The Power of Gratitude


Even after all this time

The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe me.”

Look what happens

with a love like that,

It lights the whole sky.


“…to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” – Johannes A. Gaertner

What if gratitude were the key to an open heart?  What if the heart’s intelligence could help us move beyond the mind’s illusion of separation? How would our communications change, if we connected with our own heart, and another person’s heart, before speaking? Research from the Institute of HeartMath (IHM, has been providing scientific support to these concepts.

IHM’s extensive research found that the heart’s rhythmicity entrains all other systems. When we are frustrated or angry, the heart’s erratic rhythms have negative effects, such as suppressing our immune system. But when we enter a state of gratitude and appreciation, the heart’s smooth, coherent rhythms enhance our immune response, problem solving and intuition, and every other system in the body as well.

The heart is much more than a pump. It’s also an endocrine gland that secretes hormones affecting how we learn, remember, and explore. Over 60% of the heart cells are neural cells, like in the brain, and many more signals go from heart to brain than vice versa. The heart is an organ of perception and communication. It is also the most powerful electromagnetic (EM) generator and receiver in the body, with a magnetic field that’s 5,000 times more powerful than that of the brain!

Heart Coherence                               

Other systems automatically entrain to the heart: the respiratory, digestive, immune, and nervous systems. When we feel frustrated, our heart rhythms become disordered, sending an incoherent message throughout our body and nervous system. But when we are in a calm state of gratitude, everything works harmoniously—a state known as “coherence.” In this state, stress hormones decrease, and we think more clearly.

We can use our heart’s intelligence to make better choices. When a judgment pops up, along with the turbulent emotions that generates, we can learn to turn instead to our inner guidance system.

Steps to Coherence:

1) Whenever you are “out of sync,” begin by acknowledging your present feelings, whatever they are: frustration, anxiety, overload, anger…

2) Bring your awareness to your heart, and begin slow, heart-focused breathing.

3) Recall vividly something you are grateful for, and breathe in a feeling of gratitude and appreciation into your heart. Continue your slow, rhythmic breathing while experiencing gratitude.

4) If you are grappling with a problem or decision, ask your heart “What do I need to know about this?”

Any time we can make the shift from anger or frustration to gratitude, appreciation, and caring, we have helped our own bodies tremendously–since just five minutes of anger suppresses our immune system for over 6 hours, while just five minutes of sincere appreciation enhances it for a similar time period.

IHM uses a simple biofeedback device to monitor heart rate variability, thus allowing people to learn the “quick coherence technique” easily.

Biofeedback: the Mind-Body Connection

Imagine receiving information about one’s own body and observing how muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiologic functions are influenced by thoughts and emotions! Biofeedback teaches people to self-regulate, deliberately affecting their physiology. Research supports biofeedback as a helpful tool for overcoming migraine and tension headaches, TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint pain/ teeth grinding), chronic pain, insomnia, irritable bowel, panic attacks, repetitive strain injury, even asthma and high blood pressure. And now, we can learn to increase our heart coherence at will.

I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and mentors I’ve had. My biofeedback professor, Dr. Erik Peper (yep, Dr. Peper!) was a brilliant and empowering teacher; he has served as president of the Biofeedback Society of Europe, as well as the American Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. When I looked doubtful, he’d grin and say, “It will be FUN!”—thus reframing a challenge, such as grading student papers, into a delight.  Picture a classroom of 80 students meeting in small groups to discuss their daily practices of relaxation and imagery, and later the results of their own self-healing plans. Erik’s students experienced remarkable recoveries from long-standing migraines, chronic pain, digestive disorders, and more.

Communicating for Peace

Another amazing teacher with whom I was grateful to study in California was Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Through humor, puppets and role playing, Rosenberg demonstrates the power of expressing feelings and needs instead of criticizing or attacking. He calls it “creating the quality of connection in which everyone’s needs can be met.” We learn to connect empathically by guessing the other person’s feelings and needs, and to make requests instead of demands. So many of our social-emotional problems stem from unskillful communication, and here was a method for practicing peace. I have now taught communication classes at several churches and libraries, HelpMate, LEAF, and schools; I facilitated an NVC practice group at Westwood CoHousing.

How would our world change, if children could learn this way of communicating while still young?

