Last week, I was in the grocery store when I came across a rack of Father’s Day greeting cards. As I looked through the cards honoring dads, I started to think about how occasions like Father’s Day, birthdays, and anniversaries typically prompt us to celebrate special people in our lives. They’re a chance to reflect on how important these individuals are to us and how they have impacted us. Special dates also bring up an awkward paradox: how easily we can express appreciation on auspicious occasions, and how easily we can lose sight of being grateful for the very same people day to day.
Clearly, practicing gratitude requires some attention, so how can we bring gratitude to the forefront of our lives? How can we take the practice of thankfulness to a whole new level and kindle it 365 days of the year?
Gratitude Is Our Essential Nature
Gratitude is an inherent quality that resides within each of us. It’s both a feeling and an attitude. Gratitude begins by looking within and appreciating the value of one’s experiences. For example, during that same trip to the grocery store, while strolling through the produce section, I was struck by the vibrant color of the cherries. I stopped to sample one and began to smile. Just noticing the joy of this simple moment, I felt gratefulness emerge internally. It felt so sweet! Real gratitude heightens our awareness of the preciousness of the moment; it inspires personal growth. Studies show that gratitude can be deliberately cultivated and its effects can improve wellbeing and happiness among those who choose to develop it. Exactly my experience in the grocery store!
On an external level, gratitude is an expression of our appreciation for life. Sometimes we get so focused on life’s challenges that we lose sight of being grateful for simply having a life to live. We focus on “doing” and we overlook family and close friends who make life even brighter. We may be quick to complain, moan, judge or feel entitled – attitudes of mind that interfere with valuing the moment. In contrast, being grateful is choosing to not take things for granted and as a result helps us see life through a fresh lens. Emerging science also demonstrates that grateful thinking – and especially expressing it to others – is associated with increased levels of energy, optimism, and empathy.
Gratitude + Mindfulness = Awakening
There are many ways to cultivate a practice of gratitude. One approach is through mindfulness. With mindfulness, we see things as they are, rather than as they used to be or as we wish they could be. As we learn to pay closer attention to what is going on inside us and around us, we realize that our emotions, perceptions, and experiences are constantly changing. Too often, we forget that life is not lived only in the ‘big events’, but also in the everyday ‘little’ ones.
When we awaken to the understanding that each day presents us with new possibilities and unexpected discoveries, we increase the influence that these interactions, experiences and situations have on our lives. In turn, we can cultivate gratitude for these moments. While each person’s approach is unique, eventually gratitude has the ability to change the quality of our life. With an outlook of gratitude, we hold a sense of wonderment, meaning, and appreciation, recognizing that we are all connected in a great web of interdependence.
Practicing Gratitude in Difficult Times
But what about when challenges and difficult circumstances befall us? How do we practice feeling grateful when we are sad or fearful, or when a relationship has soured and we are feeling frustrated or even depressed? In these circumstances, a practice of mindfulness and gratitude has the power to bring new perspective. We cannot change the fact that we are affected by the world around us, in the same way that a tree cannot stop its branches from swaying when the wind blows. However, like a tree with deep roots, we can learn to steady ourselves and use the breath to ground ourselves in the present moment. During difficult times and periods of loss, an attitude of gratitude can be transformative. Appreciating even one little thing – like the sound of the rain, a beautiful bloom, or a child’s smile – can change the tenor of the day from despair to hope.
Within every obstacle, there is an invitation to heal and cope. In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether that involves minor everyday aggravations or major personal disruptions. So next time you feel lost in your challenges or sabotaged or burdened by circumstance, take a moment to pause and breathe. Then consider the question: What am I learning about myself? And can I find ways to feel thankful for the learning and gifts that are present?
8 Tips to Kindle Gratitude
Learn more at www.mindfulnesswithoutborders.org.