Most neuroscientists agree that the left-hand side of our brain is used to interpret the world. It does this through language, categorising and patterns. It is probably through this process that our fictional self is born. The left-brain groups things by some common feature and then treats it as one unit, such as our thoughts, emotions and bodies, which it puts together and labels it ‘self.’
Our right-hand side of the brain doesn’t see things in parts, like the left-brain does, it sees things as a whole and processes the world as a continuum. It doesn’t use language or patterns like the left-hand side, it is more intuitive. It is focused on the present moment and doesn’t split things into past and future, like the left-brain. During deep meditation or deep sleep, we move from our thinking mind into the non-thinking right-hand side. Remember this side sees things as a whole and this is possibly what the ancient masters meant by ‘oneness.’
A neuroscientist had a stroke and for a while lost the use of the whole of her left-hand brain. During this time, she felt enormous gratitude. This shows us that gratitude seems to be inherent and is also a feature of the right-hand brain.
Why I am mentioning this is because I feel gratitude is more about experiencing the sensations and less about thinking. It is more about being thankful for reality and less about acceptance of it.
A few years back I did a guided meditation called ‘Experiencing Gratitude’ and at the time many people thought it was strange I was asking them to experience it, as they had been so used to expressing it. But I felt that more can be gained by non-verbally feeling gratitude and not merely thinking about it. Neuroscience these days seems to back up that claim.
In modern mindfulness practices we are encouraged to think of three things we are grateful for and that is obviously a good thing, especially if we are stressed or anxious. But once we have brought them to mind, I believe we should feel the sensations in our body and the warmth in our hearts, without judgement, labelling or categorising. In fact, without thinking at all, just feel. Of course, this is not an easy task, but beneficial things never are.
The best way to achieve this is for you to think of something you are grateful for. It may be a person, a place, your health, your life – it really doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, bring it to the forefront of your mind and sit with that thought for a moment. Now, stop thinking about whatever you are grateful for and start fully experiencing the gratitude. Ask yourself these questions, ‘How does this gratitude make you feel?’ and ‘What body sensations are tied up with this gratitude?’ Just sit with your experience of gratitude for a moment. Let yourself be engulfed by your feelings and body sensations. Truly experience what gratitude feels like. I believe this is how we should be working with gratitude.
The more you do this type of practice, the more you will be able to experience gratitude and not just think about it. Give it a try by visiting Buddhism Guide meditations page and listen to the Experiencing Gratitude guided meditation.