On my meditation area sits my beautiful gratitude journal. I purchased it years ago at a conference. I chose this journal over others because it had prompting questions to help me with my newly committed to gratitude practice. I just looked. I have written in it 5 times. Not 5 times in a row. Not at five different times in my life. Five times total. And now it sits next to the beautiful gratitude box and notecards given to me as a gift by my son “because they remind me of you”. I have read them, all of them. So there’s a start.
As I now drop into my non-judgmental mind, I realize I am not alone in my non-existent-but-ever-aspiring gratitude practice. I know have heard from many others that they mean to start a gratitude journal, a gratitude jar (oh, that was another beautiful gift given to me by a friend!), or a gratitude practice. So there is some comfort in company here. Let’s explore what we know about gratitude. Note: this is not headline news. You can open any magazine, internet article or newly published book and everything from pop culture to science will tell you the benefits of gratitude. Instead of dwelling on what hasn’t worked, let’s talk about how it may work.
I’m an out of the box person. Let’s start by breaking the frame we have around what a gratitude practice looks like and remold it with information and insights.
We know that gratitude is not a “have it” or “ooops, I missed that day at school”. Gratitude is cultivated. It is developed, and it is a practice. Saying it’s a practice does not mean it has to be done in a formal manner (such as a formal meditation practice or exercise program), but rather practice means we continue to practice it, without judgment or expectation (I am feeling some relief already!). Gratitude is the opposite of lack, or scarcity, which I wrote about last month. It is easy to see what we don’t have and to miss what we do have. As a matter of fact, studies show it is easier to feel grateful for things we don’t expect versus things that are expected. I expect my car to start when I push the handy starter button and thus far it has! How many times do I thank my car or express gratitude for it starting? Very few, because it was expected. Now back in the day, when we had a ‘76 orange Chevette (loved it!), I never knew if it was going to start (unexpected). And every time it started, I most certainly expressed gratitude through a song and seat dance!
We also know that gratitude is a choice. Or at least committing to cultivate gratitude is a choice. Often when we begin practicing gratitude, it can feel unnatural or contrived. One of my favorite morning meditations by Louise Hay calls on me to thank my appliances in my kitchen. This sometimes feels unnatural. But the more I do it, the more it makes sense. I am grateful for the refrigerator that cools my food, the gas stove that allows me to cook with precision, and especially my Nespresso that helps me get going in the morning! By thanking these devices, I do feel more positive, more energized and well, more grateful, which feels good. It also allows me to open my perspective up. I am blessed to have these appliances. I am grateful to have a warm kitchen to hold these appliances. I appreciate the fact that I have a job that allows me means to purchase and maintain these items. And I know that these are things too easily taken for granted and that many do not have the ability to have these gifts.
I also want to point out that gratitude is an “&” and not a “should”. It does not mean when we are suffering we have to say “I am hurting, I am in pain, I should be grateful.” It can sound like this “I am hurting, I am in pain, and I am grateful for this experience”. I remember well-intended people at my wedding (and various events) telling me instead of being sad that my mother could not be there, I should be grateful for the people who were there. I recall feeling anything but grateful… I felt shamed for not being grateful enough, for missing my mom. A healthier perspective I still carry is “My life has not been the same with the void of my mother, which still devastates me 28 Decembers later, and yet I am so grateful for the maternal figures who have loved me unconditionally through the last 28 years”. I hear comments from well meaning loved ones of the cancer patients I work with “Oh, stage II cancer, be thankful it’s not stage III or IV”. Yes, that patient certainly is grateful it is not more advanced, but not at the expense of their sadness or pain that they have cancer. So no using gratitude as a “should” in our newly-committed-to-practice.
I suggest we bring the basic mindfulness tenet of “beginners mind” to our new gratitude practice. When you wake up in the morning, notice everything and everyone as if it’s the first time and offer gratitude: Thank you to my alarm for starting my day. Thank you for running water to clean my body. I am grateful for food that nourishes me and gives me energy. Thank you to my modern car that runs faithfully with the push of a button. Thank you for each experience this day will bring me. If we look at things through fresh eyes, our gratitude grows. Thank you for a husband who has an unfailing Will Farrell sense of humor (I’ll be working on this one) and who loves me unconditionally. Thank you for the opportunity to aid people as they make choices to build a more authentic life. And today… thank you for the person reading this, for I am truly grateful you have witnessed my words.