Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cultivating Gratitude

This will almost certainly be appearing in the future in my company's blog. But, I have it written and so though I'd put it up here. Don't wanna get too far out of the habit of posting to my own blog. You can check out my company's blog here.


“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Until recently, I had never really thought of gratitude as a personal discipline. Instead, I have always viewed gratitude as an emotion, something I feel when I am happy, or am glad for some thing or person in my life. I am starting to realize that gratitude is more than mere emotion. It is a virtue which I can cultivate so that it grows into a much larger force for good in my life. Even more, it can transform the barren hard places of my life so that they become peaceful and productive. Life can be hectic and hard, and when it is, the good feelings do not come so easily. Disappointment and frustration can easily overwhelm our gratitude. In such times we must actively and intentionally pursue gratitude as a discipline. If not, then we will allow our defeats and discontents to take up residence in our minds and hearts. Left to themselves they will cripple us, preventing us from obtaining the results we seek. At worst they can cause a heart rot that kills us inside. Even though we may walk and talk as if we were still alive, inside we feel dead, embalmed in bitterness and sorrow over lost possibilities. The antidote is to consciously and purposefully cultivate gratitude. When you carefully plant the seeds of gratitude in your life, and nurture them persistently, you can grow an abundant garden in your heart, the fruit of which will nourish and strengthen you for the rest of your life.
Lately, I have been learning much about the practices and skills of gratitude. I am far from mastering them, but I am beginning to see a few things that I find helpful. Let me share them with you.
Be Extravagant in your Sowing
William Arthur Ward said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” Periodically, I have found it useful to express my gratitude with profligate extravagance. This doesn’t mean that I’m spending lots of money buying gifts for people (although that might not be a bad idea at times). Rather I am consciously coming up with a ridiculously large list of very specific things for which I am thankful. The principle here is simple. What you sow, that you will also reap. So sow a lot of gratitude into the soil of your life.
A few months ago, I listened to Roger Seip, a friend of mine, discussing gratitude on one of our company conference calls. He suggested that we list 25 things that we were thankful for. I thought, “Hey, if 25 is good, 100 is even better.” So, one morning, when I woke up, but before getting out of bed, I spent some time in prayer. My entire prayer consisted of expressing my thanks for 100 things. I actually kept count. I was not particularly picky about the items on my list. If I felt remotely glad that they existed, I would include them on my list. The exercise took about 20 minutes. I repeated this every day for a week. I noticed right away that my perspective on my life was significantly improved by. As James Brown says, “Get on the good foot!”
I don’t think the number 100 is significant except in it’s extravagance. Some days I still do 100. Some days I'll do a quick 25 or 50. I believe that by simply spending an extended length of time focusing on what I am thankful for, I helped my mind to align itself into a more powerful and helpful pattern. It’s a lot like stretching your muscles. If you invest the time, and allow your muscles to relax into the stretch, the will tend to maintain their new shape. Take the time to stretch your gratitude muscle and let it stay for a while. It will reset your gratitude default level.
Plow Deep
When practicing the Gratitude 100, the object is quantity, not quality. The next exercise I call Deep Gratitude. In this exercise, you will select one thing that you are thankful for, and recall as many reasons as possible WHY you are thankful for it. Start with 5 or 10. Then as you get more practiced, increase your target number. Of course, the reasons for your gratitude end up being things you are grateful for in and of themselves. The real value in this exercise is that it forces you to dwell on just one simple area of your life. To make it easy, begin with the parts of your life you love the most.
I suggest doing this in a quiet place, with a pen and paper. Don’t take too long at first. It is better to stop before it gets tedious. Just take 5 or 10 minutes, and focus on one thing (or person, or event) you are grateful for and consider why and what it means to you. You will probably find that once you get in the groove, reasons for being thankful will begin to flow, and you may start bringing things to a conscious level that you were not aware of previously. Deep Gratitude will expand your sense of how gratitude operates, and make you more sensitive and aware of how you can be grateful for so many things.
Reclaim the Barren ground
Now we are going to get radical. This third gratitude exercise involves expressing gratitude for things that are hard, undesirable, or unpleasant. Did you lose your job? Has your business taken a severe downturn? Creditors at the door? Have you or someone you love been struck by serious illness? Are your most important relationships on the rocks? Whatever your personal suffering is, practice letting go of your negative emotions and force yourself to express gratitude for it.
I am fully aware that this is counter-intuitive, and a hard discipline to embrace. It goes against the emotional grain. It is not normal to be thankful for the disasters that come into your life. Most of us are in the habit of sending all our anger, anxiety, worry, and frustration to our trials and tribulations. We pile them up there and allow their poison to turn our suffering into barren ground - seared soil where nothing useful can grow. Yet, if we can begin fertilizing these areas of our lives with thankfulness, we can turn them from places of pain, to places of growth and vitality. The pain may never go away, but we can redeem the pain for greater good.
I will be the first to admit that it is not easy to do. In fact, the first time I practiced this, I had such a severe physical reaction that I broke out into a cold sweat and started shaking. But in the end, I found that it helped me to get through a very difficult time. I can give you two tips I have learned as I have attempted this practice.
First, don’t worry about “feeling” grateful. Especially at the beginning of this exercise, don’t expect to feel happy about it. It is more an exercise of the will than an expression of happy emotion. So don’t be surprised when your mind rebels against it. That’s OK. Just express your thankfulness, in spite of everything, and let it go at that. My first attempt at this was a complete exercise in will and faith. Nevertheless, it was an extremely important and helpful first step. I find it helpful to complete the exercise by picturing myself releasing the problem, letting it go. I picture myself releasing it to God, but I suppose you could release to whoever or whatever you want. I express my gratitude (and my doubts as well, in no uncertain terms) and then say “thank you” for it, and let it rest there. To be honest, that moment feels pretty strange, but it’s an important part of the deal.
Why do this? The fact is, we really don’t ultimately know the meaning of everything that happens to us. Often the things that bring the greatest suffering upon us become the source of our strength. Think of Lance Armstrong, whose battle with cancer was instrumental in making him the kind of person who could win 7 Tour de France races. As hard as it was, he learned to be thankful for that experience. If we can learn to be thankful even before we understand, it puts us in a better place to learn the lesson contained in the experience.
The cultivation of a grateful heart is not accident. Gratitude is very much a skill, and the seed you sow, the depth of your plow, and the reclamation of the barren ground of your life will help to make your heart a beautiful and abundant garden of joy. Start today and you can begin enjoying the fruit almost immediately.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of the Jewish tradition of "100 B'rakhot"? 100 times a day the people are to pray, "Blessed are you, O Lord our God, for you have...."

Marva Dawn writes of this in "A Royal Waste of Time."

Good article, even better practice.