Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude is the latest buzzword in wellness. You can buy cute gratitude journals in which you can write lists of all the things you’re grateful for. You can buy coffee mugs and T-shirts and home decor preaching the gospel of grateful. But that’s not really practicing gratitude is it?

There are lots of sound reasons why we should all take up the practice of gratitude. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Health show practicing gratitude rewires the hypothalamus in our brains. The hypothalamus is the part of our brain that regulates body functions. We literally cannot function well without grace. Pick up any popular fitness magazine and there is an article listing out the benefits of gratitude from reduced stress, better sleep, to a reduction in chronic pain. And, all of this is true but what they don’t tell you is how to practice gratitude.

How do you practice gratitude? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Developing a gratitude practice is the logical first step in any wellness plan. So what is a gratitude practice?

I’ve been following the website gratefulness.org which is devoted to the writings and teachings of Brother David Steindl-Rast. Brother David is a Benedictine monk who has written books and given speeches on gratitude. Brother David teaches that the practice of gratitude has three steps.

  1. Wake up. To be grateful we need to open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to all the opportunities and gifts that surround us every day. As Brother David says “You start your day by being grateful you have eyes with which to see the world and all it’s beauty.” Ask yourself “Isn’t this surprising?” Surprise is a helpful lens through which to view our day because it helps us to see all the things we take for granted like our two eyes that let us see the faces of our loved ones whether they are right in front of us or on the screen of our tablets and smartphones.

2. Be aware of opportunity. Ask yourself “What’s my opportunity here?” Ask yourself this question as you prepare for the mundane tasks of your day as well as the challenges. Life presents us with opportunities every day but we must open our minds and our eyes to see them.

3. Respond alertly. If you can allow yourself to be surprised by the simple joys all around you, and learn to recognize the opportunities in every situation, then this last step happens naturally.

Practicing gratitude is more than just saying your prayers or giving thanks before a meal. It’s more than reading scripture or keeping a gratitude journal. It’s as much a part of the way you move through your day as eating and sleeping. My favorite quote of Brother David is that if you live every day as though it was both the very first day of your life and the very last day of your life then you will have spent that day very well. I had to think about that for a bit.

What if today was the very first day of your life? Imagine you arrived in this world just as you are right now with your body as it is, your finances as they are, etc. Would you hate your reflection in the mirror? Would you be disappointed with this life you’ve been given? I wouldn’t. I would be grateful to God for giving me this life and this day to start living it. I would be grateful that unlike the rest of the people walking around in the world I wouldn’t have a past. That’s the key to understanding what it means to live each day of your life as though it were your very first. If this is your first day of life then you have nothing to compare it to. You have no history to remember all the negatives. No failures to remember. No broken hearts and failed relationships. No mistakes. No missed opportunities. No hurts, abuse, or bad memories. All you would have is the moment you came into this world and all the possibilities that go along with it. How beautiful is that? Brene Brown famously said that comparison is the thief of joy. If we live each day as though it were our very first then there is nothing to compare it to. All that happened before becomes irrelevant. There is only here and now, and the future with all of its possibilities. Every day we are given the opportunity to start over. Isn’t that surprising?

What if today were the very last day of your life? Steve Jobs famously wrote an essay stating he asked himself this question every day and the answer determined how he decided to live his life each day. Well, what would you do if you found out you only had hours to live? I doubt you would cling to your previously held expectations and pride. All of your fears of failure and rejection disappear in the face of death and like the previous question of today being your first day, the last day of your life is not likely to be spent remembering all the failures, lost opportunities, and regrets. Rather, you would remember all the good times and great people who were a part of your life. You would embrace every opportunity for joy, for love, to make lasting memories. What opportunities are here?

The mantra from Brother David encourages us to see today as it was meant to be seen. Today, and every day is a brand new day. It’s a clean slate. A chance to achieve, to succeed, to learn, and to grow. The mantra also reminds us not to dwell on the past. Life is short. Time is finite. We are given a limited amount of time in this space with the people around us to seize the opportunities in front of us.

This is what a gratitude practice looks like. It’s not down on your knees in prayer reciting bible verses. It’s not writing lists in cute journals. And, it’s not posting memes on your social media feeds. It’s minute by minute, it begins when you open your eyes and ends when you fall asleep, and begins again the next day. It does not happen naturally. It’s s mindful practice. It requires intention. The benefits far outweigh the effort. It’s time very well spent.

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