06 May 2014

Walking Meditations and Practicing Gratitude

Pictures today come from our hike around Lake Cuicocha, which resides in a dormant caldera at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano
(By Danny)

My mind is still wrapped up in the thoughts and ideas I've had as a result of reading Thich Nhat Hanh's book "True Love" which I recently posted about here.  I love it for its simplicity and for its wisdom. I wish I was as skilled at saying so much in so little space as the Buddhist teacher Hanh is. Those who've heard me teach know that instead of possessing that rare gift, I have more of a gift of "long-windedness".   It's only because I'm so passionate about it :)

Hanh argues that the greatest gift that you can ever give to someone is to actually be present.

Being Present

Now, for those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought, this doesn't mean simply being there with another. It would mean being there, completely. In other words, it would require you to lay aside in your mind all the worries of the past or stresses of the day you may have just had. It also requires of you to lay aside all of your concerns, fears, or even hopes and expectations for tomorrow or the future. When you are with someone, you are not also on your phone emailing someone else, nor are you thinking about tonight's dinner or tomorrow's presentation, or yesterday's argument, and you aren't thinking about the TV show you DVR'd and would rather be watching at that moment. In short, it requires True Presence.  

Clearly this is not an easy thing to do, especially in today's world of social media and the thousand ways to connect with and communicate with a thousands of people almost simultaneously. All these things are distractions to being able to offer someone your actual Presence (or for that matter, to even offer it to yourself). I know I have a lot of work to do in this area.  
While walking on the ridge of one volcano, we had a beautiful view of the Imbabura Volcano across the valley

Tips on developing Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a couple of helpful tips on how to begin to develop more mindfulness (the term he uses for present-mindedness, which would indicate a state of being where there is union between the body and the mind). One of tips I wanted to practice was what Hanh calls walking meditations.

He says one should start by practicing bringing the mind and body in to union. This can be done through simple breathing exercises where a person focuses on the physical act of breathing while simultaneously bringing their mental activity to pay attention only to the breathing. You would do this by saying, while you are inhaling, "I'm aware that I am breathing in," and while exhaling "I'm aware that I am breathing out." This simple exercise is repeated as many times as needed in order to feel a sense of union. It is the beginning of mindfulness.

Once Mindful, Practice Gratitude

You then move on to being aware of and practicing love and gratitude for the things around you. While inhaling you'd say "I see/know that you are there." Exhaling you'd say "I thank you for being there." This can be directed at anything you choose. It can be different parts of your body, it can be the air that you are breathing, or the grass beneath your feet, the flowers or birds around you, your loved ones, your home....whatever you want.  

I believe deeply in the importance of practicing gratitude. The word needed to be bolded and underlined because gratitude does not always come easy, and you must practice and cultivate it.
Though I've had my own way of practicing gratitude over the years, I decided to apply Hanh's technique on a hike Mara and I took on Easter Sunday near the village of Cotachachi in northern Ecuador. The hike had us walking along the entire ring of a dormant volcano that now has a beautiful lake in the middle.

What I Did

First, as I walked I focused only on my breathing, and for 15-20 breaths I tried to only be aware that I was "breathing in" and "breathing out." I then shifted my attention to whatever else was around me and began expressing gratitude. 

Breathing in - "I am aware of the yellow flower." Breathing out - "I smile at and am thankful for the yellow flower that reminds me of happiness."  

Breathing in - "I am aware of my legs." Breathing out - "I smile at and am thankful for the legs that power me through this beautiful scenery."

Breathing in - "I know the rain is there that falls only on the right side of my body because of the gusts of wind." Breathing out - "I am grateful for the rain that cools my body and gives life to all that grows here on this volcano ridge."
To complete this hike, you follow a trail around the caldera ridge for just under 9 miles.  Difficult, but breathtaking!
Breathing in - "I am aware of the loving wife who hikes beside me." Breathing out - "I smile at and am grateful for this wonderful woman."

Just thinking about all those things right now and writing them out brings me back to the same joyful state I experienced when I was on the hike. Of course I could go on and on. I thanked the sun, my hiking boots, the fruit we ate, the insects, the young horse that followed us and called out to us as if it wanted to play, and just about anything else that came into my view. For a while I even walked with my arms outstretched just a little bit so that I could feel and touch and acknowledge things as I spoke the words in my mind. I did most of it silently, but it was enough fun that I told Mara what I was doing and started speaking it out loud, and had her add her own. 

And so we went, thanking and acknowledging everything around us. We tried our best to be fully present and no where else - not thinking about when the hike will end, or what we should be writing about (because we'd been traveling for a while with limited internet access and therefore no blogging), or anything else for that matter.

