I woke up on the very edge of the world this morning. We arrived after dark, so I did not realise until I opened the shutters and saw that the little house we have rented clings defiantly to a mountainside, from where the land falls away to a sparkling blue lake, far below. This is Minde, a small Portuguese town high in the mountains of the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.
One of the most coveted items on my bucket list has always been a visit to the annual Feira Nacional do Cavalo in Golegà, in central Portugal. A couple of months ago, I developed a condition that put the limited sight I have left in my one good eye at risk. I decided that I wanted to go to Golegà while I could still see. Since then, the danger has been averted or has at least been postponed, but we had already booked our trip. So here we are in Minde, less than 20 minutes’ drive from Golegà, the Portuguese “Capital of the Horse.”
Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, Golegà
It is still too early for breakfast, so I have time to write a few words. I originally started writing as a daily exercise in mindfulness. Initially, I wrote morning pages, but I needed a bit of motivation to do so daily, so I started a gratitude diary. Little did I realise how much happier this simple (and often very short) exercise would make me.
Whenever I now start to work with a client, this is the very first exercise we do. I have found this exercise of enormous use with every client I have worked with. It continues to enrich my life in ways I never expected when I started. It has evolved over time, nearly beyond recognition. It is no longer just a question of listing 10 things I am grateful for every morning and evening, as is recommended in most self-help books about gratitude.
It has become a full mindfulness meditation, often only lasting 5 minutes. Sometimes longer, it all depends on what I have to cope with at the time.
Nearly every self-respecting self-help author I know has written about the benefits of making time in our busy schedules to feel grateful for our many blessings. Even in difficult times. There exists an abundance of literature on the subject so I won’t go into detail about it here. In summary, being grateful attracts more to be grateful about. The more you have to be grateful about, the happier you are. It’s no secret that mindfully being aware of what you have to be grateful for promotes health and healing. Being grateful causes biochemical changes in your body that increase your energy levels, enhance your immune system, balance your hormones and reduce stress. I have found this to be true in my own life, it is one of the most powerful stress management strategies I know. I can not recommend it highly enough, even if you just start by listing 10 things you are grateful for every morning, without writing anything down.
Writing down what you are grateful for does make the exercise substantially more powerful. Some days are so challenging that I can barely manage to list 10 things in my diary, but most days I manage to write a paragraph or two as a mindfulness meditation. It moves my focus from what is troubling me to what makes me happy.
Turning a simple gratitude list into an exercise in writing mindfully is easy. I will explain what I do during my morning (and evening) mindfulness practice below. I don’t do it every morning and every evening, life sometimes gets in the way. Occasionally I have skipped a few days. Soon I feel off-kilter, I start catastrophising and life generally becomes unbearable. So back to my gratitude diary I go, now the tangible proof of what I have survived over the last few years and proof of how much better I cope when I stick to this practice.
This is what I do:
First, I use my 5 senses to anchor myself in the moment.
What do I see? Four black cats in strategic positions on the bed, fast asleep on top of the duvet, making it impossible for me to move without causing serious discontent.
What do I hear? The horses calling to each other: “Is it time for breakfast yet? No? Bass, could you give us a shout when she appears? Service here leaves a lot to be desired…”
What do I smell? Freshly brewed coffee, the aroma of pure bliss.
What do I taste? As above.
What do I feel? Wide awake, no doubt due to my excessive caffeine consumption.
My new hat, my 4th cup of Portuguese coffee yesterday and my sunglasses. “There is a place where friendships start with a great cup of coffee.”
Next, I do some “square breathing.” I breathe in, to the count of 8, hold my breath for 8 counts, breathe out for 8 counts and then wait for 8 counts before I breathe in again. This very effective breathing exercise calms my body as it calms my mind, allowing me to concentrate fully on the task at hand.
I usually start the exercise by making a quick list: I dot down 10 things that I am grateful for this morning/evening:
Portuguese coffee. The thoughtfulness of our Portuguese hostess, supplying us with coffee making facilities. The book I read till way past midnight last night. A warm comfortable bed in a warm, comfortable room. The extensive Portuguese breakfast I have to look forward to, flavoured by tales of local folklore and accompanied by more (absolutely excellent) coffee. Yesterday at Golegà, my dream of attending this exceptional event finally coming true. My mobile phone, allowing me to stay in contact with my friends and family (and adopted family, you know who you are.) Our much-appreciated friend who is looking after the cats and horses at home – I really must buy her some of this remarkable coffee. Today at Golegà, the opportunity to see the presentation of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre this evening at 22h. Sharing this experience with my husband, who agrees that the coffee here is outstanding.
Adding a Paragraph
I then choose one item and I write a couple of paragraphs about why it makes me feel grateful. The easiest way to do this is to write a little story about it. Everyone loves stories, it is a great way to keep a diary. I often write about a friendship that I am especially thankful for. I usually start like this: ” I am so grateful to have a friend like X. He/she makes my life much easier. Just the other day, he/she helped me by…” More often than not, I am inspired to do something later to show my appreciation, thus putting gratefulness into action, further enhancing its power. I might buy a small gift: some dark chocolate, liquorice or shortbread biscuits. Or I might just send a quick email or text a short message.
Coping with Difficulties
If you have difficulty finding something to be thankful for, try focusing on the present moment. What are you grateful about right now? As you have probably gathered, I love the aroma and taste of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, so if I can not think of anything else, this is the first thing that goes on my list. In the evening I have a cup of soup, mushroom, courgette, tomato and seasonally, power pumpkin. One of my dearest friends makes this soup, so the soup and her generosity go on the list. On my list, the things that I can still see often feature prominently. The horses meditating in the morning mist. Autumn colours. The buttons on the espresso machine.
Why don’t you give it a try? Writing about gratitude as an exercise in mindfulness meditation might change your life too. It might make you happier too.
I am going to get up now. Golegà awaits and in any case, I need another cup of coffee.
Golegà, a great place to make new friends.