desperately trying to get home from work at 5:00 p.m. just as the city streets had turned to a grid of ice. Getting into her car, she saw an elderly and very frail-looking homeless man shivering in the parking lot. She was tired, and cold, and she really, really wanted to get home to her children and husband (who had been texting her worriedly to say that the conditions were only getting worse). But as exhausted as she was, she could not ignore his plight, so she took the time to walk him (very slowly and for many blocks in the snow and ice) to a shelter facility, then stayed until she was sure that he was admitted, before finally making her own (and now more difficult) way home.

That’s a Christmas story if I’ve ever heard one, and the connection between love and weather made me think of a comparison: it could be said that the difference between the emotion of love and the practice of love is like the difference between “weather” and “climate”. The emotions of love, like weather, are intense and volatile…and bound to change. cyclone_catarina_from_the_iss_on_march_26_2004Weather, as powerful as it is in the moment, comes and goes with conditions and with the seasons. But the practices of love create and maintain a “climate” in which the behaviors that nurture and care for all living things is the priority, no matter what is going on in the emotional “weather” of life…and no matter whether the enjoyable feelings of love are present or not.

In my friend’s case, it was not sentimental love that got her out of her car; sentimental love doesn’t have that kind of power. Only a commitment to something deeper does.

Nourishing Love


So how do we cultivate the qualities of love in ourselves? Thich Nhat Hanh points out that paying attention to what we choose to consume through our eyes, ears, and minds as well as our mouths is essential, because everything we take in becomes us. “We are what we eat,” as the saying goes…and every day we “eat” much more than edible food. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

When we read a magazine, we consume. When we watch a television program, we consume. Whatever we consume affects our body and mind.

They Live

Want to become more loving? Look at what you are consuming, and what it feeds in you. Are you consuming television and radio programs, video games and print media that feed your anger, hate, judgement and fear? Our culture and its political climate and airwaves seem especially saturated with these these days, and many of us expose ourselves to a constant stream of toxins by leaving televisions, radios, and/or social media feeds running all day. But the very real, direct, and lasting effect of consuming anger, hate, judgement and fear (no matter what the politics involved) are that we strengthen those qualities in ourselves— it is that simple, powerful, and toxic to the growth of love.

The antidote? Begin by making a vow (reg85df8811c2ee6181b28f485b72595769ularly renewed), or adopting a prayer of willingness and intention to think and act in ways that feed and reflect the qualities and elements of love. “The Prayer of St. Francis”  is a personal favorite, as are the “Reiki Ideals” which Reiki Practitioners are advised to recite morning and evening . c016dc3241db6c8d48c59628f12d5245
But there are many, many examples and resources available once we consciously decide to take charge of our intake and of our intentions: to stop simply eating (and so becoming) whatever we’re fed, and to seek out, eat and be energized (including energized into action) by that which feeds real love.

An Attitude of Gratitude

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy.” 

As I was cleaning up after our Thanksgiving celebration this year, I recalled these words of Catholic monk and scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, speaking about the importance of making a daily practice of gratitude.img_0745

And thinking about that, I felt a wave of gratitude for the fact that our Federal holidays in this country include a holiday dedicated solely to the act of giving thanks.

This thought in turn got me wondering about when the ancient tradition of giving thanks for the harvest (which both the native peoples and newly-arriving immigrants shared in common in 1621 when the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in this country) became a Federal holiday in the U.S.

So I looked it up…and it turns out that President Lincoln established the holiday in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.

That was interesting: the fact that a holiday focused on gratitude was established in the middle of one of our nation’s most divisive periods of domestic conflict— a period of deep domestic conflict and division that many people believe we are experiencing in this country today.

A Google search took me to the writings of psychology professor and researcher Dr. Robert A. Emmons, who has been called “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude” (who knew there was one of those?). In his essay,   “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times” Emmons, too, notes that “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.”

So what might be the connection? Emmons suggests that “When times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that they are invulnerable. In times of uncertainty, though [when] you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.”

He goes on to make what I think is an extremely important point: that gratitude is not so much a feeling as it is a choice we have about our attitude and perspective toward our feelings and circumstances. This is different from the “you should be grateful (instead of feeling what you are feeling)” way of thinking about gratitude, which is a message many of us may remember being shamed by as children, and (admit it:) may have shamed our own kids and ourselves with, in turn. For some of us (including, for many years, me) the effect can be an actual resistance to gratitude, because of the felt- association of gratitude with invalidation of feelings of loss or distress.

In contrast, consciously choosing to face life’s challenges and losses with an “attitude of gratitude,” as Alcoholics Anonymous members remind each other, allows us to really take in and be supported by the ever-present abundance of all that also is life-giving, even as we cope with what is difficult…but without having to feel bad for having these feelings. It’s not about trying to replace “feelings” with “attitude;” rather, it’s about also being alert to and aware of what is supporting us as we cope with painful feelings or circumstances, and attentive to how those difficulties themselves might be a means also of growth and healing .

“Gratitude” by Teal Swan

According to Emmons again, “consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether to minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”

Finally, the “practice of gratitude” is not only about looking for what we have received: if these are hard to find, in the midst of a trying time of life, try being aware of and grateful for all the “bad things” that aren’t happening to you, moment to moment, and of giving thanks for these! This is what I’ve come to think of as “no toothache” gratitude practice (from a teaching I heard once by Thich Nhat Han): noticing and appreciating the pain you are not suffering at the moment: a toothache, for instance. 

There’s an Islamic teaching tale I love about this kind of gratitude: in the story, a Mullah (religious scholar) has a donkey, which is his most beloved and essential helper, companion, and source of livelihood all in one. When the donkey simply disappears one riding_a_donkey_suez_egypt_7836169758day, the entire village searches far and wide, but to no avail. Yet that evening the villagers are surprised to find the Mullah on his knees in the town square, raising his hands towards Heaven and loudly thanking God.

“Mullah,” they ask, do you not understand that your donkey is lost forever?”

“Indeed!” replies the Mullah. “But I have so much to be grateful for. Imagine how much worse off I would be if I had been on the donkey!”

(Next post: some ways to actually make a practice and habit of gratitude)