Several months ago a friend shared with me the gift that an active practice of gratitude had been for her. Up to that time, I had paid lip service to gratitude and I certainly felt gratitude myself, but like many people, I did not see gratitude as a primary spiritual teaching tool.
My friend’s experience intrigued me, so I decided to pursue the subject further. I read, meditated, corresponded with colleagues and worked to grow my own gratitude. And in short, I was amazed at the result! Practicing gratitude significantly expanded and deepened my spiritual experience. After all these years of study, prayer and meditation, engaging in an active practice of Gratitude took my spiritual work to places I had only hoped for! Put simply, today I understand that the two most powerful words in the English Language are: Practice Gratitude. Allow me to explain:
If I were to ask you what the single most important thing you could do to improve your emotional well being, enhance your health and actually add up to nine years to your life, what would you choose? Meditation? Yoga? Diet? Psychotherapy? Meditation is great, and yoga improves your emotional state, but interestingly enough, the one thing you could do to improve everything about your life – your emotional health, your physical well being and your lifespan – would be to move into a daily practice of gratitude.
An active daily practice of gratitude can quite literally, change your life. It is the most powerful spiritual resource we have. It is unlike anything else we experience. Feeling grateful generates a ripple effect through every aspect of life, potentially satisfying some of our deepest yearnings – for happiness, healthier relationships and inner peace. People are moved, opened and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude. Actively engaging in the practice of gratitude maximizes the enjoyment of life and significantly reduces the impact of our difficulties. Without gratitude, life can seem lonely, depressing and impoverished.
Want to be more compassionate? Work on gratitude. Want more inner peace? Work on gratitude. Want more patience? Work on gratitude. Want to reduce your stress? Want to live longer? Want to heal more quickly? You get the point. Gratitude does this by creating new contexts through which we process the occurrences of our lives. And it is our perspective on life that determines our ability to experience gratitude.
Dr. Robert Emmons has both studied and researched the subject of gratitude at length and says in his new book Thanks:
. . . grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness and optimism, and the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness. We have discovered that a person who experiences gratitude is able to cope more effectively with everyday stress, may show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, may recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health.
Although there is the feeling of gratitude, gratitude is much more than that. It is a state of being. At its core, gratitude is a deep feeling of appreciation for everything – for the gifts we have been given, for nature and the Earth, for this day, for each other, for life, for humankind and also for those who are closest to us – our parents, partners, children and animal friends. Expressing gratitude creates a feeling of expansiveness. We reach out and touch other people, nature, God, The Universe. . . Receiving gratitude is also unlike anything else we experience. It melts the doubt and uncertainty that otherwise dog us. It soothes our pain.
Gratitude is personal. It is centered in us, but not in an egocentric way. It is an expansive feeling of thanks for all that we have been given and for all the things we appreciate. Words simply cannot express the grandeur of gratitude. It is an essential aspect of the God Space. It has been said that, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”
Gratitude helps us heal as we journey towards enlightenment. Because The Universe, in its never-ending quest to help us, pushes us to change, we all feel a bit roughed up by the process. It is impossible to go through life without feeling beaten up, and that brings us to question our worthiness. Feeling gratitude gives us a vote of confidence that we really are OK. It connects us with both God’s love for us and other people’s appreciation for our being here. It pulls us out of our myopic view of our struggles and reminds us that we are not alone. It reminds us that we are loved. We are left with the feeling that, “I guess I’m not such a loser after all.”
Some people have a difficult time receiving and expressing gratitude. Their life experiences have left them feeling bruised and beaten, so they must defend themselves against further hurt. It can be very difficult to hold gratitude when you feel vulnerable to the world or to people who bring up painful emotional issues you would rather avoid.
For these people life has not been a journey of learning, but a wounding process filled with difficult and painful experiences. They understandably approach life as victims rather than students, and it is difficult to be grateful for or to even acknowledge the potential for learning contained in their life experiences.
