NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Gratitude” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
While I was recovering from my Albany, NY, brush with death, one of my high school friends sent me a letter. In it, he hypothesized that as a survivor of near-death, every moment for me must be fresh and exquisitely sweet, a precious gift, in ways he could not imagine. That is how I first experienced this new aliveness. Despite the pain and subsequent complications, my initial response was celebratory.
But the celebration was relatively short-lived. As weeks became months and months became years, it became increasingly clear I’d been left with an avalanche of problems. The glow of the near-death experience gradually wore off, a more troubled self re-emerged, and gratitude faded into the distance.
Like many of us, I grew up in an atmosphere of deprivation. There was never enough money, never enough warmth, never enough inclusion, never enough praise, never enough joy. Unconsciously, I carried forward this sense of deprivation into adulthood. I experienced much of my life as a struggle to get what I needed from lovers, friends, career, family.
As a consequence, I became good at making do. I learned to do things myself, be assertive, set boundaries, to say “yes” when I meant “yes” and “no” when I meant “no,” and I can teach these skills to others. But what I did not fully learn was to take in and appreciate what was always there for me in abundance. In other words, to deeply, wholeheartedly, feel gratitude.
Gratitude sometimes takes work. In my own case, coming back from the near-dead helped, but it was not sufficient to effect a deep change in what I now see was my fundamental pessimism.
Studies in the field of positive psychology show that gratitude makes us emotionally healthier. Grateful people generally feel more satisfied with their lives and relationships, cope better with difficulties, and are more generous, empathetic, and self-accepting. But despite its many benefits, many of us have a hard time feeling gratitude. Instead, we focus on what is wrong, what is lacking – what hurts.
This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. If our ancestors had picked up a piece of bitter fruit, bitten into it, and taken their time before they figured out whether it was toxic, they might have sickened and died before they had a chance to reproduce. The ones who survived to pass their genes on to us spat it out without thinking. The human brain is optimized to respond quickly and strongly to Something Bad. There are twice as many cells in the amygdala that respond to pain as to pleasure, and they respond an order of magnitude more quickly. But the mechanism that focuses us on danger and allowed us to survive into the present can also wreck havoc with optimism, hope, and a peaceful state of mind. People who are optimized for dealing with danger are good in a crisis. People optimized for shortage are good at surviving. But to thrive, we also need to be good at taking in what’s just fine as it is.
Among the barriers to gratitude is the belief many of us have that wanting more will get us more. If we are happy with what we have, what will motivate us to get more love, more things, more health, more happiness? But always wanting more does not make us happy. It just makes us always wanting.
The Buddhists approach gratitude differently. They say, I will be happy with what I have now. If I get more, I will be happy then, too. They don’t deny pain and difficulty, but they minimize suffering by training themselves to take in all of what they have in the present moment. Looking at things this way and starting from a place of gratitude is a no-lose proposition.
The difference between these two approaches came to me most clearly only about ten years ago. I was at a retreat Thich Nhat Hanh held at a local college, and I requested a half-hour meeting with one of his monks. After lunch, we sat together on a hillside overlooking the cafeteria and I talked with him about feelings of hurt, betrayal, and despair following the recent, difficult ending of a long relationship.
“I understand your feelings,” he said, “but this way of looking at love is too limited. You think it comes only from these people, and now it is gone. But love comes from many places.” He gestured toward the cafeteria. “The baker who made the bread from our sandwiches shows us love. Yes, it is his business, but this bread is very good and there is love in it. And there are the trees and the grass. They give us oxygen – without them we could not live.” He looked up to the sky. “And the sun gives us warmth.”
As he continued to point out human and non-human sources of love, I felt a shift inside. Of course I had heard that “the universe loves us” many times, but the phrase had always seemed abstract and meaningless. Now, listening to this young monk, I could feel him taking in the love of the cosmos in all its particulars and I vicariously experienced his gratitude for all he was receiving. I carry these feelings with me to this day.
One step in the direction of feeling deep gratitude is understanding that our core selves are already just fine. At the start of a Focusing session, a therapy approach developed by Eugene Gendlin in the late 60s, clients ask themselves, “What’s between me and feeling fine?” and then let the answers come. As problems or concerns show up, the Focuser names each one, imagines placing it in a container, and then sets the container aside. This process continues until no more complaints come up and the internal space is clear. Then the client chooses one of the problems or concerns to focus on during the session.
I add an intermediate step. Before clients choose something to work on, I ask them first to take note of who is still there, once all the problems and concerns have been set aside. Sometimes the very existence of this core self is a revelation. One client, who had many troubling issues, imagined putting each one, as it came to him, in a pizza box and then setting the box beside him on the couch. When he had come to the end of his list, he had a stack of more than a dozen pizza boxes. Before he chose one to work on, I asked him to describe his temporarily problem-free self. He began to talk about being more relaxed and peaceful, then suddenly he opened his eyes. He looked at the imaginary stack of pizza boxes, then turned to me wide-eyed, amazed. “I just realized,” he said, “I’m not my problems!”
We are always more than our problems, and there is always more for us than our troubles. Clearing a space lets us start to appreciate our true natures, independent of what is going on in our lives, inside and out. But to actually feel abundance in the midst of difficulty sometimes requires taking action.
A simple but effective tool for counteracting our in-built tendency to focus on shortages and possible threats is the gratitude list. It is a way to reinforce not only that we are more than our problems, but that we actually do have things – many things – for which to be thankful. We may not have the financial wealth we want, the health we want, the relationships we want, the material things we want, but once we start to list what we do have, we have a lot. Even the poorest and most downtrodden among us has a lot.
This is a tough sell when we are down and out. But it is an important one.
Most of my own gratitude lists I keep in my head, but from time to time I write them down. For this essay I began a written one. In minutes, the list was already long. I realized I could spend hours naming things for which I felt gratitude, and that the list of things I’m unhappy about, even in the worst of times, is always much shorter. Here, in the order in which they occurred to me, are the first 50 things on today’s list.
What’s on yours?
Being alive. Being human. Growing up in 1969. All five of my senses. Intuition. My friends and family. Lovers. Beauty. Sadness. Joy. Wonder. Curiosity. Imagination. All the arts. All the sciences. Other animals. Plants. Rocks. Clouds. The Blue Sky. The ocean. Mountains. Children. Gadgets. Cars and motorcycles. Things to figure out. People who figure things out. Intelligence. Hope. Coffee. Chocolate-covered almonds. Grand Marnier. Greek yogurt. Strawberries. Apples. Books. Meditation. Movies. Music. Air. Water. Land. Humor. Babies. Flowers. Silence. Wind. Lightning. Compassion. Popsicles.