Practicing Gratitude: Tips for Realists
I was recently asked to present a weekend workshop on gratitude. I accepted the invitation—and then panicked. In my first wave of gratitude was appreciation that I wasn’t asked to present a weekend of geometry. But this invitation seemed nearly as far out of my wheelhouse.
Isn’t thankfulness a sticky, smarmy, holiday kind of thing that cheerful, “everything is hunky-dory” folks do? Anyone who has sat in my teacher training classes knows of my penchant for satire and snark, and for debunking tightly held darling notions. But as is often the case, we end up teaching what we most need to learn—and it turns out that I’m more of a grateful-nik than I thought.
Isn’t thankfulness a sticky, smarmy, holiday kind of thing that cheerful, “everything is hunky-dory” folks do?
Here are some of my favorite ways to live every day in a state of gratitude.
Remember: Less Is More
Take a look at how one’s palate changes when we reduce sugar, spice, or salt for a time. When we reintroduce one of these to the diet, the flavor becomes intense—too sweet, too salty, too spicy. The same is also true in the reverse—for example, when we wear headphones to listen to music, we shout to compensate for being unable to hear over the excess sound in our ears. As another example, yoga teacher/anatomist Leslie Kaminoff likes to point out that when the feet can’t feel the earth beneath them because of dense soles and structured shoes, our feet have to strike the earth harder to gain the same information. With excess, we need more input.
In terms of gratitude, this means that if we become accustomed to finding satisfaction from doing and owning more, it will likely take more and more stimulation to attain the same level of positive feelings. While no one would advocate for intense suffering and deprivation as a means of feeling grateful for any good that comes along, owning four pairs of boots may really not engender more positive feelings than one great pair.
The same could be said of having five yoga certifications or making dozens of pilgrimages. More is simply more. Caring more for what we have right now, and less about what we lack, is a key to happy living.
It Is in Giving…
We know that generosity and service make us feel better. But according to Stephen G. Post, PhD, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, altruism can also grant us a longer life.
We all know the “feel good” moment of sharing abundance with someone less fortunate. St. Francis may not have known about endorphins, but he knew much about the beneficial effects of gratitude. We receive from giving.
Weed Out Complaints
We’re often inclined to amuse ourselves with recounting our misfortunes rather than the smiles and sweetness in our day. Becoming aware of that tendency can help us focus more on the positive. My friend, author and minister Will Bowen, wrote the book A Complaint Free World, advising us to recondition ourselves to positive speech. Using a simple bracelet, one simply moves it from one wrist to the other each time we hear ourselves complain—calling our attention to our samskara (the habitual repetition of our misfortunes). The goal is 21 days of complaint-free living—which is tougher than you might think. But this intentional weeding works in us as in all areas of nature.
Count Your Blessings
Giving the mind daily post-it notes is a way to encourage the brain to think less randomly and more carefully about what we choose. You may have heard the adage “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” meaning that repetition strengthens brain synapses. Daily practice, or sadhana—particularly if done with affirmative and heartening focus—enhances our ability to stay positive and grateful throughout the day. Repetitive gratitude practices, whether written or recounted mentally, are tools for becoming better at life.
One way to keep your focus on the positive is gratitude journaling. My husband and daughters produce gratitude journals in exquisite script, rendering frameable illustrations in the margins. I do not. My handwriting is more erratic than that of most fourth-graders, and I scratch out unwanted words vigorously—which does not make for a pleasing presentation. Sometimes I journal on my computer (with some entries becoming nice posts for social media—though that’s not really the goal), or I just keep my scribbly words to myself in tea-stained, bathtub-wrinkled, spiral-bound notebooks. Making a habit of gratitude is what matters, whatever form your journal takes.
The Company You Keep
Another fine way to reinforce our brain’s positive connections is through human connection. Seeking other people who help others and live lives of gratitude helps us see gratitude as a normal daily behavior. If instead we hear complaints all day, our habits become aligned to complaint as the norm. If friends who reinforce a norm of gratitude are rare in your life, look to the sages. Memorizing short passages from great teachers, and then recalling them throughout your day or in meditation, is a gratitude magnet. I offer these passages as powerful reminders to be grateful:
May I open my eyes in the morning with the Holy Name on my lips.
May I see Divinity everywhere and in everyone.
May I never hurt anyone and may I never be afraid of anyone.
May I be inspired to choose persuasive words,
loving language, creative and positive thoughts
to bring peace and goodwill throughout the world.
May my meditation deepen so I can draw upon the
Source of all life for healing myself and the world.
May I fall asleep at night with the Holy Name on
my lips, healing my wounds and preparing me
for another day of service.
—From the Invocations to the Upanishads (Translated by Eknath Easwaran)
Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.
—“Being Peace,” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Every day, think as you wake up:
Today I am fortunate to have woken up.
I am alive, I have a precious human life.
I am not going to waste it.
I am going to use
all my energies to develop myself,
to expand my heart out to others,
to achieve enlightenment for
the benefit of all beings.
I am going to have
kind thoughts towards others.
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others.
I am going to benefit others
as much as I can.
God makes the rivers to flow. They tire not, nor do they cease from flowing. May the river of my life flow into the sea of love that is the Lord. May I overcome all the impediments in my course.
May the thread of my song be not cut before my life merges in the sea of life.
Guard me against all danger, O Lord. Accept me graciously, O King of kings.
Release me from my sorrows, which hold me as ropes hold a calf. I cannot even open my eyes without the power of your love.
Guard us against the grief that haunts the life of the selfish. Lead us from darkness into Light.
We shall sing of your love as it was sung of old. Your laws change not, but stand like the mountains.
Forgive me all the mistakes I have committed. Many mornings will dawn upon us again. Guide us through them all, O Lord of Love.
―The Rig Veda
It is simple in theory, isn’t it? Reinforce your brain’s “gratefulness receptor” with reminders in written and spoken word. Discourage your whining through self-observation. Seek the company of the grateful, learn to live minimally, and care about the little things.
Becoming a grateful-nik is not an overnight makeover. But you’ll soon see that the flow of energy released by gratitude can both enrich our own lives, and serve all those we meet.