Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. - John Milton
Reverence is an attitude of sacred respect. It carries with it a degree of sensitivity to subtleties as it increases the capacity for recognising the interconnection between all aspects of life.
Different cultures have created rituals and 'rules' for reverent living, yet in mainstream Western culture it has become hip to be irreverent, to be cynical and find fault. If we drop the defensive state of mind that separates us from our sensitive natures, we find a core of reverence. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to notice the miraculous and beautiful in order to cultivate our sense of reverence. In observing nature with her miraculous change of seasons, the sprouting of a seed, the rapid learning of babies of all species, we can hardly help but feel awe.
Reverence fits into many branches of holistic health including for those working with the healing power of nature through herbal medicine, homoeopathy, flower essences, and holistic nutrition. All of these arts and sciences require reverence and gratitude towards nature in order to tune into the subtle vibrations and choose the right remedy. Therapists who seek to enhance positive mind states through the tools of counselling, meditation, art and music therapy also employ reverence as a healing tool. Indeed Carl Roger's concept of Client Centred Therapy utilises a kind of reverent approach to seeing the person you are working with through a lens of positive regard.
Many of the modern psychological techniques proven to increase wellbeing through reverence have been reinvented from ancient knowledge to suit modern lifestyles. Now therapists, coaches, counsellors and healers of all kinds are able to guide their clients and themselves in cultivating reverence. With or without a therapist, you can implement small changes in daily life to nurture the seeds of sacred respect.
The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his peers draws heavily from Buddhism where mindfulness is a core teaching. For lay people these same skills can be brought into a fast paced life. Mindful commuters advocate using red lights as reminders to practise breath awareness. Taking just a minute or two to watch the inhalation and exhalation brings a flurried mind into present moment awareness. In that brief space of calm, it becomes more likely that reverence flourishes. Without such healthful habits it is easy to rush from one goal to the next, ticking off a mundane 'to do' list without appreciating the miracles all around. Whether it is traffic lights or any other regular daily cue, the simple practice is to pause for just a moment before each new activity. In that pause you may repeat a clear affirmation of your choosing, or observe the breath, feel sensations in the body, or even offer thanks to the universe - whatever suits your temperament will work for you.
Imagine a day where you wake up and read over the SMART goals you set the night before. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. The best goals will be congruent with your bigger picture values. To ensure these are truly SMART it is advisable to have fewer than three goals per day. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that the future can pull you along, which is much more energy efficient and happiness promoting than being pushed by history, especially if your history has some heavy aspects. That's not denying the very real need for reflection on the past, but rather it creates a feeling of upliftment that makes being sensitive and respectful simpler.
If your values include significant relationships you might take the time to let your partner or loved ones know how much you appreciate waking up in their company. Practise mindfulness as you go about your morning tasks, maybe with a formal meditation or similar practice, maybe just mundane activities made sacred by your approach to them. In the shower you can practise paying attention to the sensation of water on your skin, maybe you have a view to admire, to see the light and colours of the morning sky. Feel the air temperature without reacting to it, try equanimous observation and use getting dressed as meditation. This is in direct contrast to the experience of waking with a rush of adrenaline and racing through your ablutions with your mind on numerous other tasks, none of which are actually being done in the present.
The popularity worldwide of the Slow Food movement is more than just a reaction to fast food businesses. It also embodies the delight of preparing and enjoying homemade food imbued with the health enhancing property of loving intent. In a reverent lifestyle, a few extra minutes may be required but the cost-benefit analysis is sure to reveal that small changes bring large rewards.
So imagine your favourite breakfast, prepared in an unhurried kitchen and consumed with full awareness of the flavours and textures in the food. An example of returning mindfulness to eating is the famous 'raisin' exercise, recently repopularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Savouring one small piece of food can change your relationship with eating. The exercise involves taking the time to observe a single raisin visually, then feeling it with your fingers, smelling it, placing it on your tongue and observing the sensations as saliva fills your mouth. After some time connecting with the experience of the raisin you may bite into it. The flavour is surprisingly sweet and strong when we give it our full attention, savouring the raisin rather than gobbling mindlessly while doing something else.
In fact, savouring can be applied to many areas of life, amplifying the positive aspects of your experience and creating a snowball effect that increases subjective wellbeing. Subjective wellbeing is that intangible experience of feeling well within yourself. It is a useful measure of holistic health because it can co-exist with diagnosed conditions and at any age and stage of life. There are numerous questionnaires available online if you want a quantifiable measure of your wellbeing or you may find it enough to simply observe your own feeling self.
Savouring can be applied to experiences as well as food. Finding things to be grateful for as an exercise develops appreciation, happiness and reverence. Research shows the increased happiness effect of counting your blessings lasts over a month after doing the exercise. Regularly practising gratitude for the small and large blessings in your life can become as much a part of self care as eating well, exercising and brushing your teeth.
The remarkable simplicity of these exercises belies their power. It is entirely practical in most people's lifestyles to implement a few seconds of thought about a topic that sparks the neurons in the brain that lead to an upward spiral of happiness. That happiness leads to higher levels of energy which increases your capacity to live in congruence with your values.
Another simple technique is keeping a journal. It can be shared online as a blog, or kept private. There is a vast body of literature outlining the benefits of journaling. In many traditions, including shamanism and narrative therapy, retelling your story is a healing experience. Depending where you place your focus, your stories can be full of woe and victimhood or can be rewritten as adventures with you as the central hero or heroine. This can be combined with creating a vision for your life and setting the small goals that move you towards that vision. There is evidence to support the process of writing your own eulogy. Far from a morbid exercise it can serve to highlight your true values and reconnect you with how you would like your life to unfold. At any stage this can be a valuable process to reflect on how your time and energy is being invested.
Reverence opens our minds. When we are open we are more able to connect with other people. Feeling connected socially is crucial to mental and physical wellness. When our awareness is broader than our own inner mind chatter we are more naturally helpful to others. Being open minded allows us to recognise opportunities to build on our strengths and work towards our goals in line with our values. Compare that to the desperate feeling of being closed to experience while striving rigidly to get somewhere. Even in goal setting it is important to remember that the end is not a linear destination, so the purpose of our goals must include appreciation of the here and now.
Today as you go about your normal activities, take a moment to practise reverence. Try a sensory walk, take your time, smile at everyone, listen, smell, observe, take in your surroundings paying full attention. By appreciating what is present rather than indulging inner chatter about the past or future, you may notice beauty in your neighbourhood and in yourself. You may even make a life enhancing connection with an idea, maybe a building, plant, animal or a person. Savour that connection, reverently appreciate it and watch the positive affect flow on.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath