Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man who believed that each individual must develop a personal understanding of the universe, suggested that to achieve contentment one should “cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.” Ah, if only it were that easy. At this time of year, as we celebrate the season of Thanksgiving, a lot of people talk about gratitude. This discussion tends to continue for the next five weeks as the winter holidays unfold and the beginning of a new year opens. The problem is how does that gratitude translate to the other 47 weeks of the year when the mood and the news and daily communication returns from that somewhat fairy-tale world of kindness the season brings. Does taking one day, or even an entire month of gratitude, translate into living a life of gratitude?
What does living a life of gratitude really mean and does it really make a difference on a day-to-day basis? For me, it means approaching life with a focus on what I’m grateful for instead of focusing on the threats, fears, and losses I’ve had in the past or that come my way directly or indirectly every day. It is easy to be filled with fear and loss just by listening to the news every day. I find I can’t read the paper first thing in the morning. Inevitably the headlines scream something to reinforce how horrible the world is. I don’t need that as the first thing I see in the morning. I save reading the paper or listening to a news broadcast for the end of the day—after I’ve put the day into perspective and can take in what is happening in the world without feeling helpless and hopeless.
Living a life of gratitude is not a matter of ignoring the negative and only seeing the positive. Instead, it is a way to put a new perspective into daily life and provide balance in my thinking. Feeling and expressing gratitude turns my mental focus to the positive, which compensates for my brains’ natural tendency to be wary, untrusting, and focus on what might hurt me or scare me. These are natural tendencies that have been embedded in the subconscious from every slight and downturn in the past. It is a part of the evolutionary process of all animals. In the wild lives depend on recognizing danger and escaping. The wild world is kill or be killed, only the strongest survive.
However, most of us don’t live in that environment. I know I don’t and, because of that, I can make choices about how I live, who I want to be and how I want my daily life to unfold. This doesn’t mean I have control of all everything in my life—far from it. However, it does mean that I have control over how I react to things. When I live a life of gratitude it generates emotions like joy, love, contentment, and acceptance through learning and creating a habit of the mind. Having that attitude can release the grip of anxiety and fear. Fostering gratitude broadens my thinking and allows me to think and behave in ways that are more likely to bring me, and those around me, joy.
Don’t be fooled. It’s not easy to lead this kind of life. All of us face challenges on a daily basis whether they are psychological, physical, economic, or just living day-to-day as an unknown or disrespected person. Even people who might be labeled as optimists (that’s me by the way) have many days when being grateful is very, very hard. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “Life is suffering,” attributed to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. Whether you are Buddhist or not, most people I know believe this to be true. But why is this the case?
Buddhism would say it is because of impermanence—because we hold onto the past and that makes us unable to accept or move through the present. Christians would say it is because we try to wrest control for ourselves instead of putting control into the hands of God. Many religions have ways of looking at suffering and explaining it as something we bring on ourselves. To me suffering is not an action. It is a reaction to the world we live in. It is a reaction to the knowledge that bliss and joy—or a transcendent feeling of serenity is rare. Those moments are few and far between, yet the intensity of the memory or experience leaves a permanent mark on us. A mark we always use to compare to our daily life and find our life “less than.”
The German philosopher, Goethe, described this experience as “the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.” In other words, the tendency is for one to constantly try to recreate those moments of pure joy. The outcome of that is people who work ceaselessly to satiate their goals and desires, in hopes that in doing so pain and suffering will disappear from their life and they will be left with a lasting happiness. However, this ideal of everlasting lasting joy is an illusion, and once people realize that impossibility, they are left with a sober realization that “Life is suffering.” It is inescapable.
The question then becomes: “How does one continue to live in that realization.” I could choose to deny that reality all together and keep striving to get more, take more, find more. I could choose to slug through the mud of suffering each day, and wallow in the unfairness of it all until I die. I could find a way to justify my suffering today for a greater good—whether that is helping those less fortunate, living for ones children, or living by faith that there is something beyond this world where that pure joy will be realized. In all those instances I accept that I may not see my works in this life, but I do it out of faith that my work is meaningful.
For me, the problem is whatever my faith in God, good deeds, or living for ones children, it is not strong enough to sustain me day in and day out until my death. Perhaps that is a failing in me. I need to see progress in my daily life, I need to act. This is where living a daily life in gratitude makes suffering bearable AND often brings me more days of joy. Not all days of living in gratitude are the consuming and transcending joy I seek. In fact only a few are. However, I believe it opens me up to more opportunities to experience that type of joy than any other choice I could make. Here are my five major practices.
Affirmations. I collect them. I share them. I post them near me or keep a window open on my computer with my affirmation for that day or week. An affirmation is something about me or my life that needs to be recognized, because I can forget it when in the midst of chaos or fear or evil. It can be something as simple as “You can do this!” to something more philosophical like a quote from a proverb, a great teacher, or even a celebrity.
The key to affirmations is not just reading them, or putting up sticky notes, or looking at them on my computer. The key is saying them out loud and with conviction. I know it sounds silly to some people. Sometimes saying it with conviction is hard. But it does make a difference. Maybe not the first time or the second time, but the third and fourth it becomes easier. On a particularly difficult day I will say my affirmation aloud several times during the day. Each time adding more conviction to my voice. You see, the reality is the affirmation IS true. I need to convince myself.
