The revered Cambodian Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda, during the Khmer rouge and post-communist transition, used to ask:” If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice? “ His name means “great joyful proclaimer”.
Today we will explore what gratitude actually is, why it is beneficial to develop feelings of gratitude, what gets in the way of us feeling grateful, and practices that help us deepen our gratitude.
What is gratitude?
The meditation teacher James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy, describes gratitude as a satellite dish: “When we feel grateful, our receptors are wide open to receive the abundance available to us” –
Jack Kornfield reminds us that “Buddhist monks begin each day with a chant of gratitude for the gifts of food and shelter, of friendship and for the teachings that benefit all. Native American elders begin each ceremony with grateful prayers to mother earth and father sky, to the four directions, to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life”.
It is also common to see astronauts who land back on earth after spending months in space kiss the earth and rejoice in breathing in the fresh air, smelling the grass and being with other people.
Jack Kornfield defines gratitude as “to begin to sense the delight and the mystery of being alive and supported in all the unseen ways of life.” – it builds a foundation of respect and care that allows people to experience their interconnectedness, we are no longer lost in our separate sense of self. It is a way of touching the heart and opening ourselves to something greater.
Gratitude is part of our prosocial capacity. Monkeys show gratitude through grooming; they do each other favours and show appreciation through grooming. I feel that even my cat says thank you every time I feed him, the way he miaows and purrs and rubs himself against my legs, I can sense gratitude coming from him. It deepens our bonds.
An invitation to give thanks
Emerson the poet invites us to “simply give thanks continually” and so does the German theologian Meister Eckhardt : “If the only prayer you ever say is thank you it will be enough”.
So there is this invitation of giving thanks as a way of being. And that’s what we teach children from an early age, the value of saying please and thank you. There is a basic cultural assumption that being thankful is good.
Self- Reflection: close the eyes and remember somebody’s kindness towards you, how they have helped you feel good about yourself. Notice how it feels in your body when you remember that person, the felt sense of resonance and support that you received from that person. Now just mentally whisper their name and the simple words: thank you. Do it a few times. Sense that you are really communicating with that person your sincere thanks. How does it feel in your body? You might notice a sense of openness, connection, spaciousness.
Neuroscience of positive emotions and especially gratitude
“Gratitude, gladness, and related feelings like appreciation are easy to dismiss, but studies in fact show that cultivating them has lasting and important benefits, including lifting your mood, increasing satisfaction with life, and building resilience.” – Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Gratitude is correlated with the parts of the brain that have to do with every other positive emotion of happiness , contentment and joy. Rick Hanson describes gratitude as a fundamental positive emotion, at the heart of all other positive emotions. It is the sense of receiving something good, appreciating the good things we have been given in life.
A number of studies have revealed the physiological and psychological benefits of thankfulness and gratitude.
The father of positive psychology Martin Seligman, did an experiment where he asked severely depressed people to write down three good things that happened to them each day for fifteen days. At the end of the experiment, 94% of them had a decrease in depression and 92% actually said that their happiness had increased. (Awakening Joy p.71)
The psychologist Barbara Fredrikson has devoted her life to researching the benefits of positive emotions, and her studies show that positive emotions contribute to resilience, well-being and health. More specifically, positive emotions lower BP, protect the immune system against stress, preserve long term physical health.
Dr Robert Emmons led pioneering research on the psychological benefits of gratitude: people with an attitude of gratitude (where gratitude is installed as a trait) are more optimistic, more successful, experience greater well-being, are less self-preoccupied , have more of a sense of openness to the universe, and an understanding that we naturally depend upon what comes to us.
Gratitude and abundance
Gratitude counters the excesses of the Western culture based on over-consumption and individualism, it supports a clear seeing of the larger world, in which we are thankful to the efforts of all the people who have contributed to our life.
It is a form of feeling satisfied. When you are grateful, you feel that something has been met inside of you.
Jack Kornfield reminds us that gratitude is connected to a sense of inner abundance. We already contain all that our heart most deeply desires: life, love, connection to all and inner freedom. “Without a sense of inner abundance, we can be in the middle of riches and feel like a hungry ghost”. We can nurture abundance in children by helping them feel that each has much to give, and providing them with the opportunity to do so. This state of abundance is connected with a deep sense of gratitude. “When we open to abundance, we can enjoy the fog lifting from the morning’s melting snow, and the steam rising from the hot bowl of tomato soup on our lunch table. We can appreciate the half smile of the tired waitress, the silver crescent of the moon at twilight, the unstoppable laughter of children in the schoolyard, and celebrate the fact that we are here, breathing and alive, on this marvelous earth”.
Gratitude in the middle of suffering
Resilience Project co-founder Hugh van Cuylenburg tells the story of teaching in India in a very poor village and being amazed to see how happy the kids were, despite their poverty. He identified gratitude as one of the factors for their happiness along with mindfulness and empathy.
