~ Gratitude says “thank you.” Gratitude appreciates what is already the case. Gratitude doesn’t try to “get somewhere.” Gratitude doesn’t judge or express self-pity. Gratitude doesn’t take things for granted. ~
One time, a friend and I were walking to lunch in downtown Chicago. We were both philosophers, thinking big in a big city. I still remember the moment when we turned a corner and emerged out from under the shade of towering edifices and massive skyscrapers, the sunlight finally reaching our faces as we headed towards Central Park, when she told me, in a tone of disapproval, that many of us in the West were “spoiled.” And I thought, “Spoiled like the kids with the golden tickets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (everyone except Charlie)?” Well, yes and no, because the kids that gorge themselves on chocolate rivers and frolic in the candy gardens have an abundance of resources available to them, but that’s not why they are spoiled. What my friend meant by “spoiled” was that we take what we have for granted. We have, not just an abundance of material things, but life opportunities, relationships and well-educated minds that we often overlook as if everyone had them.
Just to be clear, I am not calling anyone “spoiled.” For one thing I don’t see what good it does to label and judge ourselves, provoking defensiveness and resentment. Nor do I wish to send the finger-wagging message of “you should be grateful!”—not at all. Rather I have noticed, like my friend, that it’s very easy for us to get so absorbed in creating the lives we desire, doing good and fighting for causes, that we forget to stop and appreciate everything that’s wonderful and beautiful about right now.
It is noble to stand for justice and equality in a world with so much injustice, oppression, and greed. But if we merely judge and condemn, without changing our emotional expression to something positive, then we are supporting the same tendencies within us that create those things we dislike. (“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.) It’s not that there are “good” and “bad” people in the world, but that all of us have “abilities” for love and selflessness inside us, as well as for hate and ego. Often it seems that our capacity to be compassionate when someone else can’t, or strive for the betterment of the world when others appear to be ruining it, is just a result of our good luck, privileged upbringing and fortuitous circumstances that nurtured the necessary mental health and emotional stability within us.
A general point that has been made by many philosophers and spiritual traditions throughout human history is that we mistakenly look to the “outside” to create the change we want, whereas everything begins “inside”—in our thoughts and emotions. We might say, “duh, of course!” but, still, we stay focused on the outside. Although we often have thoughts lacking in objectivity and factual grounding, the internal, invisible phenomena of thought and emotion are just as real as everything visible (and we don’t need Deleuze, or whomever, to tell us this). It is necessary to include this point because we need to understand a gratitude practice as a very real force that not only transforms our perspective and emotional state, but also contributes to the well-being of all.
There are two ways to see this more clearly. One is through science. Media outlets like The New York Times and Huffington Post have already published articles citing neuroscientific studies on this topic, available on the Web. Another article on Psychology Today notes that keeping a gratitude journal or just expressing gratitude regularly can increase levels of “determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy.” Studies found correlation with “improvements in exercise patterns … reduction in physical ailments … better sleep … lower anxiety and depression” (Korb). Gratitude engages the neurotransmitter dopamine, but unlike food, sex, etc., the dopamine release is triggered purely by our expression of this emotion. So just by using our intention to create gratitude, we rewire our brain in a beneficial way.
The other way is through spirituality. Last October, I went on retreat to Teotihuacan, Mexico (site of pyramid ruins), where I journeyed into consciousness, along with other “seekers,” under the guidance of someone who has practiced within the Toltec spiritual tradition for over 20 years. We walked in the way of the Toltecs, who taught that humans have to reclaim their power from the Judge and Victim “storytellers” in their minds, in order to embrace their true identity as creators of reality, of life. In this lineage of Toltec tradition, it is understood that we give away our attention, our happiness and our life to self-limiting and disempowering beliefs and “programs” that run in the mind, as if on automatic. To take back control over our life and awaken to a reality uncluttered by layers of beliefs, we must learn to become aware of the mind and express emotion from our authenticity. In this context, the practice of gratitude is revealed to be an immediate exit out of the judging, victimizing mind. It is hard to be critically judging in a state of gratitude—even harder to feel like a victim! Simultaneously, gratitude creates the happiness we authentically desire.
Happiness isn’t the only important thing in life, but it is what many of us are seeking through successful careers, social approval, relationships, etc. When we really express gratitude, we become happy. Instead of saying “when I have X, then I’ll be happy,” we make our present experience the one we want to be in. And by becoming happy ourselves, we are best able to support others in their happiness. Gratitude is altruistic like that.
All it takes to be grateful is a shift in perspective. The invitation is to open our eyes and see all that there is to appreciate and love. Here at Grinnell, each one of us has an abundance of things to express gratitude for every day. We have brilliant professors that want to share their knowledge with us. We have faculty that care about us, and people who clean our messes. We have quality buildings and facilities for humanities, sciences, art, athletics—not to mention a library that provides access to countless resources. We have concerts, parties, festivals, shows and games of all kinds. We have a super bad-ass chapel. We have four beautiful seasons. We have food to eat, warm beds and roofs over our heads. We have running water and electricity. We have successes already behind us, and many opportunities ahead. And we have each other. Yes, however much we may get on each other’s nerves, I dare say we are a smart, talented, fun-loving bunch of humans. We support each other.
Now, that’s just Grinnell. The question, then: if gratitude simply requires a shift in perspective, what are we waiting for? The alternative is to continue taking things for granted. Meanwhile, the door that empowers and liberates us remains wide-open, waiting for our tired hearts to walk through. Tired hearts wanting to rest, and open, and love.