Buddhist monks don’t have a lot of money. So when a new monastery was being built in Western Australia, all the monks were turned into builders.
One particular monk, Ajahn Brahm, was tasked with building a brick wall. In his previous life he was a Scientist; he’d never laid a brick in his life.
With patience and tenacity he got the hang of it. Carefully he placed each brick, ensuring it was centered perfectly. He was even starting to enjoy it.
When the last brick was laid, he stepped back to take a look.
At first he marveled at his work, proud of each and every well-laid brick.
And then he saw it.
Two of the bricks were not straight at all – in fact, they were horribly crooked. How did he not notice this?
He was horrified and embarrassed.
He begged the Abbot to let him tear down the wall and start again. “How could we have such a ghastly wall in our new monastery?”
But the Abbot was firm, the wall stayed.
One day as Ajahn Brahm was showing a visitor around the new monastery, they happened to be walking right towards it. Quickly he tried to divert the visitor’s attention elsewhere – anywhere other than the awful brick wall.
But then the visitor stopped, looked dead square at the wall and commented on what a magnificent brick wall it was.
Ajahn Brahm was taken aback, “don’t you see the two bricks that are crooked?”
To which the visitor replied, “What I see is 998 bricks that are perfectly straight – it’s remarkable!”
Ajahn Brahm had been unable to see all the other bricks that he had beautifully laid down, all he could see were the two bad bricks.
Pay Attention To What’s Wrong, Not What’s Right!
Our brain didn’t evolve to make us happy, it evolved to keep us alive. So our brain is hardwired to focus on the negative, the things that could kill us.
Even when we have an overwhelmingly greater number of positive things we will still focus on the one negative and exaggerate just how bad it is.
With this predisposition and our imagination we can turn a hangnail into Stage 4 Cancer.
And this is what we do in our relationships.
We take one bad interaction and blow it up into something much bigger than it really is.
Maybe your partner had a bad day and he doesn’t display the level of gratitude you expected for the beautiful dinner you prepared; in fact he barely notices it.
Inside you’re seething, and every little thing he ever did that annoyed you comes to mind. All you see are his bad qualities, the two bad bricks, and it’s as if the 998 other bricks don’t even exist.
Dr Gottman’s magic ratio is that in good relationships we need to have five positive interactions to balance out one negative.
We all have bad days, you’re going to have negative interactions occasionally.
So what if you could do something proactive to build up all the positives – really lay out all those 998 good bricks in advance?
Introducing Your Gratitude Bowl
You’re probably familiar with gratitude journals and the enormous benefits that can come from keeping one – like getting a better night’s sleep just by writing down three things you’re grateful for before you go to bed.
The gratitude bowl works a little bit differently.
Every day you and your partner each write down on a small piece of paper one thing you’re grateful for about the other person, fold the paper up and throw it in the bowl.
It can be something as little as, “I appreciate that you brought me a cup of coffee while I was getting ready this morning,” or “I appreciate that you knew I had a tough day and you called to check on me and make sure I was doing OK.”
As you see the little pieces of paper pile up it will be a constant reminder of the positive aspects of your relationship.
Occasionally you might pull one out and read something you wrote about your partner or she wrote about you. Either way it will make you feel positive about your relationship as you reflect on the kindness that you showed to your partner or she showed to you.
Where Attention Goes Energy Flows
This exercise helps us to savor the good moments. Spending more time focusing our attention on what’s right instead of what’s wrong.
Our brain is constantly trying to get us to focus on the negative. So we have to be active in elevating the positive experiences to a higher status.
My Partner Would Never Go For This
Although you’re totally into all this stuff, maybe your partner isn’t. This is a realistic objection and don’t worry because I’ve got you covered.
Start the Gratitude Bowl on your own.
For 30 days write down something your partner did that you appreciate (it doesn’t matter how small it is!).
At the end of 30 days, present the Gratitude Bowl to your partner.
It will be better than any birthday present she’s every received, even better than Christmas.
Who doesn’t want all their kind acts to be acknowledged?
Each piece of paper is a surprise, and reminds her of all the kind things she’s done for you.
How great do you think she’d feel in that moment?
It’s the kindest gift you can give your partner to let her know that all these little things matter.
At that point, tell her you’d like to continue doing this together. You won’t have to convince her why this is important – she already knows.
It’s just too easy for us to focus on the two bad bricks in our relationships.
If you want to keep nurturing and improving your relationship then make sure the 998 good bricks are always on display in your gratitude bowl.