About fifteen years ago I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books on tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by Susan Jeffers. Among other good recommendations, Jeffers suggested that I take time every night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.
“Did she say 50?!” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50. Because it’s not really about the list.
In order to create a 50-item gratitude list each night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. Today my items will include: the surprise of a monarch butterfly in my garden, finding Ben and Jerry’s on sale at Whole Foods, the shy smile of a toddler in the checkout line, my favorite Joni Mitchell song on the radio and that email from a soul friend full of just the right words. That’s 5 down, 45 to go. And so I’ll mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.
Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the expressway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, or the fact that my air conditioner worked on a 98-degree day when residents elsewhere were suffering a blackout and losing their cool. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help with small tasks, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And because Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I try to remember to give thanks when a pain or illness has disappeared. It’s easy to be miserable when I’m suffering and forgetful when I’m well.
What Jeffers is up to with this list thing is getting us to flip our internal scripts from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends “poor me” and “life sucks”) to one of appreciation and even wonder for the what we have and what is given to us. Research shows that gratitude boosts mental and physical health, and I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel companioned by benevolent forces.
“So often what blocks people from their greater potential is that they don’t appreciate what they have so far,” says spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss. I think that’s because a focus on lack is akin to wearing super dark shades all the time. We won’t even recognize our good if we’re clouded with negativity, and we sure won’t be motivated to strive for better. Think about a closed fist versus an upturned palm – which is more likely to receive?
Author and astrologer Rob Brezsny takes the concept a little further in his book Pronoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. Brezsny explains that pronoia is the antidote for paranoia and “a mode of training your senses and intellect so you’re able to perceive the fact that life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.”
Sometimes it takes me awhile to see that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Well, it could’ve been worse,” or “I guess there’s something I’m meant to learn here.” Believe me, I don’t go from angry to accepting in 60 seconds, but I do find that life is just gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.
“Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing,” says Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, adding that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful,” he says.
Speaking of joy, I invite you to spend ten minutes watching Loius Schwartzberg and his gorgeous film about the power of gratitude. Then, in the words of German theologian Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Thank you. I’m grateful for your readership.