How many of you wanted to punch me for bringing up “practising gratitude?”
I know, I know, we get the whole “be grateful for what you have” shpeel so often, we risk perceiving it as a watered-down or “new-age” trend that we do because we think we should, and not because we realize how much it really can benefit us. Give me a couple mins of your time to read this. I’m confident you’ll get something out of it, and it doesn’t involve going out and buying a leather-bound journal to leave by your bedside (although you could do that if you want to).
I was reading some stuff by our boy, Thich Nhat Hanh the other day. He explained the practice of gratitude in a way to which we can likely all relate: He used the example of a toothache, but if “headache” or “stomach-ache” is a better fit for you, substitute it with that. He shared that we have a toothache, we know one thing: how nice it is not to have a toothache. Of course, when we don’t have the toothache, we’re generally not thinking about how nice it is that we don’t have a toothache.
Ask any sufferer of chronic pain, and they’ll tell you how lucky you are not to be in pain. Yet, it’s not something we think about each day. (Cliche alert!): We truly take what we have for granted. And this is natural. We’re human beings, socialized to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do. Where we fall short rather than where we excel. To find the negatives and the holes, and to fill those gaps with desire, wanting, and striving. Additionally, always thinking about the negatives we could have wouldn’t be very productive, and we’d spend all our mental energy thinking about it.
Irvin Yalom, an Existential psychiatrist who talks a lot about facing death anxiety, shares a dialogue from his experience counselling palliative care patients: “Isn’t it a pity” a woman he was working with said, “that it takes a terminal diagnosis to figure out how to live?”
I get the privilege of perspective every time I speak to a client. I often come home and debrief with my friend (who is nurse). Between our professions, we get a lot of perspective and feel remarkably fortunate. But in most careers, we aren’t offered that perspective. We’re told where we should be, or what we should attempt to achieve, compared to people whom we perceive to “have more,” or be “more successful,” “better looking,” or “luckier” (Remember upward vs. downward social comparison).
So, if you aren’t gifted with a career or regimen that provides you with organic perspective, you might have to commit to a more intentional or formal practice (hence “practising gratitude”). You will learn to use it strategically when you’re feeling short-changed in particular areas of life. Adopt a practice in your mind or on paper. Here are a few thoughts to consider to help you get started. Now, this can be a bit heavy, and it’s not meant to induce guilt or anxiety. But, similar to Socrates’ (and Irvin Yalom’s patient’s) statement that “Death teaches us how to live,” Being aware of what we stand to lose teaches us to appreciate what we have. Awareness of the “heavy stuff” helps us not be as fazed by the “light stuff.” Make space for the anxiety that comes up as you imagine life without the following, and mindfully acknowledge what you are grateful for.
Gratitude For Your Career (or Ability to Have One):
Hate your job? Imagine you were unemployed and couldn’t find work (most of us have been in this situation before, and perhaps you are, currently). You may hate your job, but imagine you had no source of income, or no labour laws, or made $2 a day. Imagine you lived in a country where women weren’t allowed to work. Or that a 16-hour work day was the norm, not preserved for articled students.
Gratitude For Your Body and Able-Bodied-ness
Self-critical about your appearance? Hating on your cellulite or skinny calves? Imagine you woke up tomorrow in a wheelchair. How would it change how you relate to the legs you disliked? How you judged your appearance? How you viewed the function of your body?
Gratitude For Your Relationships (or Ability to Have Them)
Heartbroken? Rejected? Lonely? Acknowledge the pain. Be empathic and compassionate to yourself. But also acknowledge who you do have. For some, that list might be very small. Relationships come and go, and times of struggle (especially with depression) can cause us to isolate and disconnect. If you can’t think of anyone, don’t fret. Acknowledge that you always have yourself, and that can be your starting point. Work on changing your relationship to yourself to a more compassionate one, and you can build your support network (if you choose to) concurrently.
Gratitude For Your Freedom and Privilege:
Annoyed about not getting your way? Consider if you had no rights. Imagine you were “owned” by your partner. Imagine you weren’t allowed to express yourself in the way that you are today. Imagine you were imprisoned or hospitalized. Rarely do we recognize how fortunate we are to have the freedom of choice in our daily life.
Gratitude For Your Safety
Tiny apartment? Imagine just getting through the day alive were a relief. Imagine you had no choice to live in an environment where you felt unsafe–anxious, all the time. Where bombings or raids could happen at any time. Be thankful of your safety.
Imagine you had a terminal illness and were given 2 weeks to live. How would it change how you related to tedious tasks at work or boring commutes? How would it change what you regard as “enjoyable” in life?
Gratitude For Your Sight
Imagine you could no longer see colours, or not longer see at all. How would it change what you regard as beautiful? How would it change how you perceive the world around you? After I had LASIK, I found myself marvelling at the fine detail I hadn’t noticed before–leaves on trees, blades of grass, clouds, facial expressions. If this were the last day you had sight, how would it change where you focused your visual attention?
Dementia runs in my family. On both sides. All I have to do is think of my grandfathers, both once brilliant lawyers, both ultimately infantalized and requiring around-the-clock care, and I’m reminded of how fortunate I am that I can form a coherent sentence and make independent, respected decisions.
Gratitude For the Experience of Life
Imagine you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, how would it change how you feel about life? How would it change how you regarded moments of impatience and frustration, discomfort and displeasure? Suddenly, wet socks and heartbreak become opportunities to feel alive. The chances of being born are mind-blowing. Be thankful for having the experience to live, and to feel–at all.