What makes you glad to be alive?
Six Friends gathered on a winter's night to discuss Gratitude.
As we talked, we saw Gratitude as much more than whistling in the dark or taking a Pollyanna-ish look on the bright side. Without Gratitude it would be hard to sustain hope when faced with grief, loss or challenge. While we need to grieve and to acknowledge loss, being grateful can align us with what we have rather than sinking into regret for what has gone or is unattainable. Gratitude helps us focus on the reality of the here and now, rather than what might have been.
We also found that Gratitude is a powerful antidote to negative feelings such as envy, resentment, hatred or mistrust. Envy is a hostile form of self-pity, but when we appreciate what we have instead of dwelling on what we lack or comparing ourselves with others, envy dissolves. It may even be replaced by what Buddhists call mudita or joy in another's good fortune, an uplifting feeling.
Gratitude can also be nurturing. When we slip into old patterns or make a mistake, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to learn about ourselves can divert shame and help us to recognise ongoing growth. To a Seeker, everything that happens in life is an opportunity to learn and grow. Difficult situations reveal hidden gifts.
Some Friends talked about daily practices of Gratitude. Before every evening meal, one family takes turns to say what they are grateful for. A mother asks her young children to name the best thing about the day and helps them shape it into a prayer: 'Thank you for my sister who is fun to play with.' Others write gratitude lists to deal with a low mood, or think of things to be grateful for when trying to go to sleep.
As we talked we found more depths in Gratitude. We noted how it focuses on reciprocity, the give and take that strengthens communities. It brings respect for Creation: if we are grateful for the gifts of the natural world on which we depend, we will take more care to live sustainably. As Native Americans are said to thank the animal which gives its life to feed them, and Maori return the first fish to Tangaroa, we can appreciate the resources we have, give thanks and look after them.
Gratitude brings Mindfulness and helps us focus on the abundance of the present rather than fearing lack in the future or regretting past losses. It teaches humility: being thankful for what we have, we will be less inclined to be boastful or feel entitled to excess. When we find it hard to give thanks, we become aware of our learning edge.
Gratitude shows us our values; the things we are most grateful for will be the ones we value most. It can ground us in our values, making them real in daily life rather than broad abstractions.
Because our minds are naturally inclined towards threat and fear, Gratitude is a skill which needs to be developed through practice, a lifelong task but one which brings equanimity and peace.
"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was 'thank you' that would suffice." Meister Eckhart