I had a disturbed sleep last night. My old self would have woken up grumpy, complaining about everything that went wrong. My present self woke up feeling grateful for multiple things: a safe and comfortable bed for sleeping, the cool weather despite the heatwave in India and the flexibility at work to catch a nap during the day. I had a bad night, but I did not agonise over the fact and extend my suffering. Instead, I was able to notice and focus on all that was good.
My present self embraces gratitude in daily life. My old self didn’t. The lack of sleep was a minor example, but I have seen my practice of gratitude work in other intense and adverse moments too.
To the uninitiated, gratitude may feel like a wishy-washy word, but it is transformational for those who practice it regularly. Feeling grateful deepens your interconnectedness with other people and things, and expressing thanks strengthens our relationships. Gratitude helps you see the glass half-full and yet maintain an honest perspective. Research also shows it positively impacts our happiness and physical wellbeing.
A Few Examples
I had a recent event where a loved one's life was at risk. I focused on walking mindfully for a few moments. Given my regular practice, I quickly noticed, acknowledged and felt grateful for many things:
- The diverse and able team of doctors
- The availability of oxygen and life-saving medicines
- The compassionate tone of the paramedic staff
- The support I had from my family
- She responded quickly to the treatment
- Her physical condition was easily treatable, unlike another time when I had lost someone
Being grateful did not mean I denied my trauma. I processed it over the subsequent six weeks, and it was a slow process involving inner work and reflective conversations. At the same time, being grateful helped me return to harmony with myself. I moved from feeling panic, fear and helplessness to feeling connected, hopeful and capable.
You can also practice gratitude in challenging interpersonal situations. I remember a heated argument with a colleague at work over a critical decision, which left me feeling agitated and isolated. I felt grateful for:
- His trust in expressing to me what is on his mind and heart
- My increased understanding of his needs
- The opportunity to reflect and understand what was bothering me
- The resilience in our relationship and the possibility of coming back stronger from this incident
- The chance that something that neither of us had imagined could emerge as we find a resolution
Gratitude helps me shift my viewpoint of difficult conversations, seeing them as an opportunity to grow, forgive and deepen our connection. (Seeing things with gratitude does not excuse toxic behaviour. Knowing and communicating your needs and boundaries is crucial.)
I have also used gratitude to deal with helplessness in the face of global crises. For instance, I feel despair when I think of climate change and irreversible biodiversity loss. At the same time, I consider it a privilege to be alive in a time when I can:
- witness the beauty of trees, forests, clear skies and clean air
- enjoy a wide variety of food to eat
- meet and participate in communities striving for collective evolution locally and globally
I don’t feel complacent, but it allows me to be present and savour what is in front of me while doing my bit to have a better future.
When I reflect on adversity, I think about:
- Acts of kindness or support that came my way
- Things that prevented the situation from getting worse
- How the situation could be worse off
- The other actions or outcomes that went my way on the day
- The learnings that helped me grow as a person
- Days in my life that have been worse
I sometimes have no response to some of these cues, which is okay. This process helps me identify reasons to be grateful. To translate this cognitive awareness to a feeling, I stay with what arises for 1–2 minutes. I then tune into my body and notice what has shifted. With time, I have recognised and felt immediate transitions in my emotions. Whenever possible, I find a way to express my feeling of gratefulness.
In the face of adversity, gratitude helps you recognise and hold on to constructive emotions while simultaneously reducing the intensity of afflictive emotions. It widens the space from which we respond.
Gratitude may not eliminate your suffering but will surely alleviate it. The more we see gratitude as a choice in stressful situations, the more it lifts us higher.
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