My last post was a story about how gratitude changed my life. In this post, I wanted to share a couple ideas on how to cultivating gratitude for an increased level of satisfaction with life.
Get a notebook of some kind, and every night, write down five things you’re grateful for. They can be things that happened in the day—a kind smile from a stranger, progress on a project, quality time with a loved one—or small things you may not normally think about—the truly magical device through which you’re reading this article, your heart that pumps without you having to think about it, insulated walls, the polio vaccine—whatever!
The more you try to express gratitude for things, the more you will see just how truly fortunate you are to be alive right here, right now. Until we choose to notice, a universe of infinite wonder and love will pass us by disguised as mundane life.
2. Bless your food
Okay, I obviously don’t mean saying a rote prayer asking Sky Dad to bless the donuts that they may nourish and strengthen your body. It doesn’t require any metaphysical magic or pretended authority, just the humility to recognize that we are all temporal forms interdependent on each other. Food is a fundamental element of life, and changing your attitude about it can have a major effect on your life.
Before I eat, I take time to appreciate the life that was sacrificed to sustain mine. Somewhere, a farmer (perhaps from an economically disadvantaged country) spent four or five months cultivating a rice patty whose entire purpose of existence was to become my dinner.
On the rare chance that I eat meat, I consider the animal, just as capable of suffering as I am, who lived (likely in inhumane conditions) just so that it could be killed and then eaten by me. The elements that made up its body now enter mine and become part of my life.
Though neither the farmer nor the plant nor the animal will ever hear my thanks, the act of honoring their part in the circle of life helps me to step out of the isolation of ego and into the awareness of interconnectedness.
Our culture doesn’t care about connection. It cares about only one thing: consuming. Intentional connection with such an integral part of living will help restore a sense of individual and societal balance and accountability for our food. Gratitude for food is gratitude for life, and life is so much more than ego.
Almost everyone has said or heard someone say, “I don’t meditate because I just can’t control my thoughts.” Yeah, no shit! That’s why you need meditation!
Despite having a comically limited data set, our minds are constantly trying to interpret the past and project the future, forgetting that neither of those things exist as a material reality because reality only exists in the present moment. The result is that we seldom feel gratitude for what is because we’re so worried about what could be.
This phenomenon is complicated by the technology that has disrupted our attentive faculties to the point where it’s hard to feel stimulated by anything that isn’t flashing on a screen.
Meditation isn’t the act of turning off your thoughts; it’s the act of bringing your thoughts into the present moment—away from the imaginary arguments you win in your head, from the stress of an upcoming exam, or from analyzing a failing relationship, away from anything that doesn’t exist right here, right now—the feelings in your body, the subtle sounds of your living space, the slow pulse of your breath.
Meditation rewires our brains so that we go from identifying primarily with the thinking part of our mind, which is constantly evaluating, judging and projecting, to the part of our mind that listens to what actually is.
The result is a more tempered thinking mind that can approach things like a difficult exam or a failing relationship with more clarity, peace, and focus.
When I first began meditating I got discouraged because my mind would instantly wander off like an unleashed dog on a scent and I’d totally forget to bring it back. But I kept trying. To this day, I’m still not much better at it, but the practice of gently bringing my thoughts back into the present has dramatically impacted my life, making me more focused during work, more aware of body’s needs, and more compassionately engaged with the people around me.
Meditation helps you develop gratitude for the present moment by helping you live in the present moment.
4. Embrace pain
Taoists tell the story of an old farmer whose horse ran away. When the neighbors heard, they said, “Such bad luck.” The farmer replied, “Maybe.”
The next day, the horse returned with a couple of wild horses. “Such good fortune!” said the neighbors. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
The day after, the farmer’s son broke his leg while trying to tame one of the horses. The neighbors said, “Such bad luck!” The farmer just said, “Maybe.”
The next day, the military came to draft the farmer’s son. But because his leg was broken, he could not be conscripted. The neighbors said, “What good fortune!” The farmer, of course, replied, “Maybe.”
The purpose of this story is to illustrate the futility of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” events in our lives. Too often, our immediate reaction to discomfort is to avoid it at all costs. While this mechanism may provide relief in the short term, it may hurt us in the long run as we we become more and more paranoid of our pain.
Like the old farmer, we can recognize that all experiences, blissful or painful, are temporary and intrinsically connected to each other. So rather than running from our pain, we can embrace it, recognizing the seedling of bliss planted therein.
This isn’t just optimistic silver-lining finding; it is a mature awareness of life as it is: fleeting, changing, evolving. We need pain to grow. When we let our pain be our teacher, we discover a new gratitude for all the seasons of our life.
This type of gratitude is best expressed by Melody Beady, author of the book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, who said, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”