Breath Prayer or Meditation. When the day is pressing on me and I feel stress levels rising, I force myself to physically walk away from whatever the center of that stress is—whether it is my story, social media, the TV, or even a person. When it is a person I say: “I need to walk away and take a breath.” And I DO leave.Most days when I need to take a breath it is often an anxious feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things I need to do vs what I want to do in my career, my life, my relationships. I begin with a two minute breathing exercise. Slowly inhaling and exhaling, trying to let go of whatever I’m thinking of and just be. On really hard days, I’ll even use a timer on my phone to force me to stay still for two whole minutes with my eyes closed. At the end of the two minutes, I repeat my daily affirmation and then I speak—either aloud or in my head—what I’m grateful for in my life.Sometimes two minutes is not enough. Then I go for a longer walk.
Focus on What I do Have. It is easy to focus on what I don’t have or to compare what I have now to what I’ve lost. It is easy to wish for the carefree past of my childhood and be depressed because it will never be again, or to wallow in the “what ifs and whys” of economic changes of fortune or health. Or, in a moment of chaos and feeling overwhelmed, it is easy to believe that there is no way I will ever be able to catch up, become well-organized, or fulfill whatever dream I’m pursuing that day. All of this is my mistaken belief that if I work harder, faster, learn more, I will finally find that Easy button to push because that is the reward for someone who has it together.
Instead, I take time to focus on what I do have and be grateful for it. I DO still have a supportive extended family and friends. I know, wherever I am, there will be someone who will come to be my side if I only ask. (Asking is an entirely different essay) I DO have a place to live and I can afford groceries and even going out on occasion. I DO have the ability to make choices about how I spend my time. Being overwhelmed is a choice I’ve made—perhaps not completely consciously but I am aware of why it occurs. I can CHOOSE to not do certain projects. I can CHOOSE to reschedule. I can CHOOSE to rethink my priorities.
Is this easy? No, and I am not successful every day. But if I don’t try to change my focus, I know I will feel bad longer and not be open to any joy or bliss that day or maybe for several days or weeks.
Learn instead of Conquer. Though people who know me think I’m pretty zen, the reality is that I’m really good at presenting that face—or putting off the panic until I’m alone. On the inside I am always pushing forward and trying to balance all the projects while standing on my head. There are a million things I WANT to do, and I often think I need to do them RIGHT NOW. J Part of that thought process is in the belief that if I don’t do it right now the time for it to work best will pass, and that chance will not come again. Another part of the thinking is if don’t do it right now I may forget it and it’s importance (Parsing that is simply crazy. Right?). And there is also this tiny belief that I may die tomorrow, for none of us know the day that will happen, and it will have gone undone.
The reason I use the word “conquer” is because all the things I’m trying to do are me trying to control my life and every aspect of it. That is what a conqueror does—takes over and then tries to make sure no one strays from the path. In reality, I need to step back and let go. I need to ask myself: “What can I learn in this moment?” Most often the thing I need to learn is why having such utter control is so important to me. I also need to relearn, again and again, that the more I try to take control the more I actually allow events to control me.
I go back to gratitude. I am grateful I have the ability to learn. I have done it before and can do it again. I then gift myself the time to make a list of all those “To Dos” and ask myself what will happen if I don’t do that today. Will the world end? Will my love for friends and family be any less? Will I hurt others? Will my career really sink like a rock?
When I allow myself to take a breath, to reaffirm who I really am, and ask for insight, I realize the answer to all those questions is usually No. It doesn’t have to ALL be done right now. I can take a little time to make my list and prioritize or re-prioritize. Life is impermanent. Things change every day. New challenges are presented. The more I let go of control and allow myself to live in the moment, the more agile I become, the more choices I have.
Gratitude for my life. I know that even being alive is an amazing blessing. I have survived major health issues in the past, when others have not. I have driven cars and escaped close calls on the highway, where others have died. I have made choices in my youth—some out of naiveté and others out of rebellion—that could have ended very badly for me but didn’t. Others are taken from this world even when they made similar choices. When the going gets tough, one of the first things I do is to express gratitude for simply being alive. I am grateful for the amazing, complex, challenging, yet beautiful world I am blessed to live in. I am grateful for the myriad of opportunities to grow, to be creative, to share my voice and experiences with others
During this season of Thanksgiving, I thank YOU for taking the time to read this post and any of my writing you’ve found. I know that I am amazingly fortunate to have a career that entails sharing my thoughts, whether in fiction or nonfiction, and I am blessed that others find some value in it.
For all of you, my prayer this day is that each one of you will find at least one moment of transcending joy between now and the end of the year. Perhaps it will be spending time with someone you love. Perhaps it will be a break from the daily grind, or maybe reading something you love or eating something that makes you smile. Perhaps it is taking a hike and enjoying the beauty of the earth, or snuggling into the sofa with a warm fire. Whatever it is I exhort you to look for it. Make time for it. Recognize it. Embrace it.
When the moment has passed, share it so it can live again.
Lets Connect!. Follow me on your favorite social media sites