Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 2:08PM

The universe is speaking to me. I realize this is a very “yogi” thing to say, but it’s true. Lately, I have been inundated with situations and stories, all with the same message: “BE GRATEFUL.”

In the past few weeks I’ve been connected to two instances in which a young mother tragically lost her life. I didn’t know either woman personally, but it was close enough that I knew some of the people their deaths affected. Obviously, anytime someone dies young or suddenly it makes you think…especially when you can relate to how they lived. We wonder “what if that happened to me?” One of the women, a mother of many littles, was driving her car. It’s likely that while she turned to address the toddler or baby in the back seat she missed the stop sign, causing her fatal accident. Upon hearing this I instantly thought of all the times I’ve done that: turn to talk (yell) at the kids, peek at my phone, put on lip-gloss (awful), write down a number…every time I’ve done that I’ve taken my own life (and often my children’s lives) for granted. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but the point is it disturbed me. I thought to myself: “Okay I get it: learn from this, be more aware, be more grateful.”

I tried to take time alone in the car to appreciate the silence or a song on the radio; to listen to my kids’ words and stories rather than hear only the racket of all of them talking at once. I began to monitor my thoughts, choices and actions more closely.

Apparently I didn’t get the full message. A few days later, another young (this time pregnant) mother and unborn babe sadly and mysteriously passed away.

Me: “Okay universe, okay God, I am hearing this message! Let’s not get any closer! I will put the computer down, turn off the phone. I won’t sweat the small stuff. I will Be grateful!”

Universe: “Listen harder, Gretchen.”

Last Saturday, at the Bridge Yoga event (thank you to those who came—it was lovely!)…I literally was smacked in the face with this message once again. On a high from the outdoor yoga and community camaraderie, I gave into the kids and took them on a ride in the depot’s pedi-cab. If you haven’t seen this vehicle in town, it’s a rickshaw-like bike with a large carriage in back to take people on tours. I had four 8-10 year olds in the back; between the bike and the kids I was probably towing over 300 pounds. Things were going fine until, long story short, we slid off the sidewalk and down the embankment to the river and ended up crashing into a tree. I flew over the handlebars and landed about 10 feet away. This was a situation that could have been very, very bad. Three of the kids jumped off before we crashed and the one who stayed inside it hunkered down (and was wearing his football pads!). Other than a pretty decent contusion to my right leg, we were all fine. How is this possible? This accident had all the ingredients for major disaster: more so than the ones that had so recently ended in the worst possible way. I couldn’t help but connect them all in my mind. Those women were gone. But we all escaped with just scrapes and bruises. And a renewed-renewed love for life.  

To say I was shaken is putting it lightly. The gravity of what could have been continues to settle (or unsettle) deeper as the days go by. My 8 year old, who witnessed the whole thing, sobbed. He was convinced he had lost me! He kept saying, “I’m just so grateful you’re alive!”

The thing is, I humbly consider myself a generally grateful person. I actively work not to take things for granted, not even my breath! The effort to remind myself of life’s preciousness is there…or maybe I just thought it was? Must I live in a constantly terrified state, imagining all the “what-ifs” to truly appreciate the here and now?

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is really the seed of all awareness. It is closely tied to our faith and it challenges the fears that come with being human. It taps into releasing our struggles for control and accepting, with out emotion, what lays before us.

As I continued to ponder this question and review my teachings, I realized something about that day. In the moment we were faced with danger, the children and I weren’t actually afraid—we weren’t thinking. There was an instinct to live and a very innate understanding of our own mortality. At age 8, they knew to jump out of that cart as it barreled recklessly toward the river. Ingrained in their young beings was the simple appreciation for the preciousness of their own lives. What is it about death that brings out our most grateful selves? Linking to our mortality can be a touchstone to our role in the greater picture of life. It reminds us that there is a purpose to our existence other than to simply endure.

We are all aware of this brutal truth: death is imminent. Thankfulness for life won’t serve us when we’re gone. But as yoga teaches, it can sweeten our existence with an appreciation for the impact we have while we are here—each moment, relationship, experience a gift—free of any attachment. A soft heart filled with gratitude allows us to see the connections we have to each other and to fully absorb the richness that connection provides.

Whether or not this is what I needed to hear, that is the message I received. I hope my recent lesson can serve you, too. You don’t need to crash your bike to find thankfulness in your heart! I have chosen the following meditation for you because more than directing you toward being grateful, it forces you to stay in a moment and drink in some love. That always makes us feel blessed!

 Hugging Meditation (Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh)

When you hold a child in your arms, or hug your mother, your husband, or your friend, if you breathe in and out slowly three times, your happiness will be multiplied at least tenfold. If you become distracted or think of other things, your hug will also be distracted. When you hug your child, friend, spouse, first breathe in and out to return to the present moment. Then, while you hold her or him in your arms, breathe three times consciously, and you will enjoy hugging more than ever before.
It takes some time to become comfortable hugging in this way. You may have an instinct to slap your friend’s back or make things less serious. But to really be in that moment, you only need to breathe and suddenly he becomes completely real. The two of you really exist in that moment. It may be one of the best moments in your life.
Breathing consciously, uniting body and mind, you make yourself into a real person again. When you become a real person, your daughter becomes real also. She is a wondrous presence and a real encounter that life is possible at that moment. If you hold her in your arms and breathe, you will awaken to the preciousness of your loved one. And life is.