This little guy was acting more like a dog than a horse, he really wanted to play and followed us 

The Results

It was beautiful.  

Like I said above, just thinking about it and going back there in my mind for a moment helps me feel a stillness and peace and warmth. These are things that always come when I practice gratitude. Especially when I practice gratitude for things I may not want to have to deal with at that very moment. In fact that's exactly why it is important to learn how to do it...because those are the moments when it is most difficult and when you need it the most.  

Honestly, I don't think you need to do it in the way I've described. You don't need to follow these steps or any others that you may read. You may already have something that helps you enter into that "mindful" state, or you may find something that works better for you. How you decide to do it isn't really important. What is important is that you do it.  

Now You Try

So get started today. Find a time to do it on a walk, during your drive to work, while at lunch with colleagues or preparing meals for loved ones, or whatever else your day may consist of. And then write about it in the comment section and tell us how it went and how you felt. You never know, your words may be the ones that help another human being figure out what will work for them.  


  1. It's so interesting that you posted this today, because I received an LDS Living newsletter today with a short article about how meditation can help members of the church: http://ldsliving.com/story/75731-how-meditation-can-make-you-an-even-better-mormon

    Thank you so much for posting this! I found it very interesting and informative, and want to work on meditation more in my life. Yoga has been a great start for me!

    1. You might be interested in looking into Phil McLemore, as he is LDS and teaches meditation practices. He has a great interview on Mormon Stories Podcasts that i've listened to, he's also written some articles expounding on the subject, and recently started doing online guided meditations.

      There are of course plenty of other resources out there, but seeing as how you're LDS, sometimes it can be nice when you are trying to understand a spiritual concept when you find someone who speaks the same "language" that you do.

  2. Danny, thanks so much. Our oldest son is 16 and is driving us absolutely crazy. He's a good kid but I really am not sure we are going to survive the next two years, which doesn't bode well because we've got five more kids after him. I've been walking around all day today muttering to myself about his faults and all the ways he is ruining my life. This post makes me want to practice gratitude. I am grateful this son is in my life. I am stretching and growing because of him. We lost one of our children to death and I am so grateful for the ones I get to keep. I will do better. I will love him better and be present in the moments I have with him. Thank you.

    1. Suzie, I loved this. So inspiring. It's amazing to me how this whole thing can always be practiced, no matter the situation. It's life changing, really.

    2. Yes, thank you very much Suzie! I'd actually love to hear from you again after you try this for a little while in regards to your son. Perhaps you'll have an important breakthrough to share that can help someone else.

  3. I found this blog through the piece on A Cup of Jo, but have since been checking it daily. I have a feeling it's going to help me grow as a human being...

    1. Sheena - YAY. So, so happy to welcome you to the blog. I'm glad you feel that way about our blog. That's what we're going for - - lots of growth and happiness for all of us!! It's so possible!

  4. Love this!!! Always look forward to reading a post from you and Mara!

  5. This reminds me a lot of when I talked to you about Man's Search for Meaning (happened at the DC RS Retreat). You said because you had been reading it every year, when you got into a difficult situation with your wife, you were ready to respond the way you wanted to. That's related to this post, right?--the practicing part, so you're ready for when struggles come. I think since we had that retreat, I've been better prepared for the unexpected events in my life. So thank you again and always!!


    1. I'm glad you remember that conversation (oh man....Mara and I loved those two days with all of you guys so much! That really was amazing).

      So yes, I do believe it is related. Mara and I always emphasize practicing on the small things in life so that you can understand how the "muscle memory" of a deeply spiritual habit can come into play when things get difficult. It is always easier if you've already built your spiritual reflexes to respond in the way that will ultimately be healthier for you.

      Of course, this post goes well beyond practicing in order to prepare for more difficult things. It is also simply about learning how to feel joy, peace, and deep and meaningful happiness. From the Buddhist perspective, Thich Nhat Hanh says this practice of mindfulness is essential to your wellbeing, and to the eradication of so many forms of dis-ease that manifest in life.

      It is not only the Buddhists that believe this. Jesus also teaches this to His disciples when he teaches them the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21), and then follows it with the beautiful teachings on not worrying in verses 22-34. It is from those words that we get the phrases "Consider the Lilies" and "who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your life". Christ is urging his disciples to develop more of this present-minded focus, because that's where He is. You've heard often that all things are Present before God, and that He lives in an Eternal Now.....maybe that's part of what it is talking about.

      Whichever religion you decide to study, you will find that they all teach of the power of mindfulness, present-mindedness, or herenow mindset. They all indicate that this is one of the ways in which you connect with God. And it is also one of the ways that you connect most deeply with the people in front of you.

