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Gratitude Triggers

November beckons us to be thankful. Giving thanks for what pleases us is easy. Tasty food, crisp fall weather, congenial company: these are the kinds of blessings we like to count. But what about the other stuff? How do we appreciate mixed blessings, complicated things, or those that trigger our irritation?

In grade school we learned that the first Thanksgiving in America happened when settlers, aided by people who’d lived on this land for generations, managed to bring in a harvest to see them through the winter. In gratitude for food and friendship, they gathered together. We colored pictures of them wearing funny hats and feathers, with a turkey lurking somewhere and a table laden with dishes, most of which looked like pies. The holiday seemed uncomplicated.

But eventually schoolchildren find out what happened to the Native Americans once the settlers learned to survive on their own and more of them came wanting land. And as adults, even though we might prefer not to, we can’t help noticing that things don’t turn out too well for the turkey either. When we see the bigger picture, Thanksgiving takes on more complex undertones, reminding us that blessings can depend on one’s perspective.

Competing perspectives gathered together create rich situations, and nuanced perspectives may be why Thanksgiving is perennially well represented in films. When family and friends congregate, comedy and drama follow; intertwined personal histories and expectations generate plot points galore. Gather attractive actors and witty writers and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

Unless it doesn’t. Because real life isn’t so much like the movies, and there’s nothing like history and expectation to push our buttons and create awkward situations that can make us want to flee. Or stick around so we can try to fix other people, like the uncle who holds forth on politics we can’t stand, or the sister who won’t discipline her children. While it’s easy enough to be grateful for the food on the table, especially if it was prepared by good cooks, it’s harder to be thankful for the chronic complainer, or the chaos of competing conversations, or the person who manages always to be elsewhere when it’s time to clean up.

When situations, or people, trigger our reactivity, our first reaction is not usually gratitude. We have to work to learn to appreciate the things that irritate us. But it’s work that pays off. Focusing on getting rid of the things that bother us is like trying to cover the earth with leather because the ground hurts our feet. Learning to stay present instead of jumping to react, allowing the space to make a conscious choice, is like covering the soles of our feet with leather instead.

Mindful leadership involves putting on those metaphorical shoes. Not ruby slippers that transport us elsewhere, but shoes that help us keep our feet on the ground, even when it’s rocky. Then, with our minds clear, and our hearts open, we can see what the situation needs.

Our attention invites insight, so that when we’re caught up in the heat of the moment and burning to do something – maybe something we already know we’ll regret later – we notice we’re on fire. Then the instructions for what to do if we’re ever literally on fire apply figuratively: we can stop, drop, and roll. And we’re the only ones who’ll even know we’re doing it.

When we find ourselves triggered, instead of firing back at the object of our irritation, we can stop and take a purposeful pause. That cuts reactivity’s momentum and we can drop into the present: feeling our bodies, perhaps noticing our breath, and becoming aware that we have a choice about how to inhabit this moment in time and space. The whole process may take only seconds; it leads to our asking ourselves “What’s called for now?” Then we roll. And hopefully roll with it.

Thus, the things that trigger us can launch us right back into the space of mindful leadership. Instead of reacting, we can respond with whatever will bring benefit. And that’s something to be grateful for.

By Carol Hyman, Instructor, Institute for Mindful Leadership