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9 Eye-Opening Ways to Expand Your Empathy and Gratitude

Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s a beautiful Sunday in San Luis Obispo, California (National Geographic and Oprah Winfrey’s “Happiest Place in America”). I’m returning home from a weekend of wine tasting in Napa with my beautiful wife and our closest friends. This was one of the first weekends in a few years where my wife and I got to run off without the kids. We returned home to a flag football game, my daughter’s softball practice, and an afternoon of kicking back.

When I stop to take inventory of what I have to be thankful for, I become overwhelmed with all of the blessings I have been given. I typically don’t find myself in this mind frame, though. It happens fairly sporadically and without much warning, but I love it when it does. It means I get to spend the rest of the day looking at everything around me, processing everything I hear, and finding value in all I see.

On this particular weekend, it took a series of events to get me to this place of gratitude. The tipping point occurred at, of all places, a rest stop on the 101.

We were on our way home from Napa and took a much-needed bio-stop. I was sitting in the car listening to Jason Aldean’s Fly Over States and doing some people watching when I noticed an old trucker coming out of the restroom. A tall drink of water, he had long hair and a fantastic beard that hung past his sternum.

At that moment, Jason Aldean began to sing:

I bet that mile-long Santa Fe
Freight train engineer’s seen it all
Just like that flatbed cowboy
Stacking US Steel on a three day haul
Roads and rails under their feet
Yeah, that sounds like a first class seat

I started to imagine all of the wonderful places this trucker had been, the people he’d met, and the hours of time to himself he has. At that moment, I locked into a place of gratitude and wonder.

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State of Grace

As much as I try to stay in grace, let’s face it – it’s really hard. And when I say grace, I’m not necessarily coming from any particular religious angle or quoting any singular doctrine. It might have more to do with the Golden Rule than anything else. Our interactions, what we see on television, on our Facebook feeds, and in the media set the stage for us to be critical of ourselves and one another. Sometimes in a very ugly way. Even the best of us fall into the cycle of gossip, being critical and judgmental.

Well, I really don’t want to be that way. In fact, I never want to be that way. So I have put together a list of key ideas that help me stay on the straight and narrow and allow me to remain humble, appreciate all that is around me, and have empathy for others.

1. Remember Someone Has It Harder Than You

Everyone is dealing with something that has the power to bring them to their knees. Everyone. Think of that one situation in your life that is eating at you. That relationship that is failing, that sick loved one, that job you dread, or that financial struggle. You aren’t the only one in the world managing a situation that is breaking your heart.

When you look at each person, realize they are fighting their own war – one that might be driving them to be cruel, aggressive, or unpleasant. When we come from a place of empathy, we find ourselves not being affected by these folks and, perhaps, being instead a beacon of light for someone who might benefit.

Have Empathy for Others

2. Follow the Golden Rule

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We’ve all heard it, but how many of us have sat down and thought about it? Have you? We all want to be treated a specific way in all situations. And none of us will ever say, “I would love to speak with so-and-so and I’m hoping that she will be completely insensitive and rude throughout the entire exchange.” Unfortunately, some of us interact this way. Practice being the change by acting how you would prefer others act.

3. Refrain From Judgment

Several years ago, a friend of mine and I were flying to Wichita, Kansas for business and we landed shortly after 1:00AM. Starving, the only thing we could find that was open was a 24-hour Wendy’s drive-thru. I look over at my friend as we are pulling up to the window to pay and said, “Could you imagine having to work the night shift at a Wendy’s?” I had pigheadedly assumed only unmotivated, uneducated people could possibly want a job like that.

Then, a lovely woman, probably around 45 years old, slid open the window and I said, “Hi, how are you doing tonight?” And in two words she changed my whole perspective on a lot of things.

“I’m blessed,” she said.

In an instant, I was reminded that my sense of value, my understanding of achievement couldn’t compare to her feeling of being blessed. I thought of her continuously on that trip and think of her often to this day.

4. Remember Your Thoughts and Words Are Alive

You are the only one who gets a front row seat to each and every thought that comes to you. Being hateful, judgmental, or cruel – even in your mind – has the power to change the most important person in your life – you. Love yourself by being kind with your thoughts. The fastest way to sabotage yourself is to say something insensitive or obnoxious. Words have power. Not just with how they are received but the vibration they release into the world. Your signature, your fingerprint are all over the words you say. Be responsible.

