Gratitude is a biggie. I used to think of it as anodyne … something cheezy that Oprah tells us to “journal” about. The cynic in me thought gratitude was used to encourage people to be complacent … and accept their lot in life, for better or for worse. I was so unhappy and unhealthy when I saw the world that way. My perception began to change when I began learning about neuroscience and how the brain works. Whatever the brain focuses on tends to perpetuate said focus because the neural pathways form and energy flows through the most well-trodden paths.
When we think of the things we appreciate, love, and that uplift, we are more likely to keep focusing on said things throughout the day and into the future. Does this mean we are soft and can’t face harsh realities, past traumas, and the inevitable pain and suffering that come with human life? No. It means that in the midst of everything, even when our circumstances are challenging, we can identify areas of support. The seat or ground beneath us. Our breath. The passage of time. Sunshine and the majesty of the natural world. And by doing so we adjust our own settings to seek out more things we love.
Sometimes it’s a fight. I regularly find myself thinking of all I lack. I am jealous and competitive. I resent. They’re usually shallow material things that I could have if I were willing to trade off my peace and equanimity for a paycheck. But having done that for much of my life, I now know that I value balance, my peace and freedom to discover and create more than anything. Mercifully, most of the time I can snap out of rumination by putting down my phone, getting off social media, moving my body, doing stuff I love, and doing gratitude lists. For example, here are 5 things I am grateful for today:
- My husband. He saved my life. I was on a different trajectory. One I was not fulfilled by. One I knew that was not aligned with who I was and what I care about. I couldn’t articulate it. I had never been embraced with such openness, kindness, gentleness, acceptance and appreciation and given the unconditional love and support I needed to grow and change. Ten years later, my appreciation for him has deepened and my life has changed in beautiful ways I could not have conceived of before I met him.
- My persistence. I have been through a lot of different shit in life and I keep going. I have a richness of experience and understanding of many different kinds of people because I just keep going and I don’t limit myself to past experience. I make new friends, try new hobbies, explore new careers, constantly read new books and expand my knowledge. I don’t know exactly what comes next but I have confidence in my ability to figure it out because eventually, I always do.
- My children.
- My health. I REALLY value my health. Eventually my life will end. It is a fleeting privilege to have a body and mind that work. I do what I can to support my health. Over the past 4 years my journey has been focused on improving, stabilizing and laying a solid foundation for my present and future physical and mental health. I began to understand and make friends with my anxiety instead of covering it up with achievement, alcohol, and consumerism. I am so grateful to have had this time to heal.
- My teachers. All of the adversity I have faced … be it people, circumstances, genetics … they have all shaped me and helped me learn. I am grateful that I have had the good sense, even if belatedly, to recognize my teachers and learn from them even when it was painful. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” By the grace of Goddess I have always eventually found a way to light a candle. Knowing this gives me confidence for the future.
It’s human nature NOT to be content and to take the life and circumstances that we have for granted. It is hard-wired into us to look outward, to compare ourselves to others, and to grasp for more. For ancient humans, existence was a struggle to survive and many of us cannot get beyond this reptilian brain despite our relative material comfort and security in the modern world. Sometimes I am amazed by the utter lack of ambition of the world’s wealthiest humans … they hold within their control the power to end poverty, climate change, militarism and racism. But they refuse to cooperate with each other. Instead, they compete. MLK asked the question, as humans will we choose community or chaos? The question still resonates.
I have reached a point in my own life when I am grateful for each day and the experiences they afford me, and I don’t feel the need to conquer others or prove anything to anyone other than myself. The opportunity to breathe, walk, meditate, sip my morning coffee, hug my loved ones, be hugged and loved and adored is plenty. Touch – I am so grateful for touch. I grew up in a loving home, but displays of affection were uncommon and mostly came from my father but not my mother. When I got to college a friend noticed me flinch when she touched me and noted that I “was not held enough as a child.” It stuck with me. A truth that I had never known. How could I have?
Today I am blessed with physical affection. My husband knows my love language and is happy to hold my hand each night as we watch TV or take walks. I constantly love, hug, and kiss my younger daughter. She seems to share my love and appreciation for touch. Sometimes at night after I have put her to bed she will pop into my room to get one last hug to tie her over for the night. She wants me to keep the door open to keep the energy field between us open. I love the connection that we enjoy, and I also want her to know that the connection transcends physical proximity so she will have the courage to venture out in the world and explore as she gets older. But I digress.
Upward movement. That is what our society teaches us, but gratitude is the reverse – it is grounding. It is recognizing the seat beneath us, the feet and legs that carry us around all day, the cool breeze that comes just when we were at the height of heat and exhaustion. We don’t have to toil for these supports. These are inherent. Our breath is inherent. We don’t have to hustle for it. All day and night, every moment of our lives our breath is here for us.
Social media messes with our sense of grounding, gratitude, and contentment. It draws our energy outward and encourages us to leave out bodies. It feeds our compulsions to consume, compete, and turn cherished experiences into “content.” I truly struggle and grapple with it. I find myself wanting to be connected and putting material online certainly does spark engagement and attention. Just today I heard from an old friend/colleague who noted she was reminded to reach out because she saw one of my social media posts. Perhaps the lesson to be taken from this is that I long for more connection and might look for ways to find deeper and more meaningful connections in the NON-digital world.
I feel fortunate to have finally woken up to my neuroticism and constant striving, which I now recognize was driven by a lack of emotional connection as a child. Would I have needed to be President of the Class, Straight A Honor Student, CCD Teacher, Perfect Daughter, Wise Beyond My Years Teen if I had been loved and supported as a child and nurtured to pursue my own interests which were more artistic, creative and intellectually ambitious and unusual than my pragmatic and traditional Irish-American Catholic upbringing allowed for?
It does not matter because here we are now and I have learned from my adversity and am now taking action toward my own desires and goals, starting with writing. I am so very grateful to have the time and ability to spend roughly two hours today working on this odd stream-of-consciousness piece simply to satisfy my own goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a combination of the practice and the letting go. Contentment and gratitude have never been easy for me, but I am moving toward them over time. The key is to take a lot of deep breaths and sit with myself and when I start launching into comparison mode – for better or for worse, I tell myself “comparing.” Intellectually I know that comparing does not serve me. If I maintain the practice of noting and continue to do my “5 Things” gratitude musings throughout the day, I will begin to embody gratitude.
In my last therapy session in fact I was brought to tears – a catharsis remembering my first therapist from twenty years ago and how much she helped me at one of the darkest times of my life. I cried because I am so grateful for the grace I received, and I cannot imagine I would have been able to heal enough to eventually meet my husband and have the life I have now. It’s not perfect, but it is very good. It reminds me of another Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding.