The Practice of Giving Thanks


I've written before about the gift of gratitude and how sometimes we need a little help to focus on what's good instead of what we wished were better. How many of us sit at a Thanksgiving table laden with a ton of traditional fare, football games playing in the background, the hangover and food coma just around the bend, our attention fixed on anything other than giving thanks? I believe this happens more often than not, but maybe I'm projecting my own gratitude inadequacies on the rest of humanity. It's so easy to mouth the words about being thankful for our families, our health, and our relative wealth. But beneath those platitudes, how many of us are entertaining thoughts—bidden or not—about the failings of our families, the imperfection of our health and the shortcomings of our bank accounts. 

When we offer thanks for our spouses and our children, how many of us wish that our kids made better grades or more touchdowns, or that our spouse were more loving, considerate or attentive? And while most of those reading these pages likely aren't wondering where their next meal is coming from, and they can probably afford to splurge on something just for fun, most of us believe that when it comes to money, more is better, so whatever we've got, we probably would like to add a zero or two to the balance sheet.

Even in the midst of Thanksgiving we are plagued by our "not enough disease," the affliction that has reached epidemic proportions in our privileged world. This scourge rears its ugly head and ruins the moment of our gratitude, propelling us into a future more desirable than our current reality. And that, I am sad to say, discounts or negates the gratitude itself. If the deficiencies of the moment creep into our expression of thanks, then we haven't fully experienced the truly life changing event of authentic thanksgiving.

So how do we fight these barbarians at the gates of our soul?  How can we crowd out the "yes, but..." thoughts that spoil our appreciation of what we have by highlighting what we don't? How can we counter the myriad messages of advertising, Facebook and other social and subliminal communications that are determined to convince us that if only we had more or different, we would truly grateful and happy?  It's not easy, that's for sure. But it can be done. And like so many worthwhile endeavors, the keys to the kingdom can be acquired through practice, and in this case, more really is better. 

What does it mean to practice gratitude? To begin, it means spending more than thirty seconds at the dining table with the turkey drying out with every passing minute, to think deeply about that for which we are thankful. When we are less practiced, it's the big things that come to mind when we offer our gratitude to the Universe or whichever deity we worship. We give thanks for our parents, siblings, children and extended family. We think about our friends and lovers. Perhaps we spare our jobs, employers and co-workers a passing thought of thanks, as well as the income we receive from our labors. Maybe we're grateful for some physical healing or the fact that we are largely whole and functioning. Maybe we love football and thank the NFL for broadcasting on our day off so that we can kick back and watch. There are a lot of big ticket items for which we can be grateful. 

But if we make gratitude a practice, the subtler blessings come to light. Personally, I practice gratitude each day, starting my morning—before I do anything else—with a written gratitude list from the day before. Some do this at night, but I found myself too tired and eager for sleep, so I moved my daily practice to the quiet, still hours of the early morning, usually before the sun peeks over the watery horizon outside my windows, spilling wine colored light along the visible edge of the world.

As I contemplate the day before, the night that just ended and the time ahead, I find the place within me where my heart dwells and see what arises. Often, my gratitudes involve the burst of awareness at a particular point in time where I paused to recognize a specific connection with another. Sometimes it's a shared laugh with my husband, or a rare compliment from one of my teenaged sons. Sometimes it's an expression of my God-given talent, a job or task we'll done, for which I thank the source of all my personal gifts. Sometimes it's a good night's sleep, a satisfying meal, the willingness to exercise after a long day or the reticence not to share my foul mood with others, a restraint that comes from outside of myself, because my brand of misery usually craves company.

Every day my list of gratitudes is different, and I cannot express the exquisite joy when my list grows and grows. There are days I run out of time before I run out of gratitudes. Those are the best days. And as I call to mind each of these gifts, I am able to enjoy them again, together with the acknowledgment of my blessed state of being.

And I'm neither dumb nor in denial. I know that things are not always as I want them to be. In fact, there are many people, places and things that refuse to conform to my well-orchestrated direction, dammit! Often, I can't even get myself to behave the way I should.

And I can spend time dwelling on all of that—and believe me, I do (just ask my husband who is the most frequent recipient of my ranting and raving). But the early morning moments I spend practicing gratitude has slowly but inexorably helped to ensure I can shift back to a positive mental state more easily than I could before. I don't need to wallow as exuberantly in the shit as I used to do. I smile more, if only to myself. 

The practice of gratitude has changed my life and it has reshaped me into a more pleasant and happier person.  And while everyone focuses on a day of thanks, I suggest a year of living gratefully. Start a list. Find a buddy. Do it together. Watch the good stuff expand and the yuck recede.

And to all of you, my beloved readers, I offer my sincere gratitude for reading my blog and sticking with me for such a long time. I also offer thanks to the many authors I write about, whose books fill my life with pleasure and joy, and endless source of material about which to think and write. I am filled with gratitude. The more I look for things to inspire thanks, the more I find. I wish you all the same. 

Happy Thanksgiving!