The most powerful agent of growth and transformation is something much more basic than any technique: a change of heart. ~ John Welwood
Gratitude is more than a feeling. It is a practice. In the Native American tradition elders begin each ceremony with a prayer of gratitude to father sky, and mother earth, to the four directions, and to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. A Buddhist monk begins each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings in his life. Tibetan monks even offer prayers of thanksgiving for their suffering: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”
As we mature, one of our tasks is to move beyond a purely emotional response to life and to cultivate positive emotions as habits of the heart. What this means is that we practice being grateful when we don’t feel thankful, loving when we don’t feel loving, and kind when we’d rather be mean and surly. This is how we turn feelings, which come and go, into conscious, intentional attitudes that guide our actions even when we don’t “feel” like it. Our attitudes then become habits of the heart.
What you discover through focusing on and practicing gratitude is this: The more grateful you are, the more joyful you become. You become more joyful for yourself, and for the good fortune of others. You find that you can be happy for the people you love, for bright blue skies, warm sunshine, the scent of flowers in bloom, the soft caress of cool breezes blowing–even for your own breath. Instead of feeling guilty about your own good fortune, you become able to embrace pleasure even when you are aware of the suffering of others. The more grateful you become, the happier you feel for no apparent reason. You simply love life and enjoy being alive.
There is much to be grateful for even if we can’t always see it. Author Dawna Markova says it best when she reminds us, “Gratitude is like a flashlight. If you go out into your yard at night and turn on your flashlight, you can suddenly see what’s there. It has always been there, but you couldn’t see it in the dark.”
When you shine the flashlight of gratitude on your life you can see all of the blessings both great and small that have always been there. Like the Native American elders, gratitude helps us acknowledge and appreciate everything that sustains our lives each day.
Gratitude is an expression of our confidence that life itself is on our side, that good things will come our way, and that even when unwanted experiences visit us, we regard them as merely bumps in the road that can help us learn to become wiser, more complete, and more loving. Gratitude helps us acknowledge that the life force that the poet Tupac Shakur identified as enlivening “the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete” is the same life force that enlivens each and every one of us.
An attitude of gratitude is not judgmental, envious or jealous. It does not compare itself to anyone or anything. It does not compete or disparage; rather, it is an attitude that openly receives what the Universe is offering, the sun, the rain, the air, and the earth as that which supports all of life. Gratitude invites us to become engaged in the excitement and wonder of life.
One caution: Telling yourself or others that you or they should feel grateful is not helpful. Guilt doesn’t work. Gratitude springs from either a conscious decision to notice what’s right with your life instead of what’s wrong or what’s missing, or from a spontaneous opening of the heart to life’s wonders. If you’re like most people there will be days when it’s impossible to feel grateful for anything no matter how hard you try. When that happens, be kind to yourself. The less guilt tripping you do to yourself and others, the more space you create for gratitude to sweetly and softly envelope your heart.
As you intentionally cultivate an attitude of gratitude, it changes the way you view the world. When you practice being grateful you feel connected to the abundant flow of life. The more you say “Thank You” the more you experience the feeling and the richness of spirit that gratefulness produces. At such times you don’t need to work at being grateful; you just are.