I am a seeker of mystery in various forms. I look for opportunities to have a transcendental experience of some sort – a way to connect more deeply to that which is greater than all of us, regardless of the words we use to describe that force. This means that over the years I’ve tried a lot of different types of connection, prayer forms, spiritual practices, and ritual structures. Spirituality and how we feed our individual connection is unique to each person, so I suspect I’ve discarded more techniques than I’ve kept at this point.
What I find interesting are not just the techniques that stay, but the ones that change me as a person. In my experience, people change slowly. Every now and then we’ll have a big life event that causes a sudden transformation, but most shifts occur incrementally over time. I think of it like a flow of water that slowly carves a path through the limestone. In the beginning, there’s just a trickle seeking out the easiest path. If enough years pass, you’re looking at a canyon with a river flowing at the bottom of it, and a landscape that has completely changed as a result.
Gratitude practice is one of the small techniques I picked up along the way that steadily reshaped some of my interior landscape. It seems so simple: name things you’re grateful for. But the truth is that the emotion of gratitude is a powerful one. One that allows us to shift perspective. I’m not sure whether taking things for granted is a hardwired human trait or a culturally transmitted trait or some fusion of both, but we definitely live in a culture where a lot of the blessings of life completely pass under the radar. Gratitude returns us to full presence and a deeper awareness of where we are in relationship to the flow of time and technology.
In the year 1900, just over a century ago, life expectancy in the United States was about 47. To put that in perspective, I’m 43. A hundred years ago, I’d be winding up my time here rather than just getting to the best part of my life now. Our ancestors of place – those who lived here in the Hagerstown area – would have been stocking up heavily for winter right now and already rationing firewood and coal. Staying warm when the cold winds blow would have been at the forefront of their thoughts. In those days, ink sometimes froze. Pitchers cracked and broke overnight when the water in them turned to ice. Bitterly cold wind made its way through poorly sealed windows and doors. Frosty mornings could make bathing torture.
We’re not talking about a huge span of time between then and now. My late grandmother saw the advent of the automobile and could remember when her home got electric light. But the narrow perspective that most of us bring to our world means that although our recent ancestors struggled with challenges we have never and most likely will never experience, we forget that. It’s so easy to focus on the challenges rather than the blessings.
Gratitude practice points at that juxtaposition – the reminder that our grandparents would marvel at the things we can take for granted now. That although our world contains myriad challenges, some of them horrifying, it contains incredible beauty, power, pleasure, and ease as well.
My gratitude practice has helped soften my edges. I remember what a wonder central heat and air conditioning are, and how good it is to sleep in a bed in a home that is safe and sturdy. It reminds me again and again how lucky I am to be here at all. It keeps me present to what a blessing it is to have limbs that bend and move easily, and a body with organs that largely do what I need them to. At early middle age, I have already lost quite a few friends to ravaging diseases and sudden tragedies. Gratitude practice reminds me that the privilege of living is not evenly applied to all of us. It causes me to treasure this fragile, beautiful existence more intensely because I am more aware of how easily it can slip away.
My gratitude practice has made me a better person, and a less grasping one. In a culture that constantly pushes consumption and the idea that what you have is somehow not enough, gratitude practice calmly and quietly speaks of the abundance and joy already present in your life. It helps turn down the volume on the conspicuous consumption megaphone. When you want what you already have, you’re less vulnerable to the messages of capitalism.
One often overlooked aspect of gratitude practice is the way it builds resilience. Our ability to recover from the various slings and arrows of life hinges on a belief that things can and will get better. Without resilience this wild, strange existence can shatter us. Gratitude practice begins to shore up an inner store of strength. When someone can find a reason to feel gratitude, and the joy and pleasure that often accompany it, they become less fragile. We can still be knocked down, no question, but we start to get up a little faster – that inner core of strength and hope helps us get back up. And even when we’re on the floor cradling a broken heart, we know that we won’t be there forever.
It’s a powerful bit of light to carry. Conscious gratitude practice feeds our inner illumination, our knowledge that even on bad days, there are sources of joy in our lives. There’s a reason that conquerors always try to suppress the joy of those they conquer – joyful people are harder to control. Joyful people – those who carry that inner store of light and resilience – are better able to adapt and overcome quickly. Solutions and workarounds are easier to find when we haven’t given up, and gratitude practice is one way to keep that inner fire burning.
With every light comes shadow, though, and most tools can also be weapons. The techniques around gratitude practice can be used to harm when they’re supporting spiritual bypassing. If that’s a new term for you, spiritual bypassing is when someone uses spiritual explanations and language to dismiss or avoid complicated emotions. An example would be someone mourning the loss of a loved one, and a friend responding that the mourner should be grateful that they got to experience the relationship at all. That response dismisses, downplays, and shames the pain the mourner is in. It bypasses the very real, complicated, human experience unfolding in the moment. Gratitude can be used to meet those moments, but more in the sense of feeling grateful that someone in pain chose to trust you with their authenticity and vulnerability. We can be grateful and also sit with discomfort, pain, and grief. Gratitude is something we feel in addition to the emotions present, not instead of them.
