The Practice of Gratitude

Right now, I can feel that my body is coming down with a cold. I’ve been stalling it off for a couple weeks, but I think one of those darn bugs finally broke through and got to me. How do you feel when you’re sick? Other than “lousy,” if you’re like most people when you’re sick, all you want is to return to good health. As we’re blowing our irritated nose for the one-hundredth time this morning, or as we’re launched into a coughing fit in the middle of a conversation, we’re probably thinking, “I just want to be healthy again! Then I will feel so much better!”

The “high” we feel when we return to good health after being sick is pretty significant. A friend once told me it’s one of the greatest feelings he’s experienced——we almost feel like a superhero, being able to breathe through our nose again! But after the initial couple days (if even that long) of being relatively healthy again, we forget about how much better we feel by comparison, and we begin to take our good health for granted again.

Why is good health something we mostly appreciate when we don’t have it?

Well, it’s because of Gratitude, or rather, a lack of Gratitude.

There’s a Buddhist anecdote about a farmer who frantically approaches a group of monks one day. He is panicked, and he asks the monks, “Have you seen my cows? They’ve gotten away! First, all my crops died, and now I can’t find my cows!” The monks have not seen the cows, and after the farmer runs off to resume his pursuit, the Buddha turns to the others and says, “You know, you are all very fortunate because you have no cows and no crops to lose.”

When we have a little, we think, “Oh, if I could just have this much more, then I’ll be happy.” Whatever you desire, you can fill in the blank. I used to think, “If I could be prettier, have clear skin, be a little curvier, and get a nose job, then I would really love myself.” For others, it’s material possessions. “If I could just afford that new car, then I would be truly happy.” However, after they strive over the car and attain it, they are infatuated with a new carrot dangling in front of them. “Now, I just need to afford that brand new house and true happiness will be mine!” After they struggle and attain the house, it’s something else. “If I could have a vacation house, then I know life would be amazing!”

It’s a cycle of striving and ingratitude, and it happens on large scales and small scales. We wish and wish for something, but once that wish is fulfilled, there’s a medley of other wishes to take its place. It seems the more we get, the less satisfied we are.

When we embody gratitude, life begins to improve. Of course, life is not magically objectively better, but our perspective gradually changes how we interact with what’s “just life.”

Life is inherently impermanent, and so everything we think we have may be gone in a moment. Many of us understand this very intimately, and it can cause us to harden or close ourselves off. However, if we allow ourselves to stay vulnerable to this fact of life, to bravely accept what we cannot change and to love anyway, impermanence can be a magnificent teacher of gratitude. Because sometimes, we never knew how good we had it until we’ve lost it.

When we stop viewing life in terms of what we don’t have, and we start viewing life in terms of what we are able to enjoy, then we’re focusing on the good, and life seems much brighter! Rather than forlornly wish for an idealized version of our life, we can look around us and allow our heart to swell with gratitude for what’s within reach. “I am grateful for a warm place to sleep.” “I am grateful that I can call my parents and hear their voices.” “I am grateful that I can see all the vivid colors around me that enrich my experience.”

At first, when we learn gratitude, we have to be deliberate, like make a list and take inventory. Please, I implore you to make a list of everything you are grateful for, because sometimes when we are feeling defeated, it’s helpful to refer to this list and remember that we aren’t truly defeated at all.

But after we begin to make gratitude a habit, it becomes a lifestyle. We don’t have to take stock; we just live gratitude.

My mother shared with me an article the other day about the scientific affects of gratitude. In the experiment the article was reporting on, the researchers had a few different groups of test subjects——one group documented each day what they were grateful for, the other group wrote their complaints, and another group journaled in a neutral way. According to this study, the group who focused on gratitude was associated with better physical and mental health, and the study even claimed that gratitude seemingly rewires our brains and bodies to be healthier. The article explained that when we allow ourselves to feel truly grateful, it stimulates certain parts of the brain that release positive chemicals.

There are so many ways we can begin incorporating gratitude into our daily routines to help instill this in our mindsets. One way is by meditating——find a spot where we can sit quietly for any length of time, close our eyes, and focus our minds on the present moment, thinking about each part of our body (inside and out) and how it feels, what it does for us so that we can wake up each day.

Another way to practice gratitude is by journalling on this topic. Every morning or night, we can describe one thing or many things that we are happy for, and the journal is a great resource to look at when we experience emotions that leave us feeling not-so-grateful.

We can also make it a habit to drink tea and reflect on gratitude each morning. We can make posters to remind ourselves of what enriches our lives. We can make an effort to tell people that we appreciate them, and what we appreciate them for.

