“Your life becomes a temple of that which is sacred when you choose to live with love in this moment.” ~Swami Chetanananda
We’ve heard it’s important to be grateful, to maintain an “attitude of gratitude,” & to say “thank you.” All great advice! But, sometimes I find myself wondering: How can we be grateful, especially during times of pain, loss, or fear? How can we make sure gratitude is authentic & life-enhancing? What are the physical, psychological, & spiritual benefits of gratitude? And, how is gratitude connected to living a joyful life?
Recently, a dear student shared her insight into the practice of gratitude after a beautiful yoga class. Thank you Cathy! (Name changed to respect her privacy.) Her insight inspired me to think more about gratitude, its practice, & how it is a cornerstone of taking care of ourselves & those we love. Not surprisingly, it is also a cornerstone of yoga. In honor of her wisdom, here are some inspiring facts about the effects of gratitude & helpful tips for incorporating a soul-affirming gratitude practice. I hope you enjoy!
Years ago, Cathy & her husband put in a pool with the dream of being “the house” for children get-togethers & family holidays. Cathy would get excited as she envisioned a summer home brimming with activity. After a busy July 4th that included feeding 17 friends & family (did I mention Cathy is amazing? I won’t even pretend to know how to feed that many people!), she understandably felt more tired than inspired. Longing for some R&R, Cathy felt anxious over the ensuing weekend. After yoga class, she was heading home to prepare for an onslaught of relatives arriving the following day. Amidst this busy schedule, Cathy experienced a revelation on her yoga mat. While in pigeon’s pose, inhaling into the heart center & exhaling out gratitude, she realized she could better take care of herself & enjoy the upcoming weekend by changing her focus. Just as she could feel peaceful in a deep, challenging hip opener like pigeon’s pose, she could feel joy amidst the chaos of playing family host by practicing gratitude. Smiling, she shared her goal to practice gratitude throughout the upcoming weekend. She said that as she thought about how grateful she was to have loving family & friends she no longer felt so overwhelmed. Though she came into class feeling frazzled, she left feeling empowered & light-hearted.
What is so wonderful about Cathy’s story is that it reminds us that gratitude is a practice. It is not an innate emotion that some of us have & some of us lack. We can all partake in gratitude! As importantly, we can be patient with ourselves when we aren’t feeling so grateful. As with any practice, gratitude isn’t about perfection. It’s about meeting ourselves where we are and patiently incorporating thankfulness with intention & kindness. To put into other words, it’s about treating ourselves with compassion. Who hasn’t found themselves thinking about what they’re thankful for and suddenly chastising themselves for being so ungrateful & self-absorbed during daily life! Or, focusing on being thankful for someone and then suddenly feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of ever losing him or her? When you find yourself doing so, you have a wonderful chance to meet yourself with compassion. Giggling doesn’t hurt either! The truth is, you are not alone. Most of us find it difficult to practice gratitude because opening up to all the wonderful gifts of life can make us hesitant. What if we lose what we are thankful for? Or, what if reflecting on gratitude reveals just how negative & self-absorbed with worry we can be? Why aren’t we more grateful since many of us are so blessed?
Please know that there is no need to get down on yourself. You are not a bad person for needing to practice gratitude. In fact, quite the opposite! How wonderful that you recognize a need within yourself to express love for this life! You are also not a bad person if you ever feel shame or fear when practicing gratitude. Many of us have been raised in a culture focused on potential scarcity. We have internalized being fearful because of a belief that we must always strive or compete for what we need and want—whether it be a new car or love from another. The beauty of practicing thankfulness is that it allows us to breakdown this notion of scarcity. Every time we bravely open to gratitude, we give ourselves & others permission to believe in sufficiency. We invite in the knowledge that we have enough, we are enough, and life in the present moment is enough. Sounds good to me!
Given all this, how might we define gratitude? I like to think of gratitude in terms of what the practice is and is not:
Practicing gratitude is NOT about blaming ourselves or others for lacking thankfulness. It is NOT about chastising ourselves for feeling fear, envy, anger, or any other emotion. It IS about gently reminding ourselves in a compassionate way that life is made up of multiple experiences and, with practice, we can choose to focus on gratefulness to strengthen our sense of joy, hope, & connection to others.
When we take time to feel grateful, particularly during times when we feel most vulnerable or anxious, we do so with the belief that we are worthy of a healthy, happy life. Many recent psychological & physiological studies show that when we practice gratitude we lower our blood pressure, steady the electromagnetic signals to our heart helping to maintain a healthy heartbeat, increase serotonin levels helping ourselves feel peaceful & content, sleep better, feel more connected to others, & are more likely to take care of our bodies through exercise and a healthy diet.
