Writing Your Way Home
5 Practices to engage gratefulness.
Posted 1/5/12 | Updated 7/3/20
"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was,
'thank you,' that would suffice."
I'm writing this in the conservatory, where my two cats are experiencing the first sun of their young lives. They are rolling in the patches of light on the sofa, their chins in the air, luxuriating in the warmth.
Outside, the sky is blue. The Malvern hills are visible in the near distance. In the garden I can see tulip leaves, pushing their way out of the earth.
It has been a challenging day in some ways. There is lots of work to do, and several things have taken longer than they should. If I'm not careful, I would get caught up in tangled thoughts 'things never go right' or 'it's definitely one of those days.'
If I bring my attention back to what's around me, and remember what I have to be grateful for, then balance is restored. I have my own patch of sunlight. I have enough to eat, a roof over my head, my health. When I look in the right places, I have countless things to be grateful for.
I bet you do too. But feeling thankful can take practice (especially if it's 'one of those days'). Here are my suggestions for writing your way towards gratitude.
This is a simple practice which takes less than five minutes a day there are no excuses not to commit to it! Choose a beautiful notebook and decide what time of the day you'll be making your daily list either first thing in the morning (reflecting on the day before), last thing at night, or whatever works best for you. Decide how many things you'll list each day (ideally somewhere between five and fifteen). When you write your list, try to be specific as possible not just 'I enjoyed looking at the sky' but 'I loved the bright blue colour of the sky and the cool air on my face.' You can also use the back of this journal for the other exercises I'm suggesting.
Nei Quan is a form of meditation I practice as a Pureland Buddhist, and it's the ideal gratitude practice. It points the way towards an acknowledgment of how many things we are all dependent on for our survival, and how much we receive every day that we've done nothing to 'earn.' Simply sit quietly for five to twenty minutes and reflect on three questions: "What have I received in the past 24 hours?", "What have I given in return?" and "What trouble has my existence caused to others?". Keep your examples as concrete as possible, e.g. someone grew and transported the apple I ate this morning, the postman smiled at me You might want to make short notes about your experience of Nei Quan and how it varies from day to day.
You can have fun with this one pull out your very favourite things-to-be-grateful-for from your daily list, or go to your favourite café and write your list all at once, accompanied by cake and coffee. This list can be things that are currently present in your life, people, memories, objects, plans anything that gives you a warm feeling. If you want you could illustrate your list with pictures cut from a magazine, or little drawings. Once you've finished this list you can return to it whenever you're feeling stuck or ungrateful.
Think of someone you feel grateful for, who you rarely remember to tell. This might be someone who's in your life currently or someone from your past. Write a letter to them and tell them everything they've done which you're grateful for, and why. This might include them role-modelling ways of being, things they've done for you practically, or the way you know they feel about you and the effect this has on you. If they are still in your life you might want to give it to them. If not you could go to a private place and read it out loud to their imaginary presence.
Pastor Will Bowen in Kansas City challenged his congregation to stop complaining for 21 consecutive days. This is the amount of times psychologists advise you repeat something if you want it to become a habit. Set yourself the same cold-turkey challenge you might want to get a friend to try at the same time so you can support each other and share your experience. Write notes about the experiment every day or a few times a week how does it feel to bite your tongue? What effect does it have on your mood afterwards?
"There is no greater difference between men
than between grateful and ungrateful people."
Which kind of person we are depends on all kinds of factors, including our family's attitude to thankfulness, our spiritual beliefs, the people we surround ourselves with, and our unconscious habits. How much we actually do receive from the world will also have an effect, but not as much as you'd think.
The good news is that we can always get better at being thankful. We can use the suggestions above, and we can bring a gentle awareness to our experience of gratitude. The more we can appreciate what we already have, the less often we will reach for what we don't or can't have. Gratitude is a gateway to joy.
©2012 Fiona Robyn. All rights reserved.
Satya Robyn is a novelist, psychotherapist, Buddhist priest and the co-founder of Writing Our Way Home with her husband Kaspa. ...