The Nitty Gritty of Gratitude by Jessica Caplan
It is a gorgeous sunny morning. You wake up well-rested with your loved one by your side. The day is wide open in front of you with the perfect itinerary of your favorite things planned. Days like this make it easy to feel the swell of appreciation for what we have — our lover, our family, our freedom, our health. But what about those days when we find ourselves burdened with responsibility, scattered, or grappling with the very real struggles of life? What about those moments when all we want to do is curl up in a ball and disappear or find a sympathetic ear and complain the day away?
Back in my early yoga days, one of my first beloved teachers used to beckon his students to the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows at the start of class. The studio was in a high rise in the central area of Hong Kong. I remember looking out at blue skies and the lego land of neighboring skyscrapers, as our teacher guided us to “see the good” in what we observed. It was like gaining a whole new set of eyes. Chronically self-critical as a child, my parents joked that they didn’t have to punish me when I misbehaved, because I would punish myself with my own self-loathing for whatever I’d done. With his simple exercise of “seeing the good,” my teacher sneakily had us working the muscle of appreciation of — or gratitude for — the present moment. Later in my studies with him, he had us apply this same technique to seeing ourselves and our fellow yogis. I remember how uncomfortable it was initially for me to speak aloud (we did this exercise in partners) the good I recognized in myself.
Herein lies the grit of gratitude: as a practice we take time to do consistently, we do it whether we’re “feeling it” in that moment or not. Whether or not we feel blessed, we count our blessings. Whether or not we feel fortunate, we say thank you for the fortune we do have. Whether or not we feel beautiful, loved, and loving, we pause to appreciate all that is good and beautiful within ourselves and others. As a theory, it might conjure up images of angels floating atop fluffy clouds set to an ethereal soundtrack. As practice, it lands us smack in the present moment, asking that we shift our perspective, if need be, to see the positive in the situation. For example, is your boss being unnecessarily hard on you? Thank you, difficult boss, for helping me practice patience and for showing me what kind of boss I hope to be one day. Is the incessant banging on the wall next door is hindering your ability to focus on the piece you’re writing? (Yes, this is happening right now, as I write.) Thank you, construction workers of New York City, for honing my concentration!
Gratitude is the antidote for what plagues so many of us: dissatisfaction with what is, and a desire to change what’s happening now. Gratitude is a decision, and also a tool. Instead of trying to change the situation that is causing frustration, or worse yet, whining about it (a soul-sucking activity I am no stranger to), we create a new relationship with it. It’s kind of magical really: by tuning in to what this moment offers — by not trying to change it — we generate the shift we were needing. It’s an internal shift, over an external one, and it opens us up to a whole world of goodness and appreciation that is flowing within and outside of us. The results are often instantaneous too; heaps of studies show that gratitude increases happiness, reduces depression, improves physical well-being and even improves sleep — and it doesn’t have to take more than just a few minutes a day.
So here’s my Thanksgiving assignment to you, if you are so inspired. To celebrate the power of gratitude, I invite you to create a daily practice of appreciation for one week. At the same time everyday (I recommend first thing in the morning), spend ten minutes writing down everything you are grateful for, right now. Make this list regardless of how you’re feeling, or what you’re struggling with, or which side of the bed you woke up on. Notice if anything changes for you. As Louis Armstrong said in song: “When you’re smilin’, keep on smilin,’ the whole world smiles with you.”