Last year I began offering what I call teaching talks (I’m careful not to use the term dharma talk since I’m not a dharma teacher) at my local sangha. Not too frequently, as I don’t want to turn my sangha into the Nicole show, but a couple times a year seems doable. I’m scheduled to give a talk in mid-September and I’ve decided the topic will be on gratitude. So, much like my recent post on August 27th, I’m using my blog as an opportunity to write out what I’ll talk about in order to help me process and filter through some ideas. Here goes…
I’m a volunteer with hospice and currently meet with a woman who’s 100 years old. As a hospice volunteer our primary role is to to visit with patients socially and simply spend time as a friend. This particular woman has great long term memory and has told me stories from when she was as young as three years old, in 1918. However, she has very poor short term memory and often tells me the same things and asks the same questions over and over again in the span of our visits together. When telling me about her upbringing or married life she’ll often stop mid-sentence and lean in a little closer to me from her wheelchair and say, “You know, I’ve had such a great life. I am so grateful. I had great parents, a great brother and sister, and a great husband and kids.” I can tell she’s really connecting with her gratitude when she reiterates these words to me. The spirit and energy of gratitude is alive within her and radiates outwards when she talks about it – I can see it in her eyes. Her strong sense of gratitude is what ties all of her memories together – and if I had to guess it’s also part of what allowed her the capacity to live to reach 100 years old with many of her faculties about her.
Gratitude is often undervalued as a practice to cultivate in order to live a happier, healthier life. Our ability to experience gratitude is one of the determining factors in our overall quality of life. Developing a daily practice of gratitude is not only helpful but necessary if we have a desire to make the most of each moment and live with more joy and ease. Learning how to be present in the here and now and strengthen our mindfulness practice requires a certain amount of gratitude – if we are not able to connect with how much abundance and beauty surrounds us, at least on some level, it will be very difficult to live in the here and now. The stronger our feelings of gratitude are the more able we are to ‘Be Here Now’ with whatever it is we’re doing.
The more we practice gratitude the more we keep practicing, the stronger our practice gets, and the easier it becomes. But what does it mean to actually practice gratitude? How do we practice? There are many ways, of course, but as I can only speak from my own experience here are a couple of ideas that I personally do and find helpful:
One: Taking a few short moments before eating a meal to connect with the food in front of us and our appreciation of it is a great way to integrate the practice of gratitude into our daily life. We may like to start with one meal a day in order to not set the bar too high in terms of creating a new routine. We may also want to pick the meal that we have the most spaciousness around eating. Perhaps breakfast is too rushed for us in the morning but at lunch we can afford to take a few moments to offer words of gratitude before eating. We may like to close our eyes, in order to help increase our focus on what we’re doing, and say some simple words to ourselves, such as: This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work. Saying these words followed by one full breath takes about 10 seconds. If we don’t have 10 seconds to connect with one meal a day we’re