Updated: Apr 9
Practicing gratitude can be transformative. This simple practice gives me the lift I need to rise above daily sufferings and weather the uncertainties of 2020.
Gratitude is attentional. We direct attention to our blessings. This intentional practice counters the brain’s negativity bias, which refers to the tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, interactions or traumatic events. This attentional focus affects our impressions, memory, decisions, and biochemistry. The negativity bias confers advantages (caution, prudence, and planning may stem from it), but when negativity becomes the dominant way of seeing, it can contribute to mental distress and physical dis-ease.
I learned this as a young man growing up in poverty. With eyes of gratitude, I saw that even in the most blighted neighborhoods, flowers bloomed, birds sang, children played, the sun warmed our skin. The most resilient among us offered proof that peace, love, and happiness were not contingent on income, education, status, or circumstance. True peace and joy could be cultivated from within. Gratitude promoted its growth. I made gratitude a habit, enumerating things for which I was thankful. In the beginning of my experiment, I listed the obvious: food in my belly, a roof over my head on rainy days, clothes on my back and shoes on my feet. Every day, I passed by homeless men and women who did not enjoy these blessings. Their suffering watered my compassion. Paved roads, homes built to code, indoor plumbing, a reliable electric grid, clean tap water, free public education, sanitation and waste disposal, public libraries, the right to criticize and challenge government officials, and peaceful transfers of power were blessings many took for granted. Many cultures suffered for lack of just one of these. Access to clean water, for example, allowed girls in remote villages to attend school (as they no longer had to walk miles to fetch water from a river).
Growing up in the 'hood was itself a blessing. I learned compassion. There was suffering just outside our iron security doors. The drug addicts and gang members who were demonized in the press were suffering human beings with names and faces and histories. They were our neighbors, members of the church we grew up with, classmates, kin- human beings just like us- not statistics, not monsters, not villains. I learned resilience. Life was struggle. Life was suffering. This is the First Noble Truth posited by Prince Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha. He lived the sheltered, privileged life of a nobleman, and learned this truth after venturing outside the palace gates. I learned this as a child, nor did I have to venture far. I could see it outside the barred windows. I learned humility and interdependence, relying on one another. We toughened one another up. We played dirty dozens and learned how to laugh at insults, thickening our skins. I learned how to knuckle up and fight. I learned how to cultivate self-respect and self-love in a culture that despised us for the color of our skins and our poverty.
Practicing gratitude improved my moods. This habit, when applied, lessened the intensity and duration of my despair. Indeed, as my practice deepened, I found myself grateful for my sadness and anger, my failures and frustrations, my pain and suffering. With gratitude, I could hold my despair in a compassionate embrace. For behind the sadness and anger were beautiful needs to be seen, to be respected, to be understood. By tolerating failure and frustration, I could train resilience and cultivate equanimity. Empathy grew out of pain. Because I suffered, I could stand in solidarity with those who felt defeated by despair, failure, and frustration. Those connections were often the most profound and enduring. There was beauty in it!
Over time, my gratitude deepened. The simplest things delighted the soul. One of the greatest gifts for which I was most grateful was the most humble and unassuming; it was literally right under my nose.
The breath was a gift. It was my ally. All other blessings came courtesy of the comings and goings of the breath. I did not create it. I had no hand in mapping the pathway from brain to diaphragm; I did not line the trachea with cilia to filter air, nor did I have a hand in designing lungs- one slightly larger than the other to make room for the heart; I did not imagine alveoli or create the gas exchange; I did not stock the atmosphere with the right composition of gases to support life. I was breathed into and gifted with life.
While I could not suspend the breath, I could control it. I could observe it. I could rest in it’s rhythm and constancy. Life danced within. Each breath could bring me back into the present moment. My appreciation grew deeper as my awareness grew more discerning. I might express gratitude for the eye, a wondrous organ that evolved over millennia to detect light. The pupil contracted when exposed to light and dilated to capture light in darkness. It could zoom in or zoom out at the speed of thought. I’d notice and itemize those things I could appreciate with sight: colors, textures, shadows, depth of field, the empty space between objects, the filtered light that fell on the trees at dawn, the waxing crescent moon in a starry night sky, the stamens in a flower. I’d list the activities which sight enabled me to enjoy, like reading. Sight was but one of the wonderful gifts we were fortunate to receive at birth.
Then there was inner seeing. The sense organs recorded sight and sound, but the mind filtered and interpreted the data. There was perception and there was the Thought behind thought that processed the raw data. The mind created stories about what it was seeing, co-creating reality or submitting to the reality created by others, investing in the illusions of others. This sight allowed me to peek behind the veil of thought-forms to the Mystery beyond thought- from which thought emerged. This was a true seeing. With this sight, I could see the beauty in the tired eyes of the prostitute or divinity in the dirty face of a homeless man pushing a shopping cart.
Although, by the standard of those who equated wealth with material assets, I was “poor,” I felt grateful for what I had and, as my practice deepened, so too did my contentment. I needed very little to be happy. As I continued on this journey, venturing further into the practice of gratitude, I included that which I did not have to endure: hunger, disease, war, extreme poverty, neglect, abuse or illness. Turns out researchers recognized the value of this technique of reminding ourselves of those things we do not have to suffer or endure (But, I trust that even if I must suffer, there might be purpose in it).
So, I encourage you to give this a try. Every day find 10 things for which to be grateful. You can write them down or count them off on your fingers. The practice is simple, yet powerful. Don't take my word for it, but experiment for yourself.