Try this experiment: try to feel grateful that something good is happening. Now try to feel angry about something at the same time.
It’s difficult, isn’t it? It feels like these two emotions are too conflicting to be felt at the same time. With practice, we can experience uplifting gratitude and also feel sadness or grief simultaneously. The gratitude softens the effect of the sadness.
Try this instead: close your eyes, and take a few breaths. Feel grateful that you are alive, that you can breathe, that you don’t have lung disease or even a cold. Really notice the inward and outward movement of your breath. For just one minute, can you feel grateful that this is happening 24/7 even when you’re unconscious?
This is so simple. It takes no planning, costs nothing and requires zero concentration. Therein lies both the problem and the potential: it requires no concentration, so it gets no attention. So why focus on it? It isn’t a problem that needs to be solved, so why should I give it my valuable attention?
The answer is that the benefits of gratitude are so obvious from the first gratitude practice you experience that it would be madness to not try it.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is not positive thinking. It isn’t turning that frown upside-down or seeing that every cloud has a silver lining – it’s not a cliché. Neither is it saying thank you or the giving of gifts, although they are wonderful symbols of gratefulness and can be very worthwhile.
Gratitude practice is the mindful noticing of whatever we can appreciate
When Buddhist monks wake up, unlike the rest of us who start doom scrolling even before our first coffee’s started, they feel gratitude for the fact that they have woken up. They take a breath and feel grateful for it, feel the ground beneath their feet and see the light as the sun has risen again, and they start their day happier and healthier as a result.
This is not rocket science. We can all do it.
How do I begin?
Have you ever woken up in a bad mood, when the first emotion you feel as you rise is that of being annoyed or angry? It’s not a great way to start the day. That’s not a judgement, it’s an observation. What if we could turn that around so that every day our mantra of gratitude could provide us, at the very least, with a chance of having an OK start to the day?
Tomorrow, when your alarm goes off, try taking one minute out of your day to switch your mindset from “ugh, not already,” shortly followed by “I’ll just check the news in the hope Putin has declared a ceasefire – crap, he hasn’t,” to “I’m grateful I can breathe. I’m grateful the sun has risen. I’m grateful for the opportunity today may bring.”
Yes, it may sound unrealistic. I’m not suggesting you glibly repeat any words while thinking about what you need to wear today. Of course, you tailor the mantra to yourself to make it more valid. But I’m asking that you try it for just a week. Write down three things you’re grateful for when you go to bed. Read it when you get up and also add three basic things you are grateful for in the morning, like being able to breathe, drink clean water and walk.
Tomorrow, when your alarm goes off, try taking one minute out of your day to switch your mindset
Being grateful for nothing
In a light-hearted way, being grateful for nothing is the easiest gratitude practice of all.
In his book on Naikan self-reflection, Gregg Krech observes: “When was the last time you felt grateful because nothing happened? Nobody crashed into your car. The electricity didn’t go out. You didn’t wake up with a toothache.
“‘Nothing happened’ isn’t particularly exciting. It’s not as entertaining as a good movie. It’s not intellectually challenging, nor is it adorable like a spaniel puppy. But when you expect the worst and nothing happens, it’s worthy of celebration. A celebration of the fact that despite all of our problems and aches and pains and financial challenges and relationship conflicts we’re alive and we’re breathing and at the moment, we’re safe. So, take a moment and sit back. And breathe in ‘nothing happened.’ And breathe out a breath of thanks. Gratitude for just being able to breathe. Now that’s really something!”
When you expect the worst and nothing happens, it’s worthy of celebration
At work, if none of our patients bleed or die we barely notice it. It’s acceptable, satisfactory – as it should be, for goodness’ sake. But maybe we should notice it. Maybe we should be grateful that “nothing happened” after all.
A gratitude practice
Try this practice: close your eyes and picture someone very dear to you. It might be your child, your pet or your partner. Now try to list a few things you’re grateful for on their behalf. Sometimes it’s easier to be grateful for the good things that happen to our loved ones rather than those that happen to us directly.
For example, I’m grateful every morning that all my cats are alive, well and yelling at me for food, and that nothing happened to them during the night.
I’m grateful every day my kids get in from school – whatever mood they’re in – and that they didn’t get knocked down by a bus.
I’m grateful looking out of my window that no trees fell on my garden during the winds that night.
I’m even grateful that our sunflower seeds have sprouted into seedlings without being used as a litter tray.
Gratitude practice makes us feel better, helps us to cope with the tough stuff in life and makes our loved ones around us to feel more at ease
This may feel like an effort at the start, noticing the teeny tiny good things or the “lack of bad things” all around us. But don’t worry, it’s not insincere. You can be aware of the grave horrific atrocities in your life and in the world while doing your gratitude practice. The point is that we know that gratitude practice makes us feel better, helps us to cope with the tough stuff in life and makes our loved ones around us to feel more at ease.
There’s a story about a monk who carried water from a well in two buckets, one of which had holes in it. He did this every day without repairing the bucket. One day, a passer-by asked him why he continued to carry the leaky bucket. The monk pointed out that the side of the path where he carried the full bucket was barren, but on the other side of the path where the bucket had leaked beautiful wildflowers had flourished.
He noticed this and felt gratitude.