A Quick Mental Exercise To Brighten Your Outlook

During my first years living in Los Angeles, I made a daily ritual of jogging up Runyon Canyon, a rocky, inclined hiking trail nestled in the Hollywood Hills. My good friend Will joined me on most mornings. Our slow, uphill runs served as strong exercise, as well as opportunities to workshop solutions to everyday work, family, and relationship challenges. Since we were both full-time yoga teachers, many of the resolutions we came up with incorporated Eastern principles, such as being “Self-referral.”

Self-referral means looking within yourself to uncover the root of a challenge or complaint — as opposed to being “object-referral,” which means to blame a problem on someone else, or external circumstances. For instance, I experienced a decline in modeling jobs during my last couple of years living in New York. I initially blamed it on the economy, but I also knew that I was no longer passionate about being a fashion model.

Was my lack of bookings a reflection of the down economy (the object), or my lack of passion (the Self)? Being Self-referral means you give equal consideration to your mindset and actions surrounding a problem as the potential cause of the problem; after all, our thoughts have creative power. In my case, there were other models who were thriving in the fashion industry, while I was barely scraping by — so it couldn’t have solely been the economy.

Another example: let’s say someone offends you. If you’re being object referral, you automatically blame the offender — they are the problem, not you. But if you’re being Self-referral, before assigning blame, you first examine what may be unresolved within you that allowed you to feel offended? Perhaps you’ve been validating your worth by their opinion of you? Otherwise, why do you care what he or she thinks or says about you?

These were the types of conversations Will and I would have day after day.

One morning, something unexpected occurred that lead to the discovery of yet another tool for navigating challenging situations. Will and I were jogging, and I began ranting about how I felt slighted by my ex-girlfriend spreading nasty rumors about me to our mutual friends. I was in the midst of my object-referral tirade, and instead of agreeing that her actions were outlandish, Will interrupted by politely asking me to list off qualities about my ex for which I was grateful.

“Grateful?!” I thought. The last thing in the world I felt in that moment was gratitude. It was like asking me what qualities about neo-Nazism was I most grateful for? Unsure of how to respond to such a bizarre request, I just stopped talking.

At first I was annoyed because he seemed to be taking her side. Next, I remembered our tacit agreement to be Self-referral — but this situation should’ve been an exception, I thought. Then I slowly began to recognize what he was doing: Will was simply providing me with an opportunity to get out of my “story” of what happened and channel my energy into a more positive direction.

We continued to jog in silence, which amplified the combined sound of heavy breathing and crunching gravel. I strained to play along and began racking my brain for reasons to be grateful.

It took about ten more seconds of deep contemplation before I was able to dig something out: “She helped me become more regular in my meditation practice,” I whispered, breaking the silence.

Then came another one: “She has one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen.” After “She’s doing the best she can,” I was on a roll. And the heavy cloud of negativity, which previously distorted my perception and fueled my rant, began to slowly dissipate. I didn’t even realize the grip it had over me until I began mindfully placing my attention on gratitude. Playing this game felt so good that I couldn’t stop. “She’s actually a very caring person.” “She’s incredibly funny.” “I love her family.”

I meant every word and instantly felt reinvigorated, both spiritually and physically. Then I passed the “gratitude” baton to Will, and he began listing off admirable qualities about his ex-girlfriend, who he’d complained about before as well. Hearing his statements of gratitude inspired me to think of even more of my own. I didn’t realize how much my previous wave of negativity was draining my friend’s energy and disturbing the serenity of our environment.

Afterwards, I felt as bright and expansive as those first morning sun rays emerging from behind us, melting away the shadows of my discontent.

From then on, whenever one of us caught the other tumbling into that very human sinkhole of negativity, we’d break out what became known as the “Gratitude Game.” It was so simple in application, yet immensely powerful in effect.

You can play the Gratitude Game with a friend or by yourself. The trick is to willingly overlook the offender’s limitations in favor of his or her admirable qualities. A good starting point is to ask, “What do I admire about this person or appreciate about this situation?” or “What valuable lessons can I learn from this encounter?”

If nothing comes, try reverse-engineering the gratitude. In other words, treat the encounter with that person or situation as the best thing that could be happening for you in the moment, and work backwards from there by asking yourself why that could potentially be the case? Over time, and with much practice, seeing people’s better qualities and feeling a real sense of gratitude becomes habitual.

Excerpted from The Inner Gym: A 30-Day Workout For Strengthening Happiness, by Light Watkins.

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