A common theme during the holidays is to be grateful for what we have. This is a great theme and frame of mind for sure. But as the gift giving part of the holidays is starting for some and wrapping up for others, it can be difficult to focus on what we have that brings us a sense of gratitude. We’re so consumed with what we have to get for others, beating the crowds and getting the right gifts, that being grateful takes a back seat to feeling obligated to buy and do for others.
And that’s not such a bad thing. Giving and receiving is a great way to connect. To make someone special know that they’re important to you is something to be grateful for in itself. But the fatigue of buying gifts for so many often times makes us lose track of that sense of gratitude.
It’s also tough to recognize that we may not be as grateful as we “should” be for what we have. This can be especially true for those of us who come from a place of privilege. “I should be more grateful”, or “I should be volunteering or donating more” may be ways that we should all over ourselves.
But if you already have a busy schedule, a load of obligations and other responsibilities to meet, is it realistic to hold ourselves to these impossible standards of giving more than we have? And are they prerequisite to feeling grateful? They help, but if you’re already pressed for time and resources, then beating yourself up for not doing more is something Tara Brach calls, the second arrow, and is something that will easily keep us feeling low.
The first arrow is feeling guilty about not doing enough. The second arrow is when you beat yourself up for feeling guilty. So much guilt and self deprivation is inconducive to keeping in a grateful frame of mind. So how do we cultivate gratitude? We need to remember first that it’s not always so easy.
Being Grateful, It Ain’t Always Easy
I work at a family shelter as a second job. I’m working there mostly to pay off student loans, but also because this is my preferred career path. The first response I get from people when I tell them I work at a family shelter is usually, “that must be gratifying work”.
For sure, it has its moments. But there’s much more heart break happening than there are feelings of being somehow righteous and grateful in my chosen career path. The people I work for have, and are, seeing some of the worst life has to offer. And they aren’t grateful all that often.
And that’s not too say they don’t have things to be grateful for, or a judgement of their disposition in any way. Only, that they are circumstances that need dealing with that are more pressing than the time allowed to take stock of what they are grateful for. When you’re on fire, it’s hard to take a moment to appreciate the times you weren’t on fire. Or when you’re not going to be.
And you don’t have to be homeless to get caught up in feeling a lack of gratitude. We all have times where we just feel overwhelmed with the amount of fires we’re putting out. Or maybe we’re going through a rough patch at work or at home. Whatever the reason, it’s okay to not always feel a sense of gratitude for what we have and where we are.
This doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of feeling grateful, or that we’re not grateful at all. Only we need to make room for other emotions that may take up more space than we have room for both they and gratitude at the same time. For example, obligation takes up much of the same space that gratitude does for me. With so many obligations and demands to meet, it’s sometimes difficult to see out of the tunnel vision I get when I am in the midst of fulfilling my obligations.
A good example of this is, I work 60+ hours a week. When I work at the family shelter, I have more time to accomplish other tasks on my todo list. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be getting things done for myself, while budgeting my time efficiently and reaching my financial goals simultaneously. But the feelings of fatigue, tiredness and obligation, are most of the time greater than the feelings of gratitude. But my feelings of gratitude are still present, only muffled.
This is where practicing gratitude comes into the picture. Because when we practice the feelings of feeling grateful, they become stronger. And as I’ve said above, the other, more unpleasant feelings will still be present. The goal isn’t to get rid of these more difficult feelings, but to make the feelings of gratitude stronger than the unpleasant feelings. They can coexist simultaneously. As my therapist put it, when you try to not feel some emotions, you begin to numb them all. This is something I know a lot about and is a dangerous frame of mind to maintain for any length of time.
One way to practice gratitude is, the next time you feel grateful for something, pause and remember how you feel. This is something Tara Brach calls, turning a state into a trait. When we allow ourselves to really experience our states, and work to remember them, then it will be easier to find our way back to these ways of being. Think of it this way: we became anxious in the first place by worrying about everything all the time. Why would it be different for other, more positive states of mind?
So how do we make the switch from anxious based thinking to gratitude based thinking? There are a few ways we can help to cultivate this space for ourselves. I’ll share with you a few ways I practice this for myself, and maybe give you some inspiration to create your own space of gratitude for yourself.
Practicing Gratitude: A Practical Guide
One of the ways I practice gratitude, and probably the simplest way is to recognize it when it happens. We all have certain things we like. And throughout our day, chances are that we’ve built in some of these likes and tendencies, to bring a little joy to our day. Our job is to then recognize those moments and savor them.