This is the vital balance point of gratitude building resilience. We must not use gratitude to brush away our uncomfortable emotions or attempt to bury the complex, challenging situations around us. Using gratitude in that way ultimately makes us more brittle – eventually, whatever shadows we’re wrestling will not be ignored any longer and can shatter the fragile layer of glitter we’ve attempted to cover them in. At its best, gratitude allows our perspective to expand. Yes, family tensions are running high, but I am also grateful to be with people I love. Yes, the war in the middle east is awful and I am also grateful for the voices of reason and compassion that are pushing back on the narrative of violence. Yes, climate change is terrifying and I am also grateful to be alive in this beautiful world with the opportunity to be part of the solution. Yes, and. Yes, and.
The benefits of gratitude practice on our minds and moods are so potent that a good deal of research has been done on gratitude. One of the things that researchers uncovered is that how long we sit with the emotion of gratitude makes a difference. It’s easy to simply list our gratitudes – to touch on that feeling for a moment and then move on to something else. However, the impact of gratitude practice on state of mind becomes more profound when we choose to linger on the gratitude we are experiencing.
I’d like you to take a moment right now to check in with yourself. You can close your eyes or bring them to a half-gaze. Take a few deep breaths.
Notice how you’re feeling today without judgment or reward. Just observe for a moment.
Now, think of someone or something for whom you are grateful. Try to choose a recent experience if possible.
Contemplate your gratitude for this experience. Think about why you’re grateful. Notice where you feel that particular gratitude – where do you feel it in your body? In your mind? Allow yourself to be fully present to the experience of gratitude.
Now, check in again with how you’re feeling. Notice if there are any changes.
You can open your eyes whenever you would like to.
This technique of sitting with gratitude longer rather than simply listing off what you’re grateful for is similar to the practice of savoring. Both techniques are ways to be more fully present to ourselves as well as to what’s happening around us. When we savor, we bring our full attention to the present moment. It’s a way of more fully embracing simple joys like watching the sunset or hearing the laughter and conversation of those we love. When we then layer in gratitude for that moment, we begin to subtly change how we relate to what’s happening around us. By paying full attention and choosing to be present, we gather even more brightness to us. It’s the best kind of feedback cycle.
The holiday season presents us a unique opportunity to try some different approaches. The rush of the winter holidays is different for adults than for children, and many of us struggle with it. A busy calendar, financial concerns, and the very real impact of less light and warmth are challenge enough. If you add other factors like grief, estrangement, or isolation, the combined impact can be incredibly painful. I don’t think it’s surprising that I know so many people who dread the winter holiday season.
But what if this year, we added a new tool? What if we brought sustained gratitude into the mix?
This practice can unfold in a few different ways. If you have a morning contemplation or prayer practice, add a moment of gratitude. Just as we practiced right here, select something you feel grateful for and fully focus your attention on it. Allow at least one minute of contemplation, of sustaining your connection to your gratitude.
Sustained gratitude can also be woven in more organically. When you notice something beautiful or kind or joyous happening, bring your full attention to it. This can be small things as well as large ones. One of the little joys I love about the holiday season is all the lights. I think it’s lovely that so many of us decorate our homes. So, many times when I see holiday lights shining at night, I notice that they’re beautiful. If you have little moments like those, along with your full attention, take a moment to feel gratitude.
Linger in that feeling. When I am grateful for the shining of lights in the dark night, I am grateful for the hands that hung them there. For someone who spent time outside, probably on a ladder, creating beauty. I am grateful for the tradition of decorating our homes even if the reasoning behind it isn’t something I always agree with. I am grateful for the technology that allows these wonderful little bright stars to so easily be obtained and used. I am grateful that we are making our holiday lights more energy efficient and longer lasting. That we, culturally, are finding a way to decorate that is more environmentally sustainable.
And all of those thoughts and feelings arise just from spending a little bit longer being present.
One gratitude technique I’ve come to use a lot over the years occurs in the middle of the night. I’ve wrestled with insomnia for most of my life, and it’s not uncommon for me to have a period of wakefulness in the dark hours. When I was younger, I’d lie in bed getting progressively more and more frustrated at my inability to fall back to sleep. Now, when I awaken, I count gratitudes rather than sheep. I start with the bed I’m lying in, and how warm and comfortable it is. Then, I begin to expand my focus like ripples spreading after a dropped stone. I feel gratitude for my spouse peacefully sleeping beside me. I feel gratitude for the privilege of a private bedroom, and its warm quiet darkness. I feel gratitude for the house I live in and all the beings who dwell within it. And usually, somewhere in the middle of feeling grateful, I fall back asleep.
There are so many small moments and opportunities in our lives to take a deep breath and go deeper, or change the story we’ve been telling ourselves. A deeper, more connected, and more present practice of gratitude really does change your inner landscape. Maybe this year it’ll be just a little change – a trickle of water over the limestone.
But don’t be surprised if, in a few years, your inner landscape is different – with a flowing stream bringing light, warmth, and profound connection wherever it passes.
This sermon was first offered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown on Sunday, November 26th.
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