      Imagine if conversations with friends and family weren't riddled with the regrets of the past or the fears of the future, (or for that matter the glory days of the past, and the hopes and expectations of the future).....and instead people connected with the person who is right there before them, exactly as they are right now.

      There is so much to this concept. It leads to much healthier relationships and communication. Like I said in the post...I too have a lot to work on in this regard. What I have done in the past with it has been oh so important to the best things I've learned, which is why I'm determined to learn and understand more.

    2. Danny, you are a wealth of knowledge and inspiration! Here's how I have been connecting this post to that conversation in my mind: Since that retreat, I have tried to work on things we learned there. Practicing those ideas and virtues has made it a lot easier for me to feel calm and peace and therefore happiness, more of the time. Because of this, I find it easier to be mindful or present, even when things are stressful and I could be thinking about the unknown of the future. I think I attribute this peace to a trust in both God and in myself that things will work out, which helps me to not worry as much because I feel like the worrying doesn't change my outcome, and also that I can handle whatever the outcome is.
      I just feel like I've grown in the way I receive things as they happen, and that this progress is a good starting point for more work with mindfulness. I think it has affected my relationships as well, but I'm going to do more thinking about that because I do think being present makes such a huge difference in conversations and relationships.
      Thanks for the chance to learn more and the inspiration to do it! You're always rooting for us ;)

    3. Ahhh, I love this little tidbit too.

      A month or two ago, Mara and I were in the car discussing a thing or two about "present-mindedness" and the "herenow" mindset, and I was struggling over how to try to convey it to another person so that they could understand and benefit from it....and I had a little breakthrough.

      And it relates to what you just wrote above, and what we discussed in that retreat.

      The present-minded person is the only one capable of doing what Mara and I have been trying to share since the very beginning - "Practicing Virtue for the Sake of Virtue". Our focus on choosing virtue as your response to all thing, is the very essence of mindfulness.

      Because to love simply for the sake of loving requires you to forget all hurts of the past that may have come from the person you are directing your love to, and it requires you to let go of all future outcomes and expectations for the person. If you can't let go of the past, or the future, then you are not loving simply for the sake of love itself....you have a motive to your love (in the case of a desired future outcome or reciprocated behavior), or you have a motive to withhold your love (because of some past injury that you don't want to open yourself up to.)

      In other words, only someone that is capable of entering into that "mindful" state, is capable of offering virtue for the sake of virtue alone.

      When I had my breakthrough in the car, I immediately took a voice memo, and came home and wrote down all my notes and thoughts so that I could expand upon it later. Here's to hoping that one day it makes for a great post, or a fantastic portion of a class (some things are easier to speak than they are to write).

      For now, it will have to be confined to these soon to be forgotten comments :)

      And yes, we are always rooting for you!

    4. Oh wow, that's a powerful connection between all those ideas, and it makes it really simple for me to grasp. In basic terms for relationships, no grudges and no expectations with anyone--totally makes it possible to love them the way I want to right there in that moment! Definitely do a post and/or class about this. I love it! Thank you!!

  6. Thank you for this post. Howeveeeer, I'm going to take a sharp left here and change the subject to one that is more superificial. What brand/style is your down jacket? I'm on the petite side and have a very difficult time finding down jackets that actually fit me. Thank you!

    1. love it. The jacket is AWESOME. It's one of my favorite items. I wrote about it and linked to it here: http://www.ablogaboutlove.com/2014/01/my-attempt-to-stay-warm-in-scandinavia.html
      I can't recommend it enough. It's from Uniqlo. I've been wearing it a ton here in the evenings. FYI, they have different down weights for this jacket. The one I have is the "ultra light" but they have heavier ones for winter, if that's what you need.

    2. Thank you for responding to my question/comment. Simple gesture, much appreciated. All the best in Ecuador.

    3. By the way, is your jacket an XS or S? Thanks again.

    4. I have a small. It's really the perfect size for me. Uniqlo is a Japanese company and often their clothes seem to be made for people with smaller frames. So for example, if you sometimes where an xs, I think the small would still be within range for you - and also allow for a layer underneath, if needed. Also, the jacket folds up super tiny into a little matching sack. I love that feature as it's so handy for traveling or just taking an extra layer around town. Uniqlo also has a women's rain jacket right now and I LOVE it. It also folds up super tiny and I literally have it in my hand bag every time I leave the house. It also just adds a tiny bit of warmth if I every need it. Hope you get to buy a jacket! Mine makes me so happy that I wish everyone could have one. Also, FYI, I hand washed the jacket once already and it came out perfectly.

