He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus
Today is my seventy-sixth birthday, which seems like an appropriate time to talk about gratitude.
I backed into the gratitude practice that I do, more or less formally, every day. Some years ago, it occurred to me that it was, well, rude, to fail to give thanks for whatever meal was placed before me. This raised a problem, since I was (and I remain) an Agnostic, an Agnostic who has images of Deities all over the place, and who feels a deep connection to the idea of a Mother Goddess- but, an Agnostic who thinks, much of the time, that these are just nonsensical, self-soothing tales, except when I need soothing. Got that? The problem, of course, was that, if I’m going to give thanks for my food, to whom (or what) am I giving those thanks? If I was going to “say grace” over my meal, it seemed, I had to first resolve this little theological problem: do I believe that somebody is listening?
I wrestled with this question for quite some time until, one day, it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessary. I could (I reasoned) feel and even express gratitude, whether or not anything “out there” was listening. The important thing was not who heard the expression, but the fact that I expressed it. If, in fact, there is some great, loving Mother (or Father) for whose bounty I am giving thanks, that’s great. Thanks for the burger and fries and beer; I really appreciate it. If they do not exist, then I am no poorer for having expressed gratitude. The expression is the important part. Whether it’s heard (and brings a smile to a Cosmic Face), is beyond our knowing. No need to get hung up on it.
So, I became one of those people you might have seen who, briefly and (I hope) unobtrusively, close their eyes and pause for a moment, before tucking in. I don’t make a big deal of it, and I hope that other people don’t notice, and especially that they don’t think I expect the same of them, or am making some kind of judgement. It’s just this thing I do, most of the time before I eat. When I forget, I don’t judge myself, either.
But, that was only the beginning.
In my psychotherapy practice, the most common complaint I see is depression. Pretty understandable, right? You’ve got a big problem or two and you don’t think you can get on the other side of it, so that’s depressing. Depression feeds on itself and, after awhile, the depression is your biggest problem, squatting on your chest grinning at you. One of the most effective ways of countering depression, as Epictetus suggests, is to give at least equal time to your blessings. Depression doesn’t like that. Ever the liar, depression insists you have nothing for which to be grateful, but he’s lying about that, too. Like the proverbial two aspirin, just a little bit of gratitude can (to mangle a metaphor) poke a hole in depression’s wall, letting in enough light to see more clearly. Good stuff.
One day it occurred to me that I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. I wasn’t given to depression; my life was pretty good, although there were some dark moments and ol’ man Death was beginning to peek around the corner at me with disturbing regularity. I guess I thought I had to be hip deep in chronic, clinical depression before this intervention could apply to me. Typical Shrink’s problem, I’d imagine. The day came, though, when it occurred to me that even my “pretty good life” could probably be enhanced by a gratitude practice of some kind. I started to experiment with technique and timing.
What I’ve come up with, that’s working for me, so far, is this: I let myself feel gratitude at any time it occurs to me, but I especially practice it at the end of either my working day (on the days I see clients) or the end of my other days, before I sleep. Notice that I say “feel gratitude”, rather than “think gratitude”. This is the last, and maybe the most important part, other than doing it at all: first I open my mind, non-critically, to anything that suggests itself as an experience or thing for which I am grateful. It may be a smile from a passing stranger or a moment with a client that felt inspired or the two humming birds that floated outside my window. It may be something as basic as my full belly and the roof over my head. I may feel nearly overwhelmed, comprehending my incredibly fortunate life, for which I feel so undeserving. Whatever comes to me, I hold it in my mind, until I feel it. It’s not enough to merely think about it. It needs to get down into your heart and guts and wherever you live, and fill you up, for a moment. Then, you can release it, with thanks, and resume regular programing. The work has been done.
I don’t promise that this practice will make your teeth whiter, or your hair grow back, but it feels good. I feel better, having done it, good enough to make a regular thing of it. Tonight, maybe I’ll feel gratitude for writing a blog entry again, after a long hiatus. I certainly feel grateful, right now, for my loving wife’s suggestion, that led to this entry. And, I feel grateful for any and all of you, who take a few minutes to read what I’ve written, and perhaps drop me a line in response. We’re all in this together, and it’s good to see you, over there, on your path.
Until next time, be well and Happy Trails to you.