Gratitude and A Season to Pause
The first thing I know about encouraging gratitude in others is don’t tell them to feel grateful; encourage them to feel everything. Gratitude, for it to be deep and consistent in our lives, comes from a sense of wholeness. When we learn to feel everything, we are more likely to recognize the feelings of gratitude. As we more fully hold our pain, sadness and hurt, we will also come to see their connection to love and joy. That is, our pain and hurt are evidence of our capacity for connection and love. Holding our pain and hurt with gentleness and awareness, we will begin to connect it to the things in our lives we most value. Instead, we often try to block out or “escape” our pain and in doing so we limit our capacity to feel joy and love.
Mindfulness is the opposite practice of self-medicating and escapism. Mindfulness is a practice or effort to focus on what is. Mindfulness can increase our sense of gratitude. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the first thing we notice when we wake up with a tooth ache is the previous non-toothache we have been taking for granted. Mindfulness means that we will recognize our non-toothache before it is gone. This will engender gratitude for our non-toothache.
When many people think of mindfulness they often imagine mediation in the lotus position, but we can experience mindfulness in our walking, doing the dishes, or while eating. Sometimes mindfulness requires us to sit still and listen, but there is also value in talking about what we think and feel with another. Psychotherapy is a kind of mindfulness. In psychotherapy, we are learning to pay attention to the events in our lives and our associated feelings and thoughts. We learn where these internal states come from and how they are expressed, either in our symptoms or through our speech. I often refer to therapy as talking mindfulness. The outcome of this kind of mindfulness can be gratitude. In this way of thinking, gratitude is the outcome or evidence of mental health. Gratitude is evidence of an emotional and spiritual awakening.
People often refer to the idea of practicing gratitude. That never made sense to me until I thought of practicing gratitude as practicing mindfulness—the result is gratitude. If one is hurting or feeling stuck, it may not be possible for them to immediately feel gratitude. They may be served better, by embracing and experiencing their pain in order to move through it. The result will often be a sense of well-being and associated gratitude.
There may a biological barrier to gratitude. It is our negativity bias. Negativity bias served us in survival because our brains are wired to recognize threats more than non-threats. This emphasis of the brain to focus on “the negative” ensured we survived to pass on our genes. A simple example would be that if there was a tasty piece of fruit in front of me and I failed to notice it, the outcome would only be missing a meal. But If I missed noticing the presence of a predator, the outcome could be death. We wonder why, for many of us, we are prone to focus on and remember the negative and the negativity bias can explain this propensity. It can also explain why we struggle to practice gratitude and need to train ourselves to be mindful of the things in our lives—of the non-toothache.
Lastly I want to make a connection between grace and gratitude. Our experience of grace, an experience where we receive something without our believing we have earned it, may be the most powerful way to engender gratitude. People find this grace in religion or belief in God, a loving friend or in an A.A. meeting. I have found it in my marriage with an amazing wife and in therapy where my therapist has tolerated my horrible-rotten-self for the last 17 years. That term, horrible-rotten-self, is a term she uses to playfully point out that it is our fear, my fear, that the person I am is not good enough or worthy of love. She of course is implying the opposite—that who I am is enough. Who I am, with all my faults, flaws, neuroses, and humanness is enough. The result of experiencing such grace, of experiencing her non-judgment has led to a powerful sense of gratitude in me. Maybe in the end, it is the idea we are taught that we earn love that leads to the sense of entitlement and this blocks us from feeling a sense of gratitude. Over the past few years, gratitude has come easy to me, but my road to this came through pain, hurt and the powerful love that loved ones and friends have shown to me.
Abundance does not necessarily lead to gratitude. My experience has shown me that, on the contrary, those with a lot are often without gratitude, while those with very little are often more inclined towards gratitude. It has always been so interesting to watch students and clients in our Wilderness Program develops a stronger feeling of gratitude. In many ways, wilderness living is an experience in mindfulness. We learn to feel, to notice more with all the distractions removed. We learn to appreciate what we have because we cannot take anything for granted.
The holiday season is a perfect time to pause and to focus on things that we often take for granted or ignore. It is a time to slow down, put down our phones, look each other in the eyes, and listen. Some will feel a lot of pain and loneliness during the holidays. This too should be a time for them to grieve and we can develop the capacity to sit with loved ones in their sorrow. If we are allowed to focus on our losses and our sadness, we will also come to know our joys and our love better. May this season be a season of wholeness—the joy and the pain—for all of you.