Have Empathy for Others

5. Practice Kindness

The difference between being nice and being kind is monumental. Nice feels somewhat contrived, whereas kindness comes from a place deep in the recesses of our souls. We have come across thousands of people in our lives and can likely recollect the kindest we have met. I know I can. Each of those individuals give me the warm-and-fuzzies when I think of them. Watch the way small children interact. Their rules of engagement are different than we as adults. Hugs and kisses galore! They are the people I aspire to be because they are affecting change with each person they come in contact with.

6. Be the Lighthouse

One of my favorite quotations of all time is from Anne Lamott, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” One of my favorite people in this whole world, Lauren Meers, texted me that quotation years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. None of us will ever understand how big of an impact we have on others during the times when we are not even trying. Sure, we can volunteer time to help those in trouble, donate to charities, or give to the needy, but it’s those moments when we are simply being our beautiful selves that will be a game changer for someone who needs us.

7. Appreciate the Dark Night of the Soul

Typically, the people who come to me for my Qigong work are facing their end days. Due to the obscurity of what I do, my phone rings when a person is dealing with the reality of death and has exhausted all other modalities. It’s in those moments where a person begins to understand the value of their lives and becomes ready to make any change necessary. The elegance of the will to live is something everyone needs to see. All the people I have been able to help say their illness and those darkest days were the greatest gifts of their life. They faced their mortality, they forgave everyone who wronged them, they made peace with their pasts, and they told the ones they love how they feel.

8. Realize You See the World as You

Your experiences, programming, and upbringing dictate how you see people, places, and things. This is the beauty of being you, but if you are not careful, it’s also the place where prejudices and judgements are conceived. I have to remind myself daily that the people I come in contact with have different experiences than mine that have framed their reality. And, in many cases, that reality must pass through a filter of trauma and sadness to get to this moment. Therefore, I have to understand I cannot have expectations of others. I have to let them be themselves, whether their way of being is in complete alignment with mine or not.

Perspective on Gratitude

9. Keep the Faith

This is the one time I will overstep my boundaries and venture down the spiritual road. Most of us wish we could have some sort of proof there is something greater out there. Whether it be God, the One, Nature, or whatever you want to call it, I know we would like to have some proof. Well, my friends, I can tell you I have experienced countless situations where I couldn’t explain it as anything else. I’m very lucky. I get to work with my Qigong practice and see miracles every day. Every. Day.

I know tough times can place doubt in our minds, but when you think back on all of the “bad” things that have happened in your life, in almost all of those instances you can see the lesson or the adjustment needed to get you to today. I’ve lost loved ones, been fired from jobs, and seen unjust illnesses strike the most innocent among us. But those events have provided some of the most profound learning experiences of my life. For this reason, I believe there is something greater out.

Which Practices Will You Take On?

If you could see the perfect you, the person you have always wanted to be, what would that person look like? For myself, that person is that individual who embodies the nine sections above. Instead of waiting for these life practices to happen down the road or for someone else to practice them first, it’s time to embody these ideas today.

Chris Holder
Chris Holder comes to The Whole Life Challenge with an incredibly diversified background. With over thirty years as an athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Chris is also a Daoist Priest and Medical Qigong Doctor.

Under the tutelage of legendary Kung Fu and Qigong Grand Master Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, Chris has been at the forefront of Qigong research at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. Dr. Holder has created a working laboratory within his strength program blending both eastern medical and spiritual practices with western scientific strength training protocols. Having concluded the first-of-its-kind Qigong/strength training study in the winter of 2015, Dr. Holder and his staff are preparing research on Qigong and the induction of flow states along with research investigating Qigong's impact on inflammation in high-level CrossFit athletes.

Known in many circles as a pioneer of kettlebell training at the college level, Chris, a Senior RKC, opened the door in the early 2000s to break the mold and monotony of the traditional methods of training college student-athletes. Having been mentored by some of the most recognizable gurus in the strength training world, Chris is an accomplished Olympic lifting coach, a fully decorated Z-Health Trainer, and a go-to expert on fixing issues with CrossFit competitors.

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