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The Gifts of Gratitude
By M. J. RYAN
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2007 Red Wheel/Weiser Books and Conari Press
All rights reserved.
the gifts of gratitude
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity.... Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
Consciously cultivating thankfulness is a journey of the soul, one that begins when we look around us and see the positive effects that gratitude creates. We do this by noticing those around us to whom gratefulness comes easily and realizing how much we enjoy being around these people.
We also tap into these gifts as we think about times in the past when we felt particularly grateful. Remember the peacefulness and the delight that accompanied those times? As we come to understand the gifts of gratitude, we realize that being grateful is not something remote or foreign, but part of the natural joyful expression of our full humanness.
In humble moments when we can no longer gloss over the roughness of life, gratitude has a way of pushing out the real soreness of feeling cheated or inadequate to the rugged realities of the world. Gratitude seemed to be a handy response to dodge the tough things for which there are no simple or comforting answers.
— Patrick J. Malone
Take a few minutes to reflect back on a happy moment in your life that stands out for you, a moment that stays with you, even if it happened ten, twenty, forty years ago. Experience it again—see the scene, hear the sounds that were around you, feel the sensations. What was it about that moment that stays with you? What was going on for you that allowed you to feel grateful?
That's the most wonderful thing about gratitude—it makes you feel full, bursting with delight, just to remember the gifts you have received. Thus are we doubly blessed—when we receive something, for the gift itself, and later, in recall, for the miracle of having been given it.
Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted—a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.
—Rabbi Harold Kushner
One of the incredible truths about gratitude is that it is impossible to feel both the positive emotion of thankfulness and a negative emotion such as anger or fear at the same time. Gratitude births only positive feelings—love, compassion, joy, and hope. As we focus on what we are thankful for, fear, anger, bitterness simply melt away, seemingly without effort.
How can this be? The answer is that gratitude helps us track success and the brain naturally works to track success. If you have ever watched a baby learn something, you'll know what I mean. Learning to walk, for example, she stands and puts out one foot. Boom! Down she goes because her balance wasn't right. Instead of castigating herself for blowing it, getting angry, or blaming the floor or her shoe, she just registers that it didn't work and tries again.
As we get older, however, we get schooled in our mistakes, and learn to focus on what's lacking, missing, inadequate, and painful. That's why gratitude is so powerful. It helps us to return to our natural state of joyfulness where we notice what's right instead of what's wrong. Gratitude reminds us to be like plants, which turn toward, not away, from the light.
Joy is prayer—Joy is strength—Joy is love—Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. She gives most who gives with joy.
I don't know about you, but in general, there hasn't been a lot of joy, that opening and swelling of the heart, in my life. It wasn't because of my circumstances, because they weren't particularly hard, but because of my mental training. Like so many of us, I was busy climbing the ladder of success, and took no time to enjoy the journey. I was too busy getting on to the next challenge. But I got sick and tired of a joyless existence, and so have thought a lot in the past few years about how to bring more joy into my life. The more I think about it, the more I believe that joy and gratitude are inseparable. Joy is defined by the dictionary as an "emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires," while gratitude is that "state of being appreciative of benefits received." In other words, whenever we are appreciative, we are filled with a sense of well-being and swept up by the feeling of joy.
Begin today. Declare out loud to the Universe that you are willing to let go of struggle and eager to learn through joy.
—Sarah Ban Breathnach
Want to feel more joyful? Take a moment right now to think of all that you have accomplished today and celebrate each feat, no matter its size. You feel better, even if only a little bit, right? The more we pay attention to our successes and accomplishments, the more success we can create. And we'll view life as a grand adventure that we're willing to show up for rather than a series of tedious tasks to be crossed off or endured.
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Young children are such exuberant, joy-filled creatures, eager to embrace life in all its mystery and majesty. Everything is new, exciting, a gift—a bubble, a snowflake, a mud puddle. But something in the process of growing up so often takes the juice out of us. We become encrusted, hard, jaded. We lose our joy, our exuberance, our passionate embrace of life. We trudge instead of skip, retreat instead of explore, "too old for that," whatever "that" is.
This drying up is so common that when we meet a vibrant, joy-filled older person, he or she stands out as a singular exception. But we don't have to lose the happiness or juiciness of youth. All we need to do is to tap into our sense of gratitude, for when we do, we are like little children again, seeing the world for the first time.
Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.
—Henry Ward Beecher
In Simple Pleasures of the Garden, Dawna Markova shares a story about a woman who has kept her attitude of gratitude alive: "Several years ago, I was walking in March along a gravel road that led to the ocean in Rhode Island. A very old and thin woman came hobbling down a driveway toward me. I waved and continued walking, but as I passed, she grabbed my arm, turned around and began to pull me in the direction of her house. I instantly thought of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and tried to pull back, but that only made her clutch tighter around my wrist. Besides, she didn't cackle, so I relented.
"She didn't say a word, in fact, until we approached her house: a shingle style cottage with green shutters and a front lawn erupting everywhere in purple crocuses. She released me there, throwing her arms up in the air and shouting, 'Look at this splendor! Isn't it a miracle?!'"
Mental sunshine will cause the flowers of peace, happiness, and prosperity to grow upon the face of the Earth. Be a creator of mental sunshine.
—graffition a wall in Berkeley, California
Gratitude makes us feel good because it helps us widen our frame of vision. Under depression or stress, we can develop tunnel vision, seeing only this problem, that difficulty. We can get overtaken by a heavy, dark feeling of despair. But when we experience a sense of gratitude, we give ourselves a dose of mental sunshine. Suddenly the world seems brighter, and we have more options. And the greatest thing is that as we experience the mental sunshine of gratitude, we begin to glow with sunshine ourselves. Suddenly not only is the world brighter, but we are too. Soon we notice that our lives are full of people who want to be around us because we exude peacefulness, happiness, and joy.
You cannot be grateful and unhappy at the same time.
—a woman to Dr. Tom Costa
Tapping into the wellspring of gratitude is the greatest antidote to worry I have ever experienced. How come? First, worry is always about the future, if only the next hour or minute, whereas gratitude is in the here and now. Cast over your list of worries. Aren't they always about what might or might not happen? You are worried about the reaction of your boss tomorrow to your presentation. You're worried about how you are going to afford to send your son to college. You're worried about the test results. In every case, you project yourself into the future and imagine something bad happening. Gratitude brings you back to the present moment, to all that is working perfectly right now. Tomorrow may bring difficulties, but for right now, things are pretty good.
It is not hard to live through a day if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand.
Gratefulness eliminates worry because it reminds us of the abundance of our universe. It helps us remember that we've had many blessings in our lives. Yes, something bad might happen, but given all that you have received so far, chances are you will continue to be supported on your journey through life, even in ways you would never have guessed or chosen for yourself.
Sometimes I go about with pity for myself and all the while Great Winds are carrying me across the sky.
When we are grateful, we exude happiness and that makes us magnets that draw other people toward us. They want to be around that exuberant energy. Gratitude not only draws people to us, but it helps us keep those who are in our sphere. When we see the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty, we notice what is there, rather than dwelling on what is not. When we notice what's there, we get out of our self-absorption and realize that there are people around us, many of whom have done wonderful things for us. And when we express our gratitude for their presence in our lives, it's more likely that those people will want to continue to be around us.
A point worth pondering: Upon completing the Universe, the Great Creator pronounced it "very good." Not "perfect."
—Sarah Ban Breathnach
When I was young, I wanted to be a saint. Not just plain old good, but a bona fide canonized saint. I figured that anything worth doing was worth doing perfectly, and while I was being perfect, I might as well get all the adoration that perfectionism deserves. Sainthood seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately, I kept slipping up—I would forget to make my bed or get jealous of my little brother, and then sink into despair, convinced I was a complete failure.
Ah, perfectionism! Those of us afflicted with the pesky bug may look with amazement (You mean you don't care you didn't do it perfectly??) or disdain (What kind of lazy, good for nothing guy are you?) upon those who don't suffer from it, but the truth is, of course, that it springs from our own sense of lack.
We simply don't believe we're good enough as we are in our humble, human, imperfect state, and must therefore compensate by being Miss Perfect Goody-Two-Shoes. That was certainly true for me. Somehow, as a child, I got the message that if only I did everything perfectly, life would be OK. But life has a way of being messy and imperfectable, despite our best efforts, and individuals, including myself, are equally incapable of perfection. After decades of sainthood wannabes, I finally got worn out from trying. Now, instead of attempting to make everyone and everything fit my plan (an impossible task, even for a saint), I spend the energy I used to use in sainthood school to be more grateful.
