I don’t know about you but the word “gratitude” carries a fair amount of guilt and resentment for me. Being citizens of privileged countries like Canada, we’re constantly told that we should be grateful, as in, “finish your food, there are starving children in Africa!”
This realization that we have certain things that others do not often results in guilty feelings about the facts of life that we’re not responsible for (directly) and cannot change. Gratitude, at least for me, has associated feelings of injustice and helplessness. It is almost as if that by admitting I am grateful for my food, my home, my family, my friends, etc., I am acknowledging the fact that I, more than anyone else, did not earn or deserve them and brings to light the possibility that these things can be taken from me.
When we talk about meditating on or cultivating a feeling of gratitude, the opposite is usually understood. We seek to cultivate gratitude precisely for the reason that we are, in fact, not grateful and are focusing on the negative aspects of our lives, the things we are not grateful for.
However, gratitude is not about guilt-trips or comparisons. It’s simply recognizing that we are all fortunate in our own way, helping us to see the full half of our glasses.
A classmate once showed a group of students and I a powerful and engaging visualization exercise based on recognizing the things to be grateful for in our lifes. I often struggle in meditation, especially the stricter Vipassana or Zen meditations, in which we are told to calm and focus the mind. It seems that more I try to focus the more I realize I am trying, pushing to make something happen and then the more I try not to try. And try not to try not to try. Until I get lost in a vast tangle of effort. (How can we exert the effort to find effortlessness?) I found with the gratitude meditation, however, my mind calmed, focused and participated in the meditation. My mind was free to conjure up images in a Freudian pattern of free association, and I simply had to acknowledge that I was, indeed, grateful for those things.
I started by sitting quietly and focusing on my breath, calming it, deepening it and quietening it. The first thought I began with was “I am grateful for my breath.” I began to feel a sensation of blissful relaxation as I reveled in the beauty, simplicity and luxury of my breath. Without trying to sound flakey, I found myself bask in the gratefulness for it. I moved on to other body sensations, gifts and functions – “I am grateful for my lungs, for my brown hair, for a body that can meditate and relax, for this cushion, for the way I can stretch, enjoy yoga, exercise and move outside.” I let my mind wander on to the next object, maintaining mindfulness by reminding myself to acknowledge the gratitude I felt towards these things: my home, my dog, my school, country, books, nature, loving family, the sun. Whatever came up, I recognized my gratitude for having it in my life.
The most therapeutic and eye-opening part of the meditation, however, was when my mind, as most minds do, began to wander to more negative aspects of my life, things that I wasn’t necessarily grateful for – my exams, work, stress, anxiety, family problems, school problems, uncertainty, long distance relationship, lack of money, etc. I then realized how, despite what I originally thought, I was actually grateful for these things. Negative experiences supplied the yin to my yang, they helped to balance and shape who I am and without these perceptibly negative times, I wouldn’t have faced the challenges and character-building situations that have made me who I am and led me to where I am.
Once I got the grateful ball rolling, the possibilities were endless. After a few minutes, I ended the meditation and left with a clear sense of relaxation and satisfaction for all that I have, both positive and negative.
I’ve noticed that cultivating gratitude is an important ingredient in overcoming addictions and dealing with mental illness. In the AA meeting I recently attended, I noticed a running them of gratitude and the need to thank the Higher Power on a daily basis. I once read a saying, “Image if you woke up tomorrow with just the things you thanked God for today.” Whether you are comfortable with the G word or not, I think this idea opens our minds to the many riches we may not realize we have (not just the food on our table that we should eat because of the Africans who may not have it) but the totality of our life experience.