By Cathy Holt
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens
with a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.
“…to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”
~Johannes A. Gaertner
What if gratitude were the key to an open heart? What if the heart’s intelligence helped us move beyond the mind’s illusion of separation? How would our communications change if we connected with our own heart and another person’s heart before speaking? Research from the Institute of HeartMath has provided scientific support for these concepts.
IHM’s extensive research found that the heart’s rhythms entrain all other body systems. When we are frustrated or angry, the heart’s erratic rhythms have negative effects, such as suppressing our immune system. But when we enter a state of gratitude and appreciation, the heart’s smooth, coherent patterns enhance our immune response, problem solving and intuition, and balance our nervous systems.
The heart, much more than a pump, is also an endocrine gland that secretes hormones affecting how we learn, remember, and explore. Over 60% of the heart’s cells are neural cells, like in the brain, and many more signals go from heart to brain than the other way. The heart is an organ of perception and communication and the most powerful electromagnetic generator and receiver in the body, with a magnetic field that’s 5,000 times more powerful than that of the brain!
Other systems automatically entrain to the heart: the respiratory, digestive, immune, and nervous systems. When we feel frustrated, our heart rhythms become disordered, sending an incoherent message throughout our body and nervous system. But when we are in a calm state of gratitude, everything works harmoniously—a state known as coherence. In this state, stress hormones decrease, and we think more clearly.
We can use our heart’s intelligence to make better choices. When a judgment pops up, along with the turbulent emotions that generates, we can learn to turn instead to our inner guidance system.
Three Steps to Coherence:
1) When you are out of sync, begin by acknowledging your present feelings, whatever they are: frustration, anxiety, overload, anger …
2) Bring your awareness to your heart, and begin slow, rhythmic breathing in and out of your heart center.
3) Recall vividly something you are grateful for—such as your dog or cat, your grandchild, a beautiful scene in nature; breathe a feeling of gratitude and appreciation into your heart. Continue your slow, regular breathing while enjoying the feeling of gratitude.
One of my favorite memories is the little boy I cared for after school and our daily goodbye ritual: when I left the house, he climbed out the window, ran after me, and gave me a big, giggly hug!
Any time we shift from anger or frustration to gratitude, appreciation, and caring, we help our bodies tremendously Just five minutes of anger suppresses our immune system for over six hours, while five minutes of sincere appreciation enhances the system for a similar time period.
IHM uses a simple biofeedback device to monitor heart rate variability, thus allowing people to learn the “quick coherence® technique” easily, and increase time spent in heart coherence through practice.
Many Teachers of Gratitude
Angeles Arrien, a cross-cultural anthropologist with whom I was fortunate to study for a year, teaches powerful spiritual practices from many indigenous traditions. She suggests a daily practice of gratitude. “Giving gratitude every day keeps the heart open,” says Angeles. “When the heart is open, a capacity for generosity emerges. It’s in our deepest DNA to contribute, help, and serve others.
World-wide traditions offer four doorways, or portals, for giving gratitude:
• Gratitude for our blessings
• Gratitude for what we have learned: Where have I grown? What inspired, challenged, touched, or moved me today?
• Gratitude for the mercies we extend to others or others extend to us
• Gratitude for protection or safety for ourselves and loved ones.”
Martin Seligman, renowned researcher on the psychology of happiness, has a similar formula for chasing away the blues: At the end of each day, review and write about what went well in your life, and notice what you can do to help that process.
Research shows that a ratio of five appreciations to each complaint or criticism is essential for the health of relationships. Gratitude strengthens our immune systems, creativity, and productivity. (The Psychology of Gratitude by Michael Emmons and Michael McCullough)
Gratitude for Teachers
I am extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and mentors I have had. My biofeedback professor, Dr. Erik Peper (yep, Dr. Peper!) was a brilliant and empowering teacher; he has served as president of the Biofeedback Society of Europe, and the American Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. When I looked doubtful, he grinned and said, “It will be FUN!” Reframing my challenge, such as grading student papers, turned into a joy or a gift. The power of gratitude again! Imagine a classroom of 80 students meeting in small groups to discuss their daily practices of relaxation and imagery and later the results of their own self-healing plans. Erik’s students experienced remarkable recoveries from long-standing migraines, chronic pain, digestive disorders, and more.
