On a recent sunny afternoon I was driving with the top down in my car, enjoying the fresh air and sense of freedom. The radio blasted a Darius Rucker song titled “This” and I found myself paying close attention to the lyrics. The song portrays a man grateful for where he is in life. Darius sings his acknowledgment that the twists and turns of his life’s path, while not always pleasant in the moment, have landed him in a place of happiness. As I seat danced and sang my way down the highway, I felt completely in tune with Mr. Rucker – not vocally – but definitely emotionally. In that moment I was deeply content, and filled with the warmth of gratitude. I realize I’m sounding uncharacteristically “Woo-Woo”, but the sensation of being hardwired directly to the universe, connected to everyone and everything, is powerful and possible.
A gratitude practice is a simple, although not always easy, endeavor to implement. It offers tremendous benefits including an overwhelming sense of well being. Unfortunately, a gratitude practice can seem irrelevant when you are continually in problem-solving mode. As parents, householders and employees, we are trained to notice what isn’t working and devise ways to resolve it. On the surface, this can seem like a positive attribute. The truth is there will always be something going wrong. Reducing your day to a series of identifying and responding to problems is not everything you want out of life. Your life doesn’t start at some point in the future when nothing is going wrong, you have money in the bank, you’ve located your soul mate and you are at your ideal weight.
One of the challenges to a implementing a gratitude practice is what your center of attention is. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what you want and what you don’t want. It only knows what you focus on, and it assumes you want more of whatever you are focusing on. This presents a conundrum for most people whose attention is drawn to what goes wrong in their day, rather than what goes right. Your attention gravitates to the people and events that fall short of what you think they should be. Unfortunately, by focusing on your let downs, not only do you attract more of the same, but you become prone to overlooking your blessings. Mindfully shifting your attention to what is, rather than what is not, is a great starting point for breaking this pattern.
Next you’ll want to look at your expectations. You expect your alarm clock and your car to work. You expect that your lights will go on when you flip the switch. You expect your loved ones will care about you. Once you come to expect something, you take it for granted. You are not grateful for the things you take for granted.
Another challenge to a gratitude practice is feeling entitled. When the gas station attendant fills your tank, the mailman delivers your mail, or the cashier bags your groceries you probably don’t feel grateful. These people are paid to deliver a service. It’s their job. But the fact is, regardless of their motivation, you are benefiting from their efforts. Developing gratitude in these types of situations is part of the practice.
Finally, make sure that you have created a distinction between a gratitude practice and the feeling of helplessness generated by your mother telling you to eat your brussel sprouts because there were children starving in India. A gratitude practice is not an excuse to become self defeating, passive or accepting of those things that you know should be changed. There is a potential danger in messages such as: “These things are wrong, but we should be grateful for what we have,” and “Compared to these people, look how much better off we are.” These statements can become excuses for not taking action to change social injustice, or stand up against unfair situations. A gratitude practice is not a justification for being submissive. On the contrary, as you become more adept at acknowledging your blessings and developing a mindful approach to gratitude, you will likely find that you have a heightened sense of caring for, and connection to, other human beings.
Lyrics to Darius Rucker’s song “This” (seat dancing optional)
Every stoplight I didn’t make,
Every chance I did or I didn’t take,
All the nights I went too far,
All the girls that broke my heart,
All the doors that I had to close,
All the things I knew but I didn’t know,
Thank God for all I missed,
‘Cause it led me here to this…