Garden of Gratitude: Letters to Plant By

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Mindful Minute Up Front: 

You’re close with friends and family, but how vulnerable are you? Too often we wait until Eulogies, if ever at all, to FULLY share our love. Meet Gratitude Letters, a simple technique to nourish both your heart AND theirs. This is my story of how I planted a garden of gratitude in my heart. It changed my life. I wish the same for you!  

FULL POST

Ohh my Italian family is close. Big meals, loud laughs, and lots of wine! But in all that closeness, are we open? In all that closeness, are we vulnerable? 

Like most families, we are close, but not completely open. Close, but guarded. Too often with those we hold closest in our heart, we don’t fully share what’s in our heart! What about all your friends and family?  If they died tomorrow, did they hear the music in your heart? Not musical notes of ‘I love you’ and 'Thank you', but symphonies of love? 
 
So yes we share holidays and birthdays together. Exchange hugs, gifts, and stories. Say I love you mom, sibling, or friend. But if death came for your beloved tomorrow, what would you say ABOUT THEM? How they touched your heart. Taught your mind. Shaped your life. Their sacrifices. Their friendship. ` 

More importantly, did you share that love in all its juicy glory WITH THEM? Too often we wait until Eulogies, if ever at all, to fully share the details of our love. We have novels of love in our hearts but share only the cover page.  

GRATITUDE LETTERS:

Meet Gratitude Letters, a simple yet life-changing technique. Instead of emptying your heart at a funeral, you can lovingly embrace both your heart and theirs. Writing these letters will ‘gladden’ your mind with gratitude AND connect you even more deeply with those you love. It changed my life, I wish the same for you (see down below for a step-by-step guide). 

WHY NOW? THE INSPIRATIONAL POWER OF DEATH

Buddhist meditate on their inevitable death. Visualizing their decaying bodies picked apart by vultures. Visualizing piles of their bones disintegrating with the winds of time.

Why? Not to be sadistic life is all suffering party poopers. Instead to reinforce the impermanence and preciousness of THIS LIFE. Not to just verbally say carpe diem, but to cognitively program in our minds the urgency and beauty of NOW.  

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So yeah death comes knocking for us all. But sadly, sometimes it comes crashing into the living room in an ice cream truck filled with psychotic clowns. As Forrest Gump says,“Shit happens”. So ‘seize the day’ and fully share your love now, not to cold corpses but beating hearts!

MY GRATITUDE LETTERS

My grandpa was my best friend growing up and all my life. Ohh how I cherish memories of making meatballs with the “Old Timer”. Mixing, rolling, and cooking (and eating!) hundreds of meatballs for holidays. When I moved away, I called him twice a week. Made surprise visits home. Wrote him sentimental birthday cards. I was with him on his dying days, one of the rawest and beautiful gifts of my life.  

So what the hell was my regret?

I waited for a funeral to empty my heart. Why didn’t I tell him in the flesh? Yes, I wrote paragraphs in damn hallmark cards, but why not eye to eye? Heart to heart? Being to Being?  

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Inspired by Tara Brach’s Gladdening podcast, I decided not to make that mistake again. Thus I wrote my parents each a Gratitude Letter (see the Zen Rant challenge below for a guide). Visiting my dad’s former military base in Vietnam, I let my heart flow. Like the power of a diary, that writing nourished my heart. It calmed my mind. It wasn’t poetry. It was gratitude. Love that needed light. 

This process is an example of what Buddhist call “gladdening the mind”. Just as seeds need water and sun to grow, positive mental states can be nourished to grow stronger. Leveraging positive neuroplasticity in our brains, what gets light and sun grows larger and stronger in our minds. In this case, love, compassion, and gratitude nourish like the sun, earth, and water. Sparking seeds to germinate into gardens of gratitude. Gardens don't magically appear, they are cultivated!  

IRONIC SHELLS OF TIME AND CLAMS

My dad served in the Vietnam/American War. On a 7-week motorcycle tour thru Vietnam, here I sit in a shell of time: his former military base now a row of seafood restaurants. At a place that caused him pain, fear, comradery, and god knows what, I nourish my heart (and stomach). The daily special? Vietnamese Clams. After returning to the USA, my dad started a Clambake and BBQ catering company. With just one ‘butterfly effect’ of a bullet, this serendipitous moment (and every moment) could all have vanished like a popped balloon. Ohh such delicious clams.