One of the deepest aspects of gratitude is the feeling of appreciation we hold for the many gifts the Creator has given us, but it is difficult to acknowledge those gifts if we are feeling beaten up by His neglect. We fear the awful pain of our past might return. After all, we came into the world wide-eyed, vulnerable and emotionally open, and got run over by a cement truck!
At one of Dr. Emmons talks about gratitude, a man stood up and said, “It is a good thing we humans do not get what we feel that we deserve. Otherwise we would have a difficult time explaining why so many fortunate things come into our lives.”
I want to ask you to try something. As you read these words, get in touch with who or what you are not loving right now. Perhaps list them. Then take a moment and allow yourself to feel compassion for the other, especially if it is you. And as you do this, notice the changes that occur in yourself. This isn’t about them, and it isn’t about the relationship. It’s about you feeling better about you. Those places where you are unable to open your heart are vital to your healing.
If you want to experience to power of gratitude, Dr. Emmons and his colleagues have researched the subject at length and tell us that the best way to develop gratitude is to keep a daily “Gratitude Journal.” In the Journal, log at least five blessings each day and why you are grateful for each. It is better if it is done longhand, by the way. And as you do this, make a conscious association with your blessings as gifts. Become aware of the depth of your gratitude. Doing the Journal every day is essential. Some of the items on your list may come and go and others may never change.
I cannot urge you strongly enough to do your Journal. It will change the lens through which you view your life. You will feel better, be happier, more connected to others, improve your relationships, be less depressed and actually live longer!
There are any number of web sites and books that urge people to do Gratitude Journals, but sadly, I have not found one of them that took advantage of what I believe to be gratitude’s greatest asset (and you wouldn’t expect this – I certainly didn’t): a practice of gratitude gently, but powerfully, offers us an awareness of the wounds that we carry.
The Gratitude Journal presents a remarkable opportunity to look at the parts of yourself that frankly, you’d rather ignore. It brings up your frustrations with life, and shows you the beliefs you are hanging on to that limit your happiness and success. It will also show you where you hold resentments. You probably won’t surface the issues themselves, but your reactions will provide important signposts directing you to them.
This will happen through what I will call “The Flip.” As you do your daily Journal, pay particular attention to every thought that comes up. Don’t edit anything out. The way it works is that you will be writing, perhaps about gratitude for your work, and suddenly your mind will “Flip,” and BAM! A voice will pop up saying something like, “Well yes, but you could do better!” or, “Who could be successful working with those jerks!” Whatever these thoughts are, write them all down, and don’t worry if they don’t make sense.
Sometimes these thoughts will be dark. Even the purest of hearts seem to be not above “cusswords” when it comes to this part of the process. The conflict over feeling our gratitude, it seems, takes us to where our vile feelings reside. In one of my classes, a woman wrote about her sincere gratitude for her children, and immediately the thought came to her, “The noisy little bastards!” That’s what I mean about these thoughts sometimes being vile. Underneath that reaction was this woman’s hurt inner child who became insecure every time her real children acted out. Get all your thoughts on the page so that you can work with them. As I do my Journal, I simply put my “flipped” thoughts in brackets.
If you have trouble doing the Journal or if you start a Journal and quit after a few days, investigate your resistance. Know that your unresolved issues are interfering (and winning)! When we attempt to feel gratitude and experience interference, our “failure” is a warning that something needs attention. This is how The Universal Mirror works.
(In my new book, Journey to the God Space, (out soon!) I will demonstrate how to use the shamanic journey process to work with and resolve the “flip” issues that the Gratitude Journal process identifies.
When you get the Journal process going, pay attention to the changes that occur, especially within yourself. Watch how your feelings shift. Although the process is often bumpy, it has also been deeply enriching for those who have done it.
How different our world would be if we would find the courage and take the time to express our gratitude! How joyful life would become if we could tell people how much we loved them and how grateful we are that they are in our lives! As I walk city streets or shop, I observe people to see how many of them seem to be happy. Sadly, there aren’t many.
To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant,
to enact gratitude is generous and noble,
but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.
Johannes A. Gaertner
“It is only from the heart that you can touch the sky.” Jalal ad-Din Rumi
 Thanks: How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) p. 11.