It’s the Little Things
For example, I’m writing this article in my room, that is filled with things that bring me a sense of comfort and ease. I have an album I’ve recently discovered playing. I’m burning bee’s wax candles that naturally neutralise the air, purifying it from toxic chemicals (read here for more information on the benefits of burning bee’s wax candles). And I have a diffuser, diffusing the scent of jasmine into my room. And drinking a glass of iced peach herbal tea, lightly sweetened.
The effect is a very calming one. And every once and awhile, I’ll look up from my computer screen and just appreciate the ambiance I’ve created, to make my space just that much more inviting. It’s a similar state to when you go to your favorite restaurant and soak in the atmosphere along with the tastes and smells that make it your favorite place.
Another way I soak in these moments of gratitude is when I’m actively engaged in something that has a direct effect on a goal I’m trying to achieve. For example, I’m currently working towards paying off my student loans. Something I had no idea of what I was doing when I started the process of borrowing money for my education.
When I’m on my lenders website, making a payment, I do the math to see where my new balance will be after the payment is processed. I sometimes go on the site just to look at the progress I’m making. These moments of savoring my balance dropping and me getting closer to my goal, 350$ to 700$ at a time is something that also has a calming effect on me.
I can see myself working on improving my future, one payment at a time. It’s nothing huge, like pulling down a large salary, but knowing that all the extra hours I’m putting into work, and all the sacrifices I’m making in my budget to get me to a place that will allow me the freedom I’m seeking for my future, is worth all the while. Rumi put it best when he said, “what you seek, is also seeking you.” I believe that to be true.
Taking Care of Something
I have a lot of plants in the room I’m sitting in currently. Tending to their needs is also something that brings me a sense of gratitude. When I see that something that is under my direct care is flourishing, there’s a feeling of accomplishment in knowing that I was directly responsible for its well being by my actions.
For example, one of my dracaena plants wasn’t doing so well. Its leaves were browning at the tips and some had died off completely. My rubber tree was also under some duress. The leaves were turning yellow and falling off. In both cases, it had to do with either too much, or too little water.
For my dracaena, I placed it between two of my bee’s wax candles. This worked to suck all of the humidity out from around the plant. This was why the leaves were dying and browning at the tips. I moved the plant, and now mist it every once and a while the same way I do my fern.
My rubber tree was suffering from exactly the opposite reason that my dracaena was. I was over watering my tree, causing the leaves to yellow and fall off. So I switched the watering schedule for the tree. I’m still waiting the see the effects this will have, on both my plants, but actively attending to my plants needs, another living thing, is gratifying. Especially when the changes you make improve the overall health of the plant.
Speaking of improving our overall health, a lot of the plants I own have air purifying qualities that are beneficial for our living environment and our health as well. So if you’re looking to make your space a little greener, head over to my article above and get started on purifying the air in your space in a natural way : )
Take Care of your Body
This is an important aspect of gratitude as well. It’s amazing how much a little bit of exercise will help to prevent injuries and keep us in healthy working order. For example, I do yoga twice a week for about an hour each time. I do two, roughly half-hour sessions with Yoga with Adrienne. One is her core strengthening ritual, and the other is a thirty minute flow. And the other weekly session is an hour long restorative flow at a local yoga studio.
It’s kind of amazing how much difference I’ve seen in my day to day routines after only a few weeks of actively strengthening my core. My workouts are smoother, my strength has improved and I feel better about myself in general. The restorative practice is satisfying as well. There are some strength training elements to the practice, but deep stretching and taking it a little easier on my body has equally as beneficial results as strength training alone.
After both my strength training and restorative practices, I feel stronger, less stressed, more relaxed and also happier that I’m working towards keeping my body in shape to avoid physical injuries and other maladies that comes with inactivity. Also, savasana, after a difficult workout is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done. And it’s ease to develop a sense of gratitude during this final pose. As Adrienne puts it, “let the nutrients of your practice wash over your body”. I think what she means is, to me, soak in the gratitude you are cultivating with your yoga practice.
Bringing it All Together
Cultivating gratitude isn’t an easy task. Remember, try not to force it. When it comes to you, try and stay in the feeling and remember what it feels like. You can also tend to your spaces and routines to help facilitate it showing up more in your day to day. Actively work to surround yourself with the things that remind you to be grateful.
When other emotions come that make it difficult for you to feel and stay grateful, don’t push them away. Allow them the time and space they need to feel seen and heard. But try not to wallow in them.
Take care of yourself and of something else. Tending to our own, and others needs is conducive to cultivating states of gratitude. And it’s okay not to feel grateful all the time. Let it come and go, just remember to remember how it feels in your body and mind as it happens. Hopefully, with a little bit of practice, we can turn feeling gratitude into a recurring event. Peace, and thanks for reading : )