The Practice of Gratitude
How We Can Take Up the Challenge
Previously, we explored the importance of gratitude, not only as the underlying emotional state for Thanksgiving and the holidays, but as a foundation for a meaningful and fulfilling life. This is a significant challenge for many of us, both because we are in a period of economic decline for most folks, and we live in an entitlement-focused culture that defines our worth in terms of material wealth and power. Fortunately, even if we are not currently predisposed to perceiving the world through eyes of gratitude, there are adaptations of modern-day psychological practices, many adapted from ancient disciplines of our spiritual traditions that can cultivate the development of gratitude in our basic nature.
Last week, we looked at a psychological study which supported the usefulness of recording life experience in gratitude journals as a practice leading to higher emotional and physical functioning across the board. What is involved in keeping a gratitude journal? The process is simple: Every day, record five things you love or appreciate. By practicing this as a discipline, you create a positive bias in the way you are predisposed to perceive and interpret your daily life experience. Knowing that you will be writing those five positives in your journal on a daily basis will have you looking for the positive embedded in even the apparent most negative experiences.
It is important to record those five things every day, even if your initial efforts are as simple as feeling gratitude for having a hot shower. In fact, it’s the small things that contribute most to this emotional state. In her book, Simple Abundance, Sarah Breathnach explains the unbelievable changes that can come with such a journal. With time and accumulation of entries, she says, “an inner shift in your reality will occur. Soon you will be delighted to discover how content and hopeful you are feeling. As you focus on the abundance rather than on the lack in your life, you will be designing a wonderful new blueprint for the future. This sense of fulfillment is gratitude at work, transforming your dreams into reality.” A variation on that is to keep a gratitude journal for each special person in your life, in which you accumulate your entries of everything that makes you grateful for having that person in your life. Eventually shared as a gift, the journal will be a treasure that will far surpass anything that can be purchased.
The practice of meditation is another method for developing gratitude. While modern psychology has a number of techniques for deep relaxation, the basis for those techniques goes way back. The esoteric branches of every religious tradition developed techniques for relaxing and pulling your energy inward to find that sacred Presence within your being. It can be a challenge, just adopting a method and then disciplining yourself to practice the techniques which take your awareness away from the outer world and all of its sensations and distractions. But the effort is well worth it. The breakthrough that comes with awareness of the sustenance of your being in that all-pervading Presence of unconditional love (referred to by Jesus as the Comforter, or Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition; Paramatman in the Vedic tradition; Shekinah in the Jewish Kabbalist tradition) will evoke a sense of gratitude like no other experience.
While prayer is often practiced alone as a path to gratitude, in combination with meditation, it is even more powerful. It has been said that while prayer is talking to the Divine; meditation is listening. The old adage that we should listen more, talk less, is applicable here. Also, the combination is more likely to evoke the experience of devotion, which adds the element of commitment to the experience of gratitude, strengthening the experience.
Choose Options That Work For You
In choosing these methods, it is important to choose techniques of meditation, prayer and devotion that fit your belief system. If your belief system feels stifling for you, or if you have experienced religious or spiritual abuse (not uncommon these days), then I invite you to seek support through persons and resources you feel you can trust. Remember that gratitude and the spirit of lovingkindness cannot be cultivated in an atmosphere of fear and judgment.
Having at least one source in your life where you can receive and experience unconditional love creates a solid foundation for the experience of gratitude, but then, so can the rejections and disappointments of life. As we discussed earlier, it is important to develop the capacity to recognize and remember our suffering as spiritual tempering, or teaching, experiences. As we look back with wisdom on these painful episodes, we can recognize what Ram Dass calls the “fierce grace” behind a process which ultimately makes us better human beings.
Finally, just remembering to say “thank you” to the persons and events contributing to your life is a way of expressing gratitude. The Essenes had a technique they called the “Great Gratitude,” which involved the conscious practice of offering such thanks. One way to start would be to extend the act of saying grace before meals to beginning each of your activities in this manner. Eventually, you may find yourself simply feeling grateful for the gratitude that permeates your life and you will know you have arrived.
Next: Presence: The Best Presents
Granville Angell (copyright 12/2005)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. Currently, he is rebuilding his private practice: TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services, including a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors.