Some people are born with an amazing talent for seeing what is wrong in every single thing. I know such people. They are painful to be around. Pain…full. I imagine being Gwyneth Paltrow’s friend would be like that. Listening to her drone on about how tough it is being a beautiful, movie actress who has recently “uncoupled” and is raising her children as a single working mother with more help than I have fingers might grate me a bit. (yes, she did actually do this recently, OUT LOUD.)
I think why those people bug me so much now is that I’ve come a long way from there – because I was there. I was always looking at what “wasn’t” in my life instead of looking at what “was.” Looking at what is right in your life and looking at what isn’t are two radically opposing ways of experiencing the world. One cultivates the conditions for experiencing more joy, more expansion, more of your basic goodness and good. It’s plowing your little plot of dirt with patience day after day, year after year. Picking up the rocks, fertilizing the soil, watering the seeds and trusting that this care and cultivation will evolve into a beautiful rose garden. The other, well, not so much. It’s like dumping cement on your little plot hoping the flowers will grow anyway.
Not to pretend that this didn’t take time for me because it did. That mopey teenaged girl in me who went around saying, “like, I’m sure” just wouldn’t budge. She hung around way longer than was necessary telling me just how great everybody else had it but me. In Buddhism, we call that the “comparing” mind. You know, the “she is smarter, has skinnier thighs, clearer skin, drives a red convertible VW Rabbit and lives across the street from the dreamy quarterback from the football team” mind. It took time but it wasn’t actually hard turning from a “what wasn’t” into a “what was” person. In fact, it was simple: I started to keep a gratitude journal. (OK, let the teenager in you roll your eyes here. My daughter sure did when I suggested starting one to her.)
I like to call my gratitude journal “My Glass is Half Full Journal” but you can call yours whatever you like. Maybe start off slowy with “My Life is Better than a Starving Child in Africa’s Because… Journal” and then build up to “Why My Day Didn’t Totally Suck Journal” and maybe you can eventually get to “Some Pretty Good Things Happened Today, Here They Are Journal” and so on and so forth. If you keep it up, one day your journal might just be entitled, “Wow, My Life is Pretty Great, Here’s Why Journal” and you will find endless things to fill it with on a daily basis. No, really. I know it sounds sentimental and trite but it actually takes guts. Each day we drop our complaints and gripes and allow everyday’s good fortune to inspire us, we are on the path of the “warrior” spirit. I defy anyone who keeps one for a couple of months to not feel a shift, to experience as I did “The eyes of my eyes have opened.” (ee cummings). Or as Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of “Simple Abundance” says,”You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life.” Come on! Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to let that cynical teenager in you go and see what it would be like to actually appreciate the life you were given regardless of the state of your thighs or quarterback dating status?
Now I’m a writer. I write down everything. I write down To Do’s, I write notes to myself, I write to communicate with others, I write to clarify, I write to solidfy, I write because when I write something down, it makes it more real to me. So for me, writing down a list of my blessings has more impact for me than just listing them in my head at the end of the day but if that works for you, then perfect. But you have to do it consciously. That’s the key. Living a conscious life is the goal. Well, at least mine. I’m sort of “the unexamined life isn’t worth living” type of person as you may have gathered. Ultimately, realizing that the greatest gift of abundance you have received, we have all received, is this conscious embodiment for a short and precious time, in which you can know life for yourself, know your life directly. To taste life, to know what it is and to make of it what you are able. You are given an amazing opportunity to experience you in physical form, in this physical place in this moment in time. If nothing else, that is one hell of a gift, no? Couldn’t you just be thankful for that everyday of your life?