“In 2008, I was fortunate enough to spend a few months living and volunteering in the far north of India. In this desert community, there was no running water, no electricity and no beds; everyone slept on the floor of their hut. Despite the fact that these people had very little to call their own, I was continually blown away by how happy they were. It was this experience, and subsequent post graduate studies, that led me to some pretty simple conclusions about the things that we need to be doing here in Australia if we want to be happier. I learnt from this village that practicing Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness leads us to a happier more fulfilling experience.”
Resilience comes from gratitude: being able to be grateful for what we get helps us deal with what is hard.
Jack Kornfield: “Gratitude does not envy or compare. Gratitude is not dependent on what you have. It depends on your heart. You can even find gratitude for your measure of sorrows, the hand you’ve been dealt”. There is mystery surrounding even our difficulties and suffering. Sometimes it’s through the hardest things that our heart learns its most important lessons.
In Tibet, the monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering they have been given: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”
The Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah used to smile and ask his students: when did you learn the most? When did you grow? When did your heart grow wiser? When things were easy?
As the Sufi mystic Rumi reminds us “The wound is the place where the light enters you”
What gets in the way of feeling grateful?
Here are some of the blocks to gratitude that have been quoted:
- Rushing around to get things done, on our way somewhere else, trying to get something we want, and not being present for the life that is here. There is “not enough time to smell the roses” – James Baraz
- “Grasping after what we don’t have” keeps us from gratitude – Tara Brach
- Our negativity bias: Seeing the cup half empty, perfectionism, regrets for the past
- Stress: when our limbic system is activated, and we are in fight flight freeze mode.
- People often ask: what if you have a tough challenging life? It’s easy to be grateful when things go well, but not when we encounter difficulty. This is part of our practice.
- We might feel uncomfortable feeling gratitude for our goods, when we know others are suffering, and we are in a position of privilege. Jack Kornfield reminds us that with gratitude, “we do not mistakenly believe it is disloyal to the suffering of the world to honour the happiness we have been given”
How to be grateful? The practice of gratitude
It’s a training because of our conditioning that blocks gratitude.
There are two parts to the practice of gratitude:
The first part is our training in mindfulness: seeing clearly what is here for us to enjoy, opening our senses to everything and appreciating what we have, being really present to the world around us.
The second part is to become aware of our negativity bias, and to actively practice seeing and enjoying the good in our life, this practice is called “gladdening the mind”.
The American poet Alison Luterman has beautiful words to express how the world offers itself to us at every moment: “Sun drapes a buttered scarf across your face. Rose opens herself to your glance, and rain shares its divine melancholy. The whole world keeps whispering or shouting to you, nibbling your ear like a neglected lover.”.
For gratitude to become a trait, Rick Hanson recommends to let ourselves feel it fully, savour it, so we can install it into our implicit memory, actually expressing it and embodying it, taking time to feel the goodness of it.
We can practice formally during our meditation sitting, intentionally bringing to mind what we are grateful for in our life, and allowing ourselves to open to the feeling of gratitude, let it fill us, really feeling it in our body and in our heart. This will be our practice today.
We can also practice informally throughout our day. Whenever we have a spontaneous experience of something pleasant, something we are appreciating, something that brings up a bit of wonder or joy or care, just to pause and really notice it and appreciate it, saying thanks to it, maybe mentally whispering “thank you”. So we get in the habit of pausing and savouring. It can be helpful to breathe with the experience for five breaths or ten breaths, long enough to create new neural pathways.
And we can start with little things, for example changing our attitude towards our chores: James Baraz suggests replacing “now I HAVE to do such and such…” with “now I GET to do such and such…” and see what happens.
We can write in a gratitude journal and record three things that we are grateful for each day. Or we can do it with a gratitude buddy, someone we write to every day to share three things that we are grateful for. We don’t have to write much or even reply to them. Research has shown that these practices are highly effective in developing gratitude as a lasting trait. While I resisted it at first, writing in a gratitude journal really helped me a few years ago when I struggled with a depressive episode.
To come back to one of the blocks, if we are in a really bad mood or in a very difficult life situation and we find it hard to feel grateful, Tara Brach suggests that we don’t ever have to force gratitude. If we are in a really bad mood, she recommends just bringing a kind presence to it. If we are really present with what’s going on—with the fear or the hurt or the sorrow—, what happens is that presence unfolds itself, and we start feeling a sense of appreciation for having become intimate with what is real, and it creates more space and more ease.
You will find a gratitude practice in the English podcasts section of this website, HERE.
Jack Kornfield: The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, Batam Books 2002; Dharma talks: Gratitude and wonder https://jackkornfield.com/gratitude/; Abundance & Gratitude https://jackkornfield.com/abundance-and-gratitude/
Tara Brach: Gratitude – Entering Sacred Relationship, a talk given by Tara Brach on November 27, 2019 in Bethesda, MD (audio and video available at: tarabrach.com/gratitude-entering-sacred-relationship/)
James Baraz: Awakening Joy, Parallax Press 2012, Chapter 3
Rick Hanson: Well Being Podcast on gratitude https://www.rickhanson.net/well-podcast-gratitude/?highlight=gratitude; Growing gratitude https://www.rickhanson.net/rick-packs/a-free-guide-to-growing-gratitude/growing-gratitude/?highlight=gratitude