  7. Hi Mara and Danny,
    This is wonderful! Reminds me of when I first discovered your blog back in February 2012 and tried these kind of practices and then was amazed when they gradually became a more intuitive and natural response to circumstances. I was living in Lebanon and I remember going for a run one day and putting headphones in because I was passing a lot of loud construction sites. I had the ipod on shuffle and this gorgeous violin duet came on, and I was totally taken by it and just reveling in it. I barely noticed all the jack-hammering and booming sounds around me. I remember thinking that it was a good analogy for my life! Practicing presence, self-worth, gratitude and love created this amazing source of life within me that was just for me, but that impacted the way I related to the world in every way. I started laughing and the construction workers were looking at me like I was crazy... Anyway, thanks for this reminder. I am still working on making these practices more habitual!!
    Also, it's so great to see you in such a gorgeous location...I am so excited for you both!! Really--can't wait to see what life brings to you!!

    1. Thanks Marie! I'm so sad we never had a chance to meet up with you like we'd planned. Perhaps it will still happen one day. Until then, we are always grateful to have you as a reader, and for your insights as you learn and grow!

  8. Beautifully said. I love books that give us inspiration, and perspective on life...especially with today's society involving the whole media thing. I personally wrote a post on Monday how we should "look up" and pay attention to our surroundings when we are outdoors and to take in all of God's beautiful creations. I have two teens, and two younger children, and don't want them growing up as "robots" when it comes to social media. I make sure I give them my full attention when I take them to the park. Sure I'll snap a photo (or three), but teach them to stay in touch with life, to breathe, to take in the beauty of the earth, without having them to ask me for my iPhone (which is very rare!) Glad to hear y'all are doing great! Have fun, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Rose, this was beautiful. How we all need to do what you suggested!! It seems parenting and just every day living needs to now include so many deliberate efforts to cultivate that connection with people and nature. Thanks for the inspiration.

  9. i'm so grateful for beautiful posts like this - the photos drew me in to the message. a friend re-shared it with me to make sure i'd seen it and then i got to re-enjoy it with my husband (who has been fascinated by crater lake in oregon and this looks even more spectacular). thinking of you often and love being a part of your ecuadorean adventure from afar :) warmly, -melanie-

    1. Thanks Melanie! I'll try to keep them coming :)

  10. I know this is a powerful tool you are sharing. I have so many sacred experiences being present and practicing gratitude in my past. Of course I have a long way to go, but I wanted to share something since I feel it would be received with kindness and reverence. Hope you both don't mind. I can be very verbose because I feel experience and feel things deeply and want to do them justice as I write...
    I have had many surgeries and have had chronic pain and/or discomfort as a companion much of my young adult/adult life. By nature I am buoyant, so when really hard times come, I am found wrestling and trying to figure out how to continue to shine in the midst of a landmine of grief/pain. Anyway, I have a condition that is pretty stable, but I know that I will be facing physical pain in acute and chronic ways in my future. But I have hope. You see, after digging really, really deep so many times when unexpected ER visits/surgeries/etc cropped up, I decided I needed a game plan so I could stay a little closer to the sun/Son when mountainous waves took me down into the deep darkness. I believe that our bodies are a gift and are sacred--that no price can be placed on them. I have earned that witness through facing end-of-life scenarios with my health issues. Anyway, I remember reaching a beautiful place in my practicing gratitude such that when an unforeseen ER visit occurred, I found myself in a holy place, thanking God for my body during each wave of white-knuckle pain. I repeated cheerful mantras I had memorized for this purpose. I prayed that I might have courage to hang on and hope on through the pain. I thanked my Heavenly Father for giving me experiences which would enable me to talk the language of compassion with others with health problems or chronic drain (my own phrase meaning chronic pain of all types that people live with) whom I would meet throughout my life. I survived and had very special experiences...and still feel reverence when I meet with others who are suffering in various capacities. In essence, I walk around in a world filled with heroes.
    So I feel this in your message and mission. I think you know how this goes, as your previous marriages were a conduit for you both in a similar way--to grow and learn and then testify and look upon others who are suffering with compassion. Coming to be present and to know and love ourselves...what a journey and a spectacular one at that! It truly can be fuel to touch the life of another with love.

    1. Truly beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing how you have turned difficulty and pain and suffering into something holy and sacred and empowering. I LOVE IT!

  11. Wherever we walk,we can drill meditation.This implies that we realize that we are walking.We walk only for walking.We walk with freedom and solidity,no more in a rush.We are available with each one stage.Also when we wish to talk we stop our development and give our full thoughtfulness regarding the other individual,to our words and to listening.walking along these lines ought not be a benefit.We ought to have the capacity to destroy it each minute.Look around and perceive how inconceivable life is,the trees,the white mists,the boundless sky.Listen to the birds.Feel the crisp breeze.Life is all around and we are alive and solid and equipped for walking in peace.Thanks a lot for your great writing.
    What is meditation?


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