My dad served in the Vietnam/American War. On a 7-week motorcycle tour thru Vietnam, here I sit in a shell of time: his former military base now a row of seafood restaurants. At a place that caused him pain, fear, comradery, and god knows what, I nourish my heart (and stomach). The daily special? Vietnamese Clams. After returning to the USA, my dad started a Clambake and BBQ catering company. With just one ‘butterfly effect’ of a bullet, this serendipitous moment (and every moment) could all have vanished like a popped balloon. Ohh such delicious clams.

GARDEN PESTS: FEAR AND REJECTION 

So I wrote these Gratitude letters, but the idea of reading it to my parents at first seemed intimidating. Almost like that anxiety of saying that first romantic “I love you”. But why the fuck should it be? This is exactly what is messed up (with culture and me). Here are the people we are closest to, yet to express that love openly, honestly, and fully seems weird?   

Time is too precious for such petty fears. Maybe we have 1 more Christmas together. Maybe we have 10. But all I knew, was why fucking wait? Vaporizing that fear, I decided to read my letters Christmas morning.  

Ohh it was a beautiful experience. My mom cried. My rock of a dad teared up. It was raw. It was true. Time slowed. Hugs lingered like clouds in the sky. It was one of the purest moments with my parents ever. A garden of gratitude and love in my heart. 

So give Gratitude Letters a try before we are all ashes and dust. Regret is a son of a bitch. Like cancer, it will corrosively eat away at us. To hell with that! You owe it to yourself and your beloved to let love win. What do you have to lose? Will they reject you? Laugh at you? I doubt it.  

The 5 Steps outlined below will hopefully help you. It enhanced my life and I hope the same for you!

Zen Rants Challenge: Gratitude Letters In 5 Steps

STEP 1: ‘HEARTSTORM’

Think (and feel) of someone that has shaped your life. Someone whose presence makes you feel grateful. A friend. A love. A mentor. A parent. A sibling. Anyone. For me, I picked my parents. Besides being the closest to life's finish line (sorry mom & dad), their sacrifice and love gave me everything I enjoy today.  

Step 2: DEATH MEDITATION

This will seem creepy but try it! Close your eyes. Now for one minute envision your chosen person lifeless in a coffin (or in a crematorium). Crystalize the image. Feel the stillness. Following your breath and sit with that cold image. After the minute is up, contemplate having to give that eulogy. The knots in your stomach. The sadness. The regret. Be with it. Feel it. 

This will be creative rocket fuel for your letter. And it helps crush any doubts about reading it! 

STEP 3: WRITE YOUR GRATITUDE LETTER

Now write a Gratitude Letter to this loved one. Write a few pages about why you are grateful for them in your lives. Yes PAGES. How their love enhanced your dance with life. How they shaped it forever. Things you admire and appreciate about them. Don’t wait for a Eulogy. Let the emotions flow now. Write and write and write. This is not poetry, but raw and honest feelings.  

A page of chicken scratch from the letter I wrote to my Father. TIP: For me I contemplated 3-5 topics of admiration and sacrifice that touched me. From there I wrote a free form letter.

A page of chicken scratch from the letter I wrote to my Father. TIP: For me I contemplated 3-5 topics of admiration and sacrifice that touched me. From there I wrote a free form letter.

This writing exercise is a beautiful emotional outlet, freeing likely bottled up emotions. It softens your heart. Neurologically gratitude triggers dopamine (reward neurotransmitter) and hypothalamus activity (balanced sleep, exercise, appetite). If you stop here it will be nourishing and rewarding. But you’re no selfish coward! To Step 4!    

STEP 4: READ IT EYE-TO-EYE

Now read the letter to your beloved. No text. No email. No regret. Look into their glistening eyes and share it while you can. Eye to eye. Heart to beating heart. Use FaceTime if you have to, the point is visually and vulnerable sharing your love and gratitude.  

Your inner fear monkey, terrified of criticism and rejection, will resist. But if you can’t share these beautiful emotions, then what is your relationship built upon anyway? Love > Fear. 

STEP 5: HUG INTO THE MOMENT 

If you came this far I doubt you need a hug reminder. But hugging, like dancing, is an art. And my tin man of a self is still learning. Americans tend to hug like it’s a sexual quickie: wham bam thank you mam. Instead, physically and emotionally embrace that love-filled moment. Marinade in the emotional stew. Hold that hug for a minute, chest bone to chest bone. It may seem awkward, but that’s just the smell of vulnerability. Remember, it’s not a handshake but a hug!

So give Gratitude Letters a try and let me know how your garden of gratitude grows!!  

With Gratitude and Love ~ ALF