From the yogic perspective, the act of gratitude helps us to soften our fourth chakra (our heart center) and connect with our blissful nature. According to yoga, joy is always within you. In fact, you are joy & joy is you. Literally! Because you are ultimately your soul ~ peaceful, blissful, & wise ~ you always have the opportunity to connect with bliss! From this perspective, when we feel joy from a new relationship or seeing a cute puppy or that amazing massage, it is not really because of those objects of our attention. Yes, they bring the joy out in us. My gosh, I LOVE puppies & massages! But, that emotion of joy had to be there all along within you to be able to spring forth. Practicing gratitude is one way we can gently open our hearts to this innate joy regardless of outside objects & circumstances. By focusing on someone or something we are grateful for & allowing emotions of awe, love, & happiness to fill our hearts, we remind ourselves that we are joy. We are worthy of experiencing joy anytime, under any circumstance. As importantly, others are worthy of our thankfulness. We connect with our blissful souls every time we express & share gratitude with others.
With these ideas in mind, here are a few gratitude practices to get you started on your thankfulness path. As with all things, enjoy playing with these suggestions, leaving behind those that don’t resonate for you & embracing those that do!
1) Start a Gratitude Journal:
Grab a fun notebook & get ready to write out your gratitude list! Start with writing down 3-5 things you are grateful for each day. These can be anything from the weather to the cute pair of shoes you just got. Go crazy here! No need to judge what comes to mind; just enjoy the creativity of it. This can be a wonderful practice either upon waking or right before bed, as thinking of things for which we are grateful calms our minds and relaxes our bodies. As time goes on, feel free to list more items as you feel inspired. One of my favorite things about a journal is that on a difficult day, when you need a pick me up, you have a wonderful resource to help you remember all the things that make you blissful!
2) Talk Gratitude to Yourself:
Though misleadingly simple, this is a great option especially when you don’t have a pen & paper around or are on the move. When you catch yourself feeling sad, fearful, or vulnerable take a moment to breath in gently & deeply through your nose. Next, exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing yourself to sigh if you feel comfortable doing so. As you start to relax with gentle inhales and slightly longer exhales, you can begin to list what you are grateful for in the present moment. Again, remember there are no right or wrong answers here! If you are alone, try speaking it out loud in a nourishing tone. “I am so grateful for ________.” After each gratitude statement allow yourself to imagine the person or object of gratitude, feeling the beautiful emotions it or they arouse. Stay with this practice for as long as feels good. If you are in a public space, this practice still works. Stick with silently making your statements of gratitude & enjoy the sudden smile across your face!
3) Meditate on It:
This is a beautiful exercise adopted from The Chemistry of Joy (2006) by Henry Emmons, M.D.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position, focusing on gently inhaling & exhaling through the nose. Bring your awareness to your heart center. Notice whatever feeling is in your heart at this moment, and accept it just as it is. Maintaining some awareness of the heart, bring an image to mind of someone who has helped you or been kind to you, now or in the past. You may think of a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a loved one, or even a stranger. Allow the image of this person, and the good he or she has done for you, to become very clear. Imagine that the person is standing right before you. Invite her or him to come closer. Look the person in the eye, and give her or him your thanks. Try to be as specific as you can in saying what you are grateful for. Allow the image to fade, but spend a few more moments lingering with your awareness of gratitude. If you like, repeat the process with other people for whom you are grateful.
4) Express Thanks in Your Own Way
This can be a great practice, particularly after doing the above exercises. Focusing on a person in your life for whom you feel particularly grateful, write down what you would love to tell them if you had the chance. Next, take a moment to brainstorm on how you could express this to them in a way that is comfortable for you & meaningful for him or her. Remember, when we speak through our passions we speak with our souls! If you enjoy writing, send him or her a handwritten note of thanks. If you love to paint, paint him or her a small art piece expressing your feelings in color! If you love to cook, cook up a feast of gratitude. One of the best parts of expressing thankfulness is that there is no right way to do so. This is one of the most rewarding & life-affirming forms of gratitude. When we connect with others through thankfulness we spread the many life-affirming benefits of gratitude to our communities.
Thank you for sharing your day with me by reading on gratitude! I would love to hear what inspires you to be thankful! How do these practices resonate with you? What have you found to inspire gratitude & a joyful life?
May you rock on fellow blissful souls. May you rock gratitude!