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Gratitude Practice: 2 Easy Ways to Start​

As we are coming up on our Grateful Gathering retreat, Ada and I are getting in the seasonal mood and reflecting on our own relationships with gratitude. I am keenly aware this year of what a powerful practice gratitude is, and how wonderful it is that North American culture at large (as well as others) has set the intention to gather together to give thanks. This is our inspiration for the retreat so that instead of just 1 day of this we get to bask in it for a whole weekend, and then we get to do it again on Thanksgiving, and hopefully develop practices that bring gratitude into our daily lives.

Two Paths

There is a pretty steady stream of mainstream psychological research being published that further cements the benefits of this practice, but for this post I’m going to focus on 2 main approaches to practicing gratitude and the benefits and best uses for each. It’s easy to know in our minds that gratitude is good for us, but it’s another thing all together to actually develop a thriving practice that encourages new and lasting behavior in our daily lives. 
 
Each has unique strengths and uses. But first, let me just say, that if I’m really honest, I don’t always have the easiest time calling up gratitude on the spot. In fact, I often have a pretty strong resistance to it. It usually comes with a feeling or thought of “Of course I’m grateful! Why do I need to prove it?” Even if it is only proving it to myself, I still come up against resistance at actually coming up with reasons to be grateful. So where does this resistance come from? Let’s dig into that, but regardless of where the resistance is coming from, there are 2 very helpful ways to come at this problem that can help us get past the resistance and on track to a more positive headspace. We can think about these 2 approaches to practicing gratitude as one for our heads and one for our hearts. 

...it doesn’t take very long listening to the news to realize that I have things pretty good.

The Head Path
I generally assume myself to be a very lucky person to live the life that I do. I mean, it doesn’t take very long listening to the news to realize that I have things pretty good. Between this and vague echos of my grandfathers voice still bouncing around in my head about “uphill both ways in the snow… barefoot…” and the such, I think I have it pretty good. This logical approach to gratitude relies on my ability to cognitively weigh as objective a perspective as I can have about my own life circumstances against my perception of someone else’s life circumstances. As most of us know from personal experience, it’s not usually a very helpful practice to compare our lives to other people’s, especially when looking “up the ladder” at those who we perceive “have it all together.” This tends to lead to feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, imposter syndrome, and worse. But in the case of cultivating gratitude, it can actually be a powerful perspective shifting and empathy building exercise to step into someone else’s shoes, so to speak, to recognize the blessings we do have in the midst of our own perceived hardship. 
 
Our heads are masters of judgement. They are very good at reducing things into tidy little boxes. In many respects, this is incredibly helpful and gives us concrete data by which to respond to situations in life. If a pan was recently cooking food, the mind is going judge that it’s a good idea to not touch it with our bare hands. If a ball is coming your direction, it’s helpful to be able to judge where it is most likely to land so you don’t end up catching it with your face. This can be an invaluable tool when practicing gratitude. It is the mind that can offer a powerful shift if in the midsts of hardship you intentionally think about and weigh up all the ways a situation could have been worse or the ways it is worse for people in other situations. This can be a quick wake up call and give us suddenly something to be grateful for. In the instance of a fender bender, for example, instead of thinking “I can’t believe this is happening! My day is ruined!” You might think, “Thank god no one got hurt! That could have been such a worse accident and for many people every day it is a worse accident.” This can foster empathy and give you a hold to hang on to, halting the spiral of “woe is me” thinking that tends to not be a very helpful or productive response. 

Sometimes in the midst of frustrations, the recognition I have of my affluence becomes a socially encouraged and self enforced pressure at my back that I should be more grateful.

This approach does have its limitations, however. Sometimes in the midst of frustrations, the recognition I have of my affluence becomes a socially encouraged and self enforced pressure at my back that I should be more grateful. So when I’m confronted by a practice of gratitude, my desire to justify all the frustration I am feeling with the frictions of life leads to resentment of the fact that I should feel more grateful than I do. It feels like as I’m conjuring up things that I should be grateful for, I am forced to disregard the negative feelings I am faced with as silly or ungrateful which can quickly begin to paint a negative self image and lead to berating myself for my smallness.
 