Was that too much, too soon? Ok, let’s take it more slowy:
Here’s what happens when you start to acknowledge and be thankful for your good consistently: It starts to multiply. What you put your attention to multiplies. Put your attention to all the bad in your life and I guarantee you it will be coming up stinkweed everywhere. Put your attention to what is good in your life and it will be coming up roses more and more. In fact, you will start noticing throughout your day all the great things in it. The things you once took for granted and thought nothing of. The person who let you in front of them at the grocery store because you only had 2 items, the green light you made when you were running late, the text from someone just saying “hi” when you needed it. These little things you begin acknowledging start to become the basis for a wider perspective, for a broader appreciation for all the abundance in your life. You start to see how many more roses there are than stinkweed. It changes your perspective. “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” (Wayne Dyer)
Of course, it is easy to acknowledge your blessings when life is going well. Your husband just landed a huge promotion, your daughter just got a full ride to State, Little Johnny just sold more popcorn in Boys Scouts than any other boy in his troop and got his picture in the paper. Life is good! Get me my gratitude journal! The challenge is to find abundance, find blessings when things aren’t going so great. When Dad just lost his job, when your daughter just got caught cheating on her mid term, when Little Johnny just got busted for possession. Where’s that gratitude journal now? Gratitude is not about denying life’s difficulties, not about glossing over the truth of life’s hardships like illness, death and loss and stamping on a smiley face but to meet those things with an open heart and an open mind also. Practicing gratitude with consistency is practicing living into life, of being connected to life. With all its good and all its bad. Because feeling thankful for being part of this life no matter what your circumstances or what is happening in it at the moment, blossoms into a mindfulness beyond the superficial aspects of “the situation” to a deeper truer perspective. To a deeper experience of your life.
Cultivating gratitude balances your tendency to focus on what’s wrong, on what is lacking that can lead to a distorted perception of life as a constant struggle that needs to be overcome. It is so easy to become fixated on the terrible and tragic aspects of our lives, of our world that you forget to feel grateful for the smallest of pleasures and take for granted the biggest of gifts. You can forget that there is a lot to be grateful for. Maybe Dad got a severance package that allows him to relax for a year while he looks for a new job and maybe he hated that job anyway. Maybe your daughter learned an important lesson about taking short cuts that will benefit her the rest of her life? Maybe Little Johnny is a minor and this won’t be on his permanent record or maybe his parole officer is a decent guy or the judge was lenient or … or … or .. there is always something if you look in the worst of circumstances that you can be grateful for. Even in death, you can simply be grateful for having been part of that person’s life – for however long or short it was. I am grateful everyday for the blessing of spending 19 years with my husband. It outweighs my sorrow, it outweighs my grief. My gratitude has more weight. But I’ve worked that muscle.
I have kept a gratitude journal for over 20 years. For kicks, because that’s what passes for a good time these days, I like to peruse my old ones seeing what I was grateful for years ago. Food is always a major contender – and coffee tops the list a lot too – especially during the baby years. Sleep too. You really see what you love when you take a look back. I really like my sleep. A good nap makes the list at least every week. Small pleasures, simple abundances, small things make up the bulk of my journals. The fleeting ordinary moments that we usually rush right past. The hug from my little boy, the laughter from my daughter’s room, the way my dog would sleep under the covers like a person, the flowers my husband brought home every time he went to the grocery store, the fact that he went to the grocery store. The ordinariness of our good fortune can make it hard to catch.
The reality is everybody’s life consists of small, ordinary things. The big moments are few and far between. “Greatness,” Ecktart Tolle says, “is a mental abstraction and a favorite fantasy of the ego. The foundation for greatness is honoring the small things of the present moment instead of pursuing the idea of greatness.” If you wait to be grateful for your life and the things and people in it until it is all good, it is all running smoothly, it is perfect – you will be waiting forever. While you await the perfect life, you will delay you sense of being alive. Of the grace available to you right now. Gratitude turns what you have right now into enough. And enough is a beautiful thing.
Gratitude practice is a powerful practice. It literally can and will change you. It will bring more grace into your life. No matter how you find life right now – inspiring or indifferent, cruel or kind, joyful or sorrowful, boring or stimulating – you get the privilege of experiencing it firsthand. That is grace. This gift of a conscious life is grace.
At the end of the day you have a choice, you can count your blessings or you can list your gripes. You can appreciate where you are right now or you could continually struggle and nurture your dissatisfaction – what do you choose to do? Let go of that disgruntled teenager. Cultivate your garden of appreciation and notice the conditions becoming more conducive to growth. Notice how the soil is so rich, notice how it rains when you need it, notice the sun’s rays open up those blooms. Notice all the roses growing. And then, from time to time, stop and smell them.