Rita Marie Johnson: Teaching peace to kids

Inspired by Costa Rica–the only country without a military but offering a peace curriculum in grade schools–I went there in January to study with Rita Marie Johnson, initiator of the “BePeace” school program. This American woman received a calling to work for peace at the age of ten; she went on to study with both Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, and the Institute of HeartMath. Rita Marie recognized that when we’re triggered emotionally, we don’t communicate well. This has been my own chief stumbling block in the practice of nonviolent communication. Her teaching: use heart coherence to return to our hearts’ wisdom and calm when we are triggered, before we attempt to speak. Using the language of feelings and needs allows us to connect at the heart, empathically. She also teaches the importance of accessing our hearts’ insights for problem solving.

The principal of Oakley Elementary School in Texas, after incorporating the BePeace program, wrote: “We started with a hope, but we ended with a sense of awe and gratitude. Teachers and students of all age levels learned how to reduce barriers and gain insight…the awe factor was to watch the students begin to own the tools and use them in their own lives.”

Other teachers of gratitude

Angeles Arrien, a cross-cultural anthropologist with whom I was fortunate to study for a year, teaches powerful spiritual practices from many indigenous traditions. She suggests a daily practice of gratitude.  “Giving gratitude every day keeps the heart open,” says Angeles. “When the heart is open a capacity for generosity emerges. It’s in our deepest DNA to contribute, serve, and help others… World-wide traditions offer four doorways or portals for giving gratitude:

  • Gratitude for our blessings
  • Gratitude for our learnings (Where have I grown? What inspired, challenged, touched or moved me today?)
  • Gratitude for the mercies we extend to others or others extend to us
  • Gratitude for the experiences of protection or safety for ourselves and loved ones.”

Martin Seligman, renowned researcher on the psychology of happiness, has a similar formula for chasing away the blues: At the end of each day, review and write about what went well in your life (at least three things), and notice what you can do to help that process.

Research shows that a ratio of five appreciations to each complaint is essential for the health of relationships. Gratitude strengthens our immune systems, creativity, and productivity. (The Psychology of Gratitude by Michael Emmons and Michael McCullough)

Among my teachers I give honor and gratitude to my parents, Drs. Bob Holt and Louisa Howe, who provided awesome role models, generously nurtured my growth, and encouraged me to give my gifts.

HeartSpeak: Listening and Speaking from the Heart

At this point in my life my biggest goal is to share the gifts and learnings I’ve received. And I’ve always taught what I most want to learn myself. Last fall I began teaching a weekly elective of “HeartSpeak” for 6th-8th graders at Francine Delany New School for Children. The students made their own sets of “Feelings cards” and “Needs Jewels” which they used for checking in with a buddy, and for practicing empathy. They relished acting out a feeling and having their classmates guess it. We identified “war words” (like should and have to) and “peace words.” Finally, they created a skit for the rest of the school, demonstrating the power of compassionately guessing feelings and needs when a classmate is feeling badly.  At the start of each class, we spent a few moments in heart coherence, appreciating a favorite pet, person or place. I invited them to practice heart coherence before tests, or during challenging moments with their parents, teachers, or peers. To my delight, students would run up to me outside of class saying, “Cathy, I did my heart coherence today!”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach in any school, as it is my dream that someday, all schools will teach these life-enhancing skills to their students. Recently I had the honor of training teachers at Azalea Mountain School and Rainbow Community School.

Mediating a young couple who were having trouble, I taught them the heart coherence practice and helped them to identify their own feelings and unmet needs, as well as to guess those of their partner. The result was a dramatic increase in the couple’s ability to see each other’s humanness, and a great deal of tension and anger dissolved so that love could flow again.


* HeartSpeak class at Kenilworth Presbyterian Church for 4 Thursdays, starting Oct. 3, 7-9pm. Address is 123 Kenilworth Rd., cost is $60 including a private, confidential coaching session for each participant.  If you’re wanting more connection and less conflict in your relationships, come to this interactive class where you will get lots of practice in the compassionate practice of empathy. Please pre-register, Bring a friend, receive a 30% discount!

* Prefer Wednesdays? HeartSpeak class at the Jewish Community Center on Charlotte St., 4 Wednesdays starting Oct. 23, 6:30-8:30pm. As above; please pre-register.

* “Empathy Circles” evening at EarthFare  (Westgate) on Friday, October 11 from 7-9pm. After an introduction to empathy, everyone will have a chance to share the joy and comfort of giving and receiving this beautiful form of caring. Come and get a free taste of HeartSpeak!

* HeartSpeak at Malaprop’s Bookstore: Monday, October 21, 7pm. Introducing the handy HeartSpeak minibook, and an introductory workshop.

(This article will appear in the November issue of WNC Woman.)