“It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.”
~ Germany Kent
Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Morning Gatha
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
~ Meister Eckhart
Years ago, I was relieved to read that humans have a biological inclination towards pessimism. That meant I wasn’t the only one. The perpetually cheerful people I knew were like a different species, not of my tribe. How did they wake up smiling each day and just be so dang cheerful all the time? Why couldn’t they take a vacation from enthusiasm and be depressed and negative for a few days? Not everything is so great. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to put a pin in their bubble of happiness because it was so annoying.
I have learned much about gratitude and happiness. For most of us, it isn’t a natural trait. It’s a state we work to create. That’s right, we work on gratitude. Cultivate is another way to say we train, we prepare, we pay attention to, we expend effort to bring gratitude into our lives. For most of us, due to our heritage, our conditioning, our exposure to the media, and the innate propensity to track what can harm us, we focus on what’s wrong.
When we watch elite athletes, artists, or musicians, we get the idea that they are gifted. They came out of the womb super talented. What we don’t always see is the years of training and cultivation that is beneath what looks effortless. It is the same with any skill. Gratitude is a skill we can develop and not just for Thanksgiving. Gratitude is a shift in awareness. It is letting go of the deadly habits of judgment, comparing, and holding on. Gratitude opens us up to noticing what is alive in us and around us. What is going right for you today?
A few years ago, I was speaking to dharma teacher, Joanne Friday. She remarked that she was always amazed how smoothly the traffic ran, even with tie-ups and delays. She focused on all the millions of journeys that happened without accident, delay, or problems. How many people navigate roadways safely every day? We all tend to focus on the frustrating, the obstacles and getting rid of what’s in our way.
There’s a beautiful reminder of what we are given from Benedictine monk, Brother David Seindl-Rast. It’s a five-and-a-half-minute video on gratefulness, well worth the time. When we spend time bringing our attention to what is good in our lives, we change our minds. In Buddharakkhita’s translation of The Dhammapada, the second stanza reads, “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.” Several thousands of years later, we have fMRI’s that show us where we spend our time, creates neural connectivity. The brain is amazingly plastic, and we can actively create connection and synchronicity in our thinking. If we spend our time thinking about all that is wrong, all that we don’t have, we feel resentful and poor. When we spend our time appreciating what we do possess, we are suddenly rich and blessed. This shows us that our happiness and contentment is a choice. Making this choice part of our lives requires diligence and attention. We can shift from a life of lack to one of abundance if we commit to this training.
Luckily, increasing gratitude activates the reward network in our brain. This leads to increased neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and the generation of oxytocin, the hormone that signifies the presence of love. We feel an increased experience of well-being or happiness. Gratitude actually makes us feel better. We can think of this gratitude practice as an outward and inward gift. Sharing our appreciations and gratitude brings happiness to others and shifts our own neural path towards happiness. As we head into Thanksgiving here is the US, I send my gratitude for all of you for your kindness and practice, for your wise and compassionate hearts. Please know how wonderful it is to be in this world with you.
May we all trust our light,