Because perfectionism is born of a sense of inadequacy, a lack, an attitude of gratitude counteracts it by tapping us into the experience of abundance. Gratitude makes our world feel complete and right. When we feel the fullness of gratitude, we accept life just as it is—however messy, complicated, and drawn-outside-the-lines that may be.
Gratitude not only helps us accept that the world is imperfect, but that we are too—and that's OK. For when we pour the oil of appreciation for life in all its imperfections over our experience, we ourselves can't help but be anointed. Suddenly seized by joy for the crazy, mixed-up world, we recognize ourselves as part of that world, and take our rightful place as a child of the Universe, perfectly acceptable in all our imperfection.
So if you've been bitten by the "P" bug, try the gratitude antidote and see whether it helps you give yourself a break.
The more light you allow within you, the brighter the world you live in will be.
Have you ever met someone so bitter and resentful about their life that they feel like a black hole sucking away all the energy around them? Whether we call them pessimists, ingrates, or those who always see the glass as half-empty, they are a drag to be around. So focused on what hasn't worked for them, how life or other people have mistreated them, they can't see all the ways they have been the recipients of gifts, blessings, and wonderful surprises.
Most of us aren't total black holes, but when we fail to give thanks for what happens in our lives, we can get hung up in bitterness that prevents us from developing emotionally and spiritually. If we fail to grow, the light inside us grows dim. Gratitude is an inner light that we can use to illumine our souls. The more we are thankful, the more light we experience and the more we shine forth into the world.
If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.
A perennial dieting tip is to eat something and then wait twenty minutes before deciding to eat something again. The reason is that your body needs that much time to register that it is full. If you keep eating without pausing, you will not realize that your body is full, and therefore you may overeat.
Giving thanks for what we have in our lives is like that pause when eating. It allows us to feel full, to register on the emotional and spiritual level that we have, in fact, been given "enough." If we don't practice gratitude on a daily basis, it's easy to overconsume, to feel a lack and to try to fill that lack through possessions, because on a psychological level we haven't registered that we already have what we need.
That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.
Last night I watched my daughter Ana, whom we recently adopted from China, lie on the bed in an ecstatic trance of bottle sucking. Her eyes closed, her rosebud mouth pursed, her exquisitely long fingers curled around the plastic bottle, she gave herself over to the experience. She wasn't obsessing on past wounds, although perhaps she had a right to. Neglected for over a year, when we got her she had been covered with second-degree burns on her buttocks from lying in urine. Nor was she worrying about where the future bottles might come from, although she had a right to do that also. Abandoned on Christmas evening on a cold street until someone heard her newborn cries, she had been fed only watered down milk and seemed to be starving the first few weeks we fed her.
Rather, she was so focused on appreciating the warm milk as it went down her throat that everything else, past and future, simply disappeared. As I looked at her, I realized that this total and complete absorption in the present moment is available to us all when we choose to let gratitude wash over us uninhibitedly.
Realize deeply that the present moment is all you really have.
As I allow myself to open to the fullness of gratitude, the past and future do fade away, and I become more alive in the present moment. That's because gratitude is, for the most part, about the here and now. While we can be thankful for past blessings and hope for future ones, when we experience a sense of gratefulness, we are usually contemplating some present circumstance. We are brought up to date with ourselves, so to speak. Our focus moves away from all that we or others did or failed to do in the past, or what we hope for or worry about in the future, and we find ourselves placed squarely in this precious moment, this experience that will never happen again.
The most invisible creators I know of are those artists whose medium is life itself. The ones who express the inexpressible—without brush, hammer, clay or guitar. They neither paint nor sculpt—their medium is their being. Whatever their presence touches has increased life. They see and don't have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.
I spent several Christmases recently with a family that loves to give presents. Every year, the floor around the tree was heaped with hundreds of gifts, so many that it took the entire morning to open them all. But despite all that was given and received, I would leave there every year feeling empty and alone. There had been a plethora of presents, but no presence. This family gave so many gifts because they didn't know how to connect deeply to themselves and one another. And they ripped through the mounds of merchandise, saying a pro forma "Thank you," but with no sense of true appreciation being expressed or received.
Excerpted from GIVING THANKS by M. J. RYAN. Copyright © 2007 Red Wheel/Weiser Books and Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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