While experiencing some intense challenges recently I’ve been reminded of how rebalancing and restorative it can be to bring attention to those things that I appreciate even when life feels difficult.
More than twenty years ago I was given a book by Louise Hay and Friends called Gratitude, A Way of Life. At the time I was finding Louise Hay’s work truly empowering but I felt like I was being told to be thankful when I was deeply unhappy, which made me feel even worse. In retrospect, I understand the psychological and emotional reasons why I felt like that at the time; they were connected with low self esteem and deep conditioning which made me prone to feeling shame. Over the years, I have come to understand and appreciate the value of practicing gratitude which I think is worth sharing because I have experienced profound benefits, especially in difficult circumstances.
For some people, like me 20 years ago, the mere suggestion to ‘be grateful’ can make them feel badly on top of already feeling terrible, which is not helpful. If our life circumstances are such that we feel disempowered, ill, depressed, anxious, then it can feel impossible to find anything that feels good or right enough to say ‘thank you’ about. And then we might also ask, ‘thank who?’
Because I see everything as energy, I also like to think of gratitude and other emotional states in terms of the energy they both emit and attract. A state like depression might feel heavy or dark and we can easily add to the heaviness by thinking ‘it will never end’ (because it often feels like it won’t) or ‘why is life so cruel to me’ (because it can feel like we have no power over our situation). Yet, if we can find anything in the moment that feels at least ok then we can cut into that heavy dark energy and lift ourselves a little bit with an awareness that actually, while we may feel we are at rock bottom because a situation is unacceptable to us, there are also things in our lives which are actually ok or going well when we bring attention to them. Noticing and appreciating those things that are ok not only takes our attention away from what feels wrong, it can also give us an experience of the benevolence of life.
When I suggest ‘try finding something to feel grateful about and see how that feels’, I am not judging you or saying ‘you should feel grateful instead of what you feel’. I am saying that alongside the feelings you have and while managing your challenges, you will also likely find that there is some goodness, or there is beauty, or there is support, when you look for it and then you might feel blessed as well as challenged. When you consistently look for blessings, they become more easy to recognise and the feeling of gratitude can grow and as it begins to arise more naturally with practice you may start to feel more accepting about what doesn’t feel right in your life at any given time; it can also literally uplift your energy so that over time you can increase your overall sense of well being through life’s natural ups and downs.
Like any habit changing practice, it takes time and patience so it is really important to avoid making yourself feel badly if you are struggling to find gratefulness. There is nothing wrong with you if you find it difficult! Our culture, coupled with our survival based physiology, conspire to make it much easier for us to focus on pain and negativity which is why it is so important to bring our conscious attention to noticing that which is right, good and ok in our lives if we want to support greater well being. As long as we are alive, we will have regular challenges so practicing gratitude helps keep a balance between energy devoted to attending to problems and energy given to enjoying what is going well or feels good.
You can cultivate gratitude a little bit at a time. Some examples of simple things that could trigger gratitude feelings: the sun is shining; my lunch is tasty; there is at least one loving person or animal in my life; I can enjoy my senses like seeing my favourite colour or listening to music; I get fresh air on the way to work; someone smiled at me on the bus; I heard a robin singing when I woke up; I get to experience relative freedom and safety where I live; if I am struggling financially, I can take a little time each day to focus on enjoying the things I already have and the goodness in my life that has no monetary value. A good exercise to start with is before sleeping each night, write down at least 3 things you’ve experienced during the day which you could feel grateful for. Try it for a week and see if it makes a difference to your quality of life. You can thank an object, yourself, another person, a pet, life, nature, God- I don’t think the ‘who’ matters as much as the energy of appreciation that you are generating within yourself; I am convinced that the thankful feelings you put out into the world will return to you in the form of more blessings and increased well being.