To live a life of gratitude
is to open our eyes to the countless ways
in which we are supported by the world around us.
Such a life provides less space for our suffering
because our attention is more balanced.
We are more often occupied
with noticing what we are given,
thanking those who have helped us,
and repaying the world in some concrete way
for what we are receiving.
Naikan: Gratitude, Grace & the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection
Yesterday I saw myself full of angst, ruminating about getting older and just wishing life would go the way I want. Some days this type of mood seems to go on and on as I watch myself get derailed by depression, anxiety or hopelessness.
It’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s going wrong. I often notice myself spending my time thinking about what needs to be fixed while taking for granted all the good things that are happening. There is some evidence that this is just how our minds work because it was adaptive for our earlier ancestors. After all, to survive in the jungle it’s not so healthy to be appreciating a beautiful sunset while ignoring the hungry tiger around the next corner.
However, a problem solving approach to life is not so adaptive today. Even when things are less than perfect, (we all get older after all) it’s still possible to experience equanimity, even happiness, no matter what is happening. My mindfulness practice is one way that I bring myself into this present moment with kindness and curiosity, back to being fully alive here and now.
I’ve also found it helpful to cultivate a gratitude practice. Noticing things I am grateful for whether large (precious friendships, for instance), or small (a stranger who went out of their way for me, for example) helps me consciously find more balance in how I view my life experiences.
Studies have also shown that cultivating a gratitude practice can contribute to experiencing more positive emotions and having a more optimistic outlook on life while decreasing physical symptoms of stress.
Cultivating gratitude doesn’t mean that you ignore injustice or don’t respond to the difficulties and challenges in your life. It’s simply a way to open to life with new eyes, a way to bring mindfulness into your life on a deep level.
Robert Emmons, a psychologist who has studied gratitude, defines two parts that are important in a gratitude practice:
- an affirmation of goodness: there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received, something outside ourselves.
- identifying the source of this goodness: circumstances and conditions that led to it happening.
For example, when I went for a walk this morning, I was very grateful for the simple pleasure of walking without pain given my struggles before my recent hip surgery. Then I considered the source by taking in all the people and circumstances and conditions it took to make that surgery possible. First came the myriad people who supported me thru the surgery. Then, going deeper, what about all those involved with perfecting the operation over many, many years?
By reflecting not just on the event, but also the sources, I start to take in the huge interdependent web of life of which I am a part. I start to really appreciate “the countless ways in which we are supported by the world around us.”
- Each day spend 5 or 10 minutes thinking of 3 things that went well that day or that you are grateful to have in your life, large or small. Start by giving each event a title.
- Next write down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, including what you or others did or said.
- Now contemplate the source. Explain what you think are some of the causes or conditions that brought this event to mind and into your life.
- Allow yourself to breathe into the feelings elicited by each entry. Really feel whatever is happening as you write each piece.
Starting (or ending) each day in this way can be inspiring and enervating. We’d love to hear about your experiences with this practice, either here or on our Facebook page.