Eventually, the goal is to be grateful for every moment in our lives. This takes a lot of practice, and many of us will never reach this point, but that’s not important. What is important is that we make any effort at all, big or small, to step towards gratitude. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we forget our gratitude and lash out in a moment of ingratitude——we just need to recognize what happened and why we reacted that way, and to try again next time.

I think that once we get comfortable with where we are in life, once we get complacent, we really start to take things for granted. We have running water and we think nothing of it! We have flushable toilets and we don’t bat an eyelash! Our homes are lit up with electricity and we don’t feel happy every day for that, but if the power goes out, we get mad, just like the farmer who lost his cows!

Unfortunately I see ingratitude a lot as a restaurant worker. Our customers will sometimes nitpick their food, dissatisfied with the precise temperature of their pancakes or upset with the degree to which their eggs were cooked. And yes, while we do strive to meet a certain standard and give our guests the best possible experience, oftentimes I feel sad for the guests who cause a big stink over their food. I think about how lucky they are to be fussing over bacon when hundreds of thousands of children each day wake up and go to bed without eating at all. And how routine it is for us to eat three times a day, growing picky and fussy over what’s acceptable to our preferences.

Our exercise in gratitude is not to make ourselves feel guilty for our quality of living. Gratitude is about recognizing that we don’t have it so bad at all, and giving thanks to that. Everything could change in a second, but for where we are right now, things are all right. Things will always be all right if we can embody gratitude. It doesn’t need to be any different.

If you’re in a tough spot right now and you’re having trouble finding reasons to be grateful, here’s a list to help you get started. As you read each item, take a moment to think about how your life has been improved by each thing, and smile as you acknowledge this.

  • I am grateful for Slanted Spines (tee hee)
  • I am grateful for this breath
  • I am grateful for waking up this morning
  • I am grateful for my sight
  • I am grateful for my hearing
  • I am grateful for my sense of taste
  • I am grateful for my ability to smell
  • I am grateful for my literacy
  • I am grateful for my legs and arms
  • I am grateful for my heart
  • I am grateful for my lungs
  • I am grateful for my mind
  • I am grateful for learning from experiences
  • I am grateful for love
  • I am grateful for nature
  • I am grateful for the sun
  • I am grateful for water

Everything in life has the potential to be good or bad. If we receive a promotion at work, it may seem like a good thing because now we are in a position of more authority and have a higher salary, but it could also be a bad thing because now we are more stressed out at work and enjoy it less. If we get a flat tire, it may seem like a bad thing because now we are going to be late to dinner and have to spend money on changing the tire, but it could also be a good thing because maybe if we hadn’t gotten the flat tire, we would have gotten into a bad car accident down the road. Life isn’t “good” or “bad;” it is what it is, and it’s our own decision how we choose to look at it. What I’m saying is that, if we practice gratitude no matter what happens to us, then life will almost always seem all right. And if we can’t change life, we might as well change how we look at it, you know? If nothing else, everything is a lesson.

Today, I am grateful for my sniffles, which reminds me of how healthy I am on a regular basis. I am grateful for stability, hot tea, my friends, my family, and my cats. I am grateful for you, and I am grateful that you are reading these words and reflecting on gratitude with me.

Thank you for reading!


 

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Happy belated November 20th!

This week, it was both my birthday and the 4-year anniversary of Slanted Spines, which happens to fall on the exact same day! Four years ago, on my twentieth birthday, I published the debut post on Slanted Spines, a piece entitled “20” that satirically boasted of how much wiser and more mature I was, now that I was no longer a teenager. And as the legend goes, every Friday since then, Slanted Spines has posted a silly anecdote, a meaningful story, a thought-provoking poem, a light-hearted comic, or any other of the wide variety of content I create and share on my blog!

In honor of these two anniversaries of existence, I have received a lot of love this week, and I find myself absolutely bursting with gratitude and appreciation. Slanted Spines is the culmination of my soul and all of its artistic and emotional expressions, and so every time someone buys Slanted Spines merch, shares my posts, likes my posts, or heck, even reads my posts, I feel joyous. I would love to get to the level where Slanted Spines can be a full time career for me so I can quit my day job and focus all of my energy on it, and I will keep pouring love into it for the rest of my lifetime to get there! I hope you will help me get there by continuing your support in big and small ways.

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude this week, I’ve decided to write today’s post about this topic. It’s been a while since I’ve written a “Mindful Living” article, and so I figured we were due for a little soft reflection.

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