I was recently interviewed by Ansley Roan for a piece she wrote on Gratitude for CNN.com, “In season of giving thanks, signs that gratitude is back.” She asked me the following questions regarding the increasing consciousness around gratitude.
–Is this a trend? Are more people are becoming aware of and trying to practice gratitude?
–If so, do you have thoughts on why this might be?
–What exactly is mindfulness and how does it relate to gratitude?
–Is there a tradition of gratitude in Buddhism or is mindfulness a more accurate phrase?
Here are my responses:
I do think gratitude is trending right now, as is mindfulness more generally. It’s part of the mindfulness revolution, in fact. Of course, gratitude is a very old concept, thousands of years old. Imagine living in an age when you were just as likely to become some other creature’s dinner as to find your own. Imagine living through cholera or the latest infectious disease. We’ve lost touch with gratitude in this age of entitlement, in what is known as the Age of Narcissism.
The recent re-discovery of gratitude is, perhaps, the pendulum swinging back from the extremes of self-indulgence. I think people have found the relentless pursuit of materialism and the self-preoccupation that accompanies this to be empty. The attempt to find meaning in the world through what we have and what we do rather than from how we are in the world has just not delivered. And besides, everyone loves to jump on a bandwagon. The gratitude bandwagon sticks because it really does connect us to the world in a more meaningful way. There is scientific research behind this.
A recent article in the journal Psychological Science noted that, “Research on gratitude has been burgeoning. Feeling grateful enhances physical health promotes positive reframing of negative situations, increases life satisfaction and enhances comfort in voicing relationship concerns.”
Expressing gratitude is both good for your relationships and your own well-being. This seems to be a basic feature of the way we are built. It reflects the recognition that resources are scarce and circumstances capricious. When things go well, it is not an entitlement but wonderment.
Gratitude orients us to what is happening in the present moment. Taking something for granted suggests being asleep – not being appreciative of the heartfelt efforts of others or the fortunate configuration of circumstances giving rise to the joy you are feeling right now.
Often, we are out of touch with gratitude because we are overwhelmed with everything that is not going well in our lives. Negativity comes more naturally; gratitude needs to be practiced – encouraged, nurtured, and cultivated.
The typical American practices gratitude a couple of days per year, once in November, and perhaps once in December. The popularity of Thanksgiving strikes me as a problem. Why do we need a holiday in support of this feeling? It is, perhaps, because we don’t feel it enough the other 364 days of the year and we need this reminder to keep us going. Gratitude, in another culture, might be so commonplace that celebrating it in an annual holiday would seem out of place. Thanksgiving could be every day.
I defined mindfulness in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness as “Mindfulness is an intentional and curious directing of attention to our experience as it unfolds in the present moment, one moment following the next — the very happening of our experience as it is happening without commentary, judgment, or storytelling.”
If we are paying close enough attention, that is, being mindful we can’t help but feeling gratitude. Mindfulness moves us into a place of acceptance and when are in acceptance every experience carries the potential for grace.
Indeed, grace shares a common root with gratitude, gratia or gratus, which means “thankful or pleasing.” And gratitude doesn’t have to show up just in the pleasing circumstances of our lives. We can bring an “attitude of gratitude” (a common slogan) to anything that happens to us. We can learn to say “thank you” to everything that happens to us, because everything that happens to us carries the potential for learning. We can grow from adversity, and this is made possible by gratitude.
Long ago, the Buddha recognized the importance of gratitude. If you are not living with gratitude it is hard, nay impossible, to live an awakened life. The mere fact that we are alive is grounds for gratitude. Any sense of entitlement for things going a particular way is provided by culture, not the natural world.
In this moment, things are going well, “Ahhh, gratitude.” In the next moment, things are not going so well – now I have a choice. I can complain, bemoan my fate, rail against it, or I can embrace what is happening now, be mindful, breathe into it and celebrate the fact that I can contemplate my misfortune. When I know that this misfortune is temporary, as all things are constantly changing, I can be grateful even in the worst of circumstances.
To be mindful is to aim towards an appreciation of the present moment in all of its possible arrangements. Buddhists practice this awareness, for instance, in the “grace” that is recited before meals. “This meal is the labor of countless beings, let us remember their toil … Our life is sustained by this offering, let us be grateful.” Just the opportunity to breathe is grounds for gratitude.
If we can be grateful on Thanksgiving Day, we can be grateful every day of the year – in every moment.
I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, Eat mindfully and enjoy the day.
With blessings and gratitude,