I came across this great quotation today by the American peace advocate Marianne Williamson: “Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called All the Things That Could Go Wrong.” This idea resonated with me because it beautifully illustrates what I’ve been trying to articulate recently. In my effort to simplify my life and be more mindful, I’m discovering that I really have space for only one idea or feeling in my mind at a time. It sounds so simple, but it is at the heart of any change I can expect to cultivate in my life. It begs the question, “If I have space for only one feeling, why would I choose that to be something painful, negative, or self-deprecating?” Before you accuse me of being “naive” or living in some kind of “fairyland”, let me explain a practice that I’ve found to be so helpful.
During the past 15 years, I’ve learned many valuable life tools in AA that have helped me not only stay sober but also take personal inventory of my behaviors, triggers, and emotions. The further I delve into any of those, the more I realize that fear is the underlying issue to most unhealthy behaviors, feelings, and relationships. The antidote to fear is gratitude, and I believe this is the key to clearing my mind of all the negative noise that keeps me stuck. Gratitude is not a thing, but a practice. There is nothing magical or mystical about gratitude because it lies inside each of us, waiting to be tapped into.
When we think about people who are happy and who radiate positivity, we tend to label them as saints or Pollyannas. What do these people all have in common? They all actively nurture gratitude in their lives and embrace even the little things as gifts. So where can we begin? The harsh reality is that it is so much easier to be negative and pessimistic than it is to find the bright side of life. I was challenged to a little experiment recently, and I was astounded by the results. Next time you find yourself in a conversation when one or more persons is complaining, don’t feed into the negativity. Instead, either redirect the conversation or interject by adding a positive comment. For example, if a colleague at work is complaining about the extra work your supervisor has assigned, instead of feeding into the negativity, say something positive like: “Yah, I’ve always admired the way she can delegate tasks.” You’ll quickly notice that the conversation ends, or is redirected because the negativity feeds on negativity. When we don’t add fuel to the fire, it snuffs itself out fairly quickly. The same works with any negative thought percolating inside us. Operating from a feeling of compassion and understanding allows us to be grateful for everything that appears before us. When asked what his greatest fear in life is, The Dalai Lama responded: “My greatest fear is losing compassion for the Chinese.” For me, it often comes down to focussing on our similarities rather than on our differences.
There are many practices we can follow to bring gratitude into our mind. Some of the more common ones are keeping a gratitude journal and giving thanks at the beginning and end of each day. I don’t want to discount the importance and efficacy of those staid practices, but I am a hands-on type of learner who requires more of a tangible guide to nurturing gratitude. I like to mark special milestones in my life apart from the traditional ones of birthdays and anniversaries. My wife and I always acknowledge our first date anniversary and reflect on how far we’ve come together. Another important milestone that I give gratitude to is my dry-date every year I stay clean and sober. Recently, I’ve tried to express how thankful I am for my friends every time we’re together. So many of the conversations over the years have stayed fairly superficial, so now I want them to know how much I honor our time together. I think we can all agree that life is “busy”, and we frequently just go through the motions of our day. In the past month, I have made a conscious effort to acknowledge the servers I interact with in restaurants, the barista at Starbucks, or even the crossing guard I see every morning. Instead of simply saying “hi”, I stop for a moment and really ask how their day is going. Realizing how connected we all are, despite the isolation of technology, allows gratitude to flow into my life and it pushes loneliness aside. The place I’ve noticed the biggest difference is finding the “good” in the “worst” in my life. Five months ago I finally decided to seek help for the aftereffects of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced. It has not been easy to find the “good” in something so traumatic, but reframing that experience as something that has shaped me into a more resilient and empathetic person allows me to be grateful for everything in my past, and in my life.
Gratitude opens the heart and centers us in the present moment. I like to think of it as “strength without wings”. I think Thornton Wilder said it best. “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”