In these situations, I end up reluctantly searching for the more obvious things to be grateful for without much genuine heart or intention and the result is a limp practice that leaves me more at odds with myself and more frustrated than before. I want to be a grateful person. I genuinely believe that life is full to brimming with blessings and lessons available to me at any moment. But when it comes time to identify them I find that my belief, however genuine, is not enough to shake the feelings of self pity. Then in the light of my more gracious beliefs, I look miserly and ugly which only spirals the negativity further. 

The mind that judges this situation versus that situation as better or worse, then is in danger of turning upon itself and the judgement becomes condemnation.

A Shift to the Heart
The remedy in times like this is yet another shift in perspective. Not this time from these shoes to those, but from a different place altogether; a shift from head to heart.
 
Our minds, in all their power, are not very good at computing emotions. Emotions don’t tend to bother about rationality. They feel the way they do, when they do. Emotions very often appear to our rational minds as mysterious and complex occurring for reasons that can be too complex to easily comprehend. This is where the heart is the tool for the job. What I mean by the heart is our capacity to hold space for anything that arises. I like to think of the heart as a house. When your heart is too small, say the size of a bathroom, you have a really hard time getting every day tasks done. You constantly bump into things and life becomes a cluttered mess very quickly. It’s easy to feel frustrated at your every move. Welcome another person to your small heart space and there’s even less room to allow one another to be freely. They are constantly on your nerves, in the way, doing things wrong, and messing things up. But when you expand your heart to, say, the size of a modern American home, there is plenty of room for you and your loved ones to be your messy, imperfect selves. Even in conflict you can take your space from each other, enter different rooms when needed but stay within the walls of your loving acceptance.
 
Where the mind rationalizes and needs to make sense of things to accept them, the heart can hold space for all the feelings of frustration we might feel and honor them. It’s from this place that we can choose to shift our attention toward gratitude. But how do we do this? What does opening one’s heart look like? It looks like taking a deep breath, noticing that there doesn’t need to be a reason for the feelings, and that they are fine just being there. We don’t grill a 3 year old on the reasons for their temper tantrum when it doesn’t make sense. A loving response is one of grace and scooping up that child and really enquiring with acceptance what is causing such a fuss, then assuring them that everything is ok even if there aren’t any good reasons for the outburst. We can just say, “Yeah, I feel miffed about it! But I don’t need to hold on to that feeling, because it is only causing me more pain.” Then we can suggest a reason to be grateful to ourselves from this place. Not as a proof of why our feelings don’t count, but as a loving reassurance that life is not as bad as it seemed. It might feel silly at first, but just try it on. Start out easy and work your way into the practice: “I am grateful for way my partner loves me” and work your way toward something more difficult like, “I’m grateful to have learned from this challenging situation” Offer the the new perspectives as a gift to yourself, rather than a sharp ultimatum. 

Relying solely on rationality I find myself so tangled up in competing desires and rational paths that I feel unable to be really effective in moving any direction.

Relying solely on rationality I find myself so tangled up in competing desires and rational paths that I feel unable to be really effective in moving any direction. It is helpful for me in these moments to drop the need to “figure it all out,” just drop the parsing and let the mess float in a sea of released control. This isn’t a defeat but a reprioritization. One that puts my desire for peace of mind and body ahead of my desire for rightness. There are times to dig in and stand your rational ground like not letting your toddlers hand go as they want to run across the street. But so often the logic fueled fights I pick with life are not worth their reward and just spread the fire of frustration further.
 
In the end, we should use a hybrid of these two approaches. The head to quickly put things into perspective when the frustration is mostly external, and the heart to slowly unravel the tight tangles of emotional distraught. We can sometimes use the heart approach to climb out of the pit of despair and then look back and find some reasoning to help us move forward in less danger of falling back into the pit.
 

Try it Out

Right now in this moment, can you take a big breath and think of one thing you are grateful for that employs the power of the mind? For example, I am grateful for clean water because there are so many people in this world who don’t have infrastructure to keep their water, safe, healthy, and accessible. I only need turn the tap and my water is reliably there to keep me clean and hydrated. Now your turn, really take a pause and think of something you’re sincerely grateful for as compared to a someone less fortunate. Then, take another deep breath and think of one thing you are grateful for that uses the spacious awareness of the heart. For me in this moment I think of the feeling of the sun shining on my face in the morning, the way it warms me and brings me a feeling of aliveness. And you? What fills your heart with gratitude, so much so that you simply feel it, you don’t have to have a good reason. 

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