Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beyond Thanksgiving...An Inspiring Interview with Dr. Allan G. Hunter

"Be grateful for whatever it is that opens you up."
~ Dr. Allan G. Hunter, Gratitude and Beyond

The Thanksgiving holiday may be winding down, but do we truly understand where Gratitude can take us?  Earlier this week, I had a profoundly moving conversation about the transformational power of Gratitude with Dr. Allan G. Hunter, an inspiring returning guest on my online radio program The Frontier Beyond Fear.  Allan's most recent book is Gratitude and Beyond: Five Insights for a Fulfilled Life.  

With a PhD in English Literature from Oxford University, Allan is a full professor at Curry College in the Boston area, the author of 12 books and an expert in memoir and therapeutic writing.  He provides one-one-one assistance through his spiritual counseling.  Allan worked with troubled adolescents early in his career, later teaching prisoners in Massachusetts.

Allan's own life story reveals how the power of Gratitude can lead to a joyous and fulfilling life.  He experienced a Near Death Experience (NDE) many years ago, dramatically recovering from a serious lung infection, which he later realized was instigated by stress.  "I came very, very close to the time I said 'Gosh, I’m so happy to be alive, I’m so grateful.'...I failed to look deeper into the Gratitude to see what it could tell me about my life."

“I had to stop doing the things that I thought were so important because they were linked to the ego and start living differently, and that is I think the starting point not just of Gratitude, not just of  'Thank you for the tie you sent me on my birthday, thank you for the cake or whatever' but deep Gratitude of 'Oh, something has happened which has called to me to change the way I am.  Thank you for that opportunity to not have to remain on this self imposed, self destructive treadmill that I had made for myself.'  Not many people get that.” 

“But there is also a different dimension to it which is ‘If I am truly thankful, I am not putting my ego concerns first. I’m putting something else first.' And that something else is my connection to this wonderful, beautiful, strange, astonishing planet that we’re invited to be part of.”

Allan eventually realized that there are five insights vital to fulfillment and joy in life.  He advises envisioning these insights in a pentacle, “a very potent symbol of the interconnectedness of all these things, how they lead on from one to another.”  At the center of the pentacle is Love.

Gratitude is the first insight which opens the doors to all the others.  The second insight Allan describes is Humility. “That’s not the same as humiliation or as being in some way disgraced, that’s not it at all.  But it is that shifting away from I, me, me, mine to 'Oh, if I am part of this world and I have just been given a wonderful opportunity to live again, then this world is not about me - it’s about something else - it is directed by something much bigger than me.'”   

This can lead to “radical gratitude”, a term Andrew Bienkowski used to describe the life lessons he derived from the harshest of experiences when family members starved or froze to death after being sent to Siberia in 1939. 

Allan says we can go beyond what we may perceive as being broken.  "So many people think they’re broken.  I think often they’re broken open, and if they can perhaps look at that and treasure that, treasure the scars and see what is to be learned from those scars, that is a form of humility that leads on to wisdom - real, deep, powerful, loving wisdom." 

Our "astonishingly beautiful" world...
The third insight is Beauty.  "When we discover that we are alive, that we can be grateful for many, many things, even in the midst of difficulties and sadness, there are things to be grateful for - when we’re in that space, we look around our world in humility, in acceptance, and we realize just how astonishingly beautiful it is."

“If we don’t know there’s beauty, if we don’t think that there can be beauty, we cannot, cannot see it.  It simply won’t be there...this is a gift we can give ourselves every day and yet we tend not to because it’s easier to pretend it isn’t there.” 

Innocence is the fourth insight.  "When we allow ourselves to respond to the beauty that is in the ordinary, when we do that, we get back to something that is so important and so overlooked: the sense of Innocence...that’s the core of who we are…it’s that optimistic, exploratory, non-judgmental, accepting, innocent self, and that’s where our real feelings are." 

A "huge turning point" for Allan was his realization that we are all invited to focus on those things which bring us joy.  The joyous ways children freely explore their world can show us how we too can "have that uninhibited sense of exploration of what is true for us."  Authenticity is the key.  "Be your best self and let go of outcomes, and being your best self means being absolutely authentic, no matter what."  

This leads to the fifth insight: knowing one’s place in Nature.  "Don’t ask what you can get - ask what you can give.  And giving doesn’t have to be big - it doesn’t have to be splashy - it has to be what you authentically do and what you do with real love."

"If we’re paying attention, if we are giving back to our world, of course we will make a difference, of course we will…It’s the tiny things that make all the difference."

The opposite of the Gratitude pentacle illustrates the dysfunction of falling out of the Gratitude space into Selfishness, with Fear in the center instead of Love.

"Pride will keep you in the wounded ego space every time.  This is the person who wants to be right more than they want to be happy."  This can lead to looking for ugliness in others and suspicion, the place where conspiracy theorists often dwell, resulting in separation.  "What a way to take a wonderful opportunity for feeling grateful and happy and turn it into dust and ashes...we don't have to go into reactive mode...we don't have to give over ourselves to that wounded and sad part of the ego."

Allan explores situations where people have encountered extremely severe difficulties, such as the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.  “Lots of psychological studies have been done on many different kinds of people to find out how people have dealt either successfully or unsuccessfully with stress and difficulties…and one of the things that I put in the book is I give examples of people who’ve been under extreme stress, and what has helped them get through that stress, and over and over again, it has been the ability not to give in to the kneejerk reaction.  It’s been the ability to stand back and say 'Hmmm, what can we improve here, even if it’s only a tiny bit.'”

“When we’re talking about Gratitude, we’re not talking about an easy option.  We’re talking about real work here.  'What can I be grateful for, what can I give back?  Because I’m going to have to give back.'  Really Love is the only way forwards."

"Everybody slips into a negative pentacle for a while.  Everybody slips into the negative circling where we just go round and round mulling over the same thoughts, the same behaviors, wondering why there’s no difference at the end of the day.  We can all get into that space.  The point is not to say 'Oh, I’m a bad person. I got into that space.'  No, no, the point is to say 'Oh, look at that.  Look how I slipped into that.  You know, I wouldn’t mind betting there’s a slightly more effective way to deal with that. There’s a way that will lead on to more joy than that.'"

"And when we can remind ourselves of that, we are indeed given more choices, and more choices usually mean that we’re going to make a better choice rather than the choice we think is the only one that exists.  That’s why I wrote the book.  That’s why I write all of my books because I look around at my clients and my students and I realize ‘Oh, there are lots of people here who need a little bit of guidance, and imperfect as my offerings are, maybe, maybe this will be what’s necessary to start the conversation so that people can find their own way forwards.”

Listen to the entire conversation Dr. Allan G. Hunter: Gratitude's Deepest Gifts on Frontier Beyond Fear radio.  You can now discover all of Allan's interviews on The Frontier Beyond Fear in one place, a new feature I'm incrementally introducing, starting with the returning guests such as Allan who have so graciously appeared multiple times to inspire us all.  For that, I can only be in a space of Gratitude...