Communicating for Peace
Another amazing teacher I was fortunate to learn from was Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Through humor, puppets and role playing, Rosenberg demonstrates the power of expressing feelings and needs instead of criticizing or attacking. He calls it creating the quality of connection in which everyone’s needs can be met. We learn to connect empathically by guessing the other person’s feelings and needs and to make requests instead of demands. How can we express gratitude in the most meaningful way? Rosenberg suggests that rather than telling someone “You’re great!” or “You did a terrific job,” we share how we feel, and which of our needs was met. That way, we share more useful information that the recipient truly comprehends.
How would our world change, if children learned this way of communicating while still young?
Rita Marie Johnson: Synthesizing Coherence and Connection
Costa Rica is the only country without a military and that offers a peace curriculum in grade schools. In January, I studied at the University for Peace with Rita Marie Johnson, initiator of the BePeace school program. This American woman received a calling to work for peace at age ten; she went on to study at the Institute of HeartMath and with Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC. Rita Marie recognized that when we are triggered emotionally, we do not communicate well. This has been my chief stumbling block in the practice of nonviolent communication. Her teaching: coherence and connection can help us resolve many relationship problems. Before we attempt to speak, we go to heart coherence to access our hearts’ wisdom and calm when we are triggered. Using the language of feelings and needs allows us to connect at the heart, empathically. She also teaches the importance of accessing our hearts’ insights for problem solving. Please see www.rasurinternational.org for more about BePeace.
The principal of Oakley Elementary School in Texas, after incorporating the BePeace program, wrote: “We started with a hope, but we ended with a sense of awe and gratitude. Teachers and students of all age levels learned how to reduce barriers and gain insight … the awe factor was to watch the students begin to own the tools and use them in their own lives.”
In September, I had the privilege of assisting Rita Marie in facilitating a BePeace Foundations Course in Florida.
HeartSpeak: Listening and Speaking from the Heart
Gratitude can be defined as the recognition that one has received a gift, and the desire to acknowledge the kindness. At this point in life, my biggest goal is sharing the gifts and learnings that I have received. Teaching always helps me learn at a deeper level. After several years of teaching communication skills to adults, I began, last fall, a weekly elective of HeartSpeak for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Francine Delany New School for Children. The students made their own sets of Feelings and Needs cards that they used for checking in with a buddy and for practicing empathy. They relished acting out a feeling for their classmates guess to guess. We identified war words (like should and have to) and peace words. Finally, they created a skit, for the rest of the school, demonstrating the power of compassionately guessing feelings and needs when a classmate is feeling badly.
At the start of each class, we spent a few moments in heart coherence, appreciating a favorite pet, person or place. I invited them to practice heart coherence before tests and during challenging moments with parents, teachers, or peers. To my delight, students ran up to me outside of class saying, “Cathy, I did my heart coherence today!”
I am grateful for the opportunity to teach in any school because my dream is that someday, all schools will teach these life-enhancing skills to their students. Recently I had the honor of training teachers at Azalea Mountain School and Rainbow Community School.
Mediating a young couple having trouble, I taught them the heart coherence practice and helped them identify their feelings and unmet needs, and to guess those of their partner. The result was a dramatic increase in the couple’s ability to see each other’s humanness. Also, a great deal of tension and anger dissolved so that love flowed again.
Upcoming: There will be a free “Empathy Circles” evening at EarthFare (Westgate) on Friday, November 15, from 7-9 p.m. After an introduction to empathy, everyone will have a chance to share the joy and comfort of giving and receiving this beautiful form of caring. Come and get a taste of HeartSpeak! Please see www.heartspeakpeace.com for more classes and offerings.
To you, dear reader, I feel pleased and grateful that you read this article, because it helps me meet my need to be seen.
Cathy Holt has a Master’s in Public Health education; she is trained as a biofeedback therapist and teacher of communication skills and “BePeace.” She offers HeartSpeak classes for adults and children, BePeace practice groups, individual coaching, and mediations, as well as biofeedback and imagery for healing. Free initial consultations. Website: www.heartspeakpeace.com. Her varied careers includ respiratory therapist, community organizer (Brown Lung Association), community college health instructor, stress management teacher, biofeedback therapist, teacher of “Preparation for Surgery,” author of The Circle of Healing, volunteer coordinator for the Kindness Campaign, and Senior Services Director with Asheville’s Housing Authority. She has also done environmental volunteer work in Peru. To contact Cathy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-545-9681.