By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette –
Thanksgiving season is here. Though the sun still warms the earth, the shift is coming slowly towards cooler mornings, reddening leaves, and comfort inklings like slow cooker meals and hot tea in the evenings. Some people mark this season of gratitude and plenty with Thanksgiving dinner—loved ones gather to enjoy warm, enveloping food and give thanks for one another. Others simply take the harvest, the shorter days, and the season of coziness as time to close in on the darkness, and slow down to ponder and reflect on all we are grateful for throughout the year.
Gratitude: thankful appreciation for what we receive, directly or indirectly, as acknowledgment for the good in our lives. It is a cause and effect relationship—something wonderful happens and we naturally feel or deliberately conjure feelings of well-being and appreciation.
These moments are small, like when we thank another for holding the door or passing the salt, and they are large like when we feel indebted to the person who found our lost pet or returned the wallet, cash intact. Life is full of obvious, tangible opportunities for gratitude and if we choose to see these we live a fuller and more compassionate life.
There is a social component to gratitude: psychology researchers Fox et. al. label gratitude, “a social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us.” This attaches some kinds of gratitude to the works of others, and plays the practical function of helping us develop deeper relationships with others. Also commenting on the social realm is theologian Lacewing, who says, “if we acquire a good through exchange, effort, or achievement, or by right, then we don’t typically feel gratitude. Gratitude is an emotion we feel in response to receiving something good which is undeserved.” This moves into the discussion of entitlement and whether we can truly appreciate something we worked for or feel we deserve and how much ego we attach to our accomplishments or blessings.
Psychiatry researchers Sansone and Sansone define gratitude as, “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and / or appreciation.” This definition doesn’t limit the subject of gratitude to the positive—it leaves open the possibility that we learn gratitude for that which ails or hinders us. It means we can choose to see adversity as something “valuable and meaningful” and feel grateful for the experience. In this concept lies great potential for getting the most out of gratitude by developing a more positive attitude and a connection to something larger than oneself.
Buddhist philosophy emphasizes cultivating gratitude to directly experience the interconnectedness of all life and life events. “Practising mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding,” says Phillip Moffit, former CEO and magazine editor turned co-guiding teacher at Spirit Rock Mediation Centre. “Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating.”
This isn’t about avoidance or denial; but rather, it is about mindful acknowledgement that all things and events are connected and part of something larger than ourselves. Cultivating appreciation for one’s position as part of a larger system of life is bigger and brighter than living in tragedy, and can be a wholesome and humbling experience. Notice, too, that the larger or higher power can be nature, other people, or God—or anything else you connect with and acknowledge as representing power larger than yours alone.
Change can be difficult and changing our thinking can be explicitly terrifying. It leaves us vulnerable and unsure, detached from the familiar. Author and spiritualist Neale Donald Walsch said, “All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by one of two emotions—fear or love.” Developing gratitude for the things in life we didn’t ask for is a way of connecting with our fears and helping transcend those to a warmer place. When gratitude for misfortune is not possible, there is always a by product of the event that holds the possibility for gratitude. I can’t be grateful I lost my job, but I can be grateful for the relationships I built at that place of employment. I may not be able to appreciate my car being stolen, but I could possibly conjure thankfulness there was nothing valuable in it, or that I didn’t end up in a dangerous position confronting the thief.
Can we achieve gratitude in a quiet, gentle place that doesn’t require elicit conjuring or deliberate, deep focus? Some of us pray, meditate, or simply nod to the presence of opportunities to be appreciative of our lives and all their parts. Like a muscle, gratitude can be strengthened and made resilient and when it forms the basis of our existence, we soften, breathe deeper, smile more, and relax, even momentarily, in the busiest chaos.
We can never be fully sure of what the bigger picture holds true for us, as is apparent in this story, abridged for length, from Zen Shorts, a children’s book by Jon J. Muth:
A farmer’s son captured a beautiful, wild horse, and all the neighbours told the farmer how fortunate he was. The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse threw the son who broke his leg, and all the neighbours said, “Unlucky!” The farmer said, “Maybe.” Soon after the son broke his leg, soldiers came to the village and took away all the able-bodied young men to war—the son was spared because of his injury. “Lucky!” said the neighbours. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
Happy Thanksgiving today and every day and in every way that brings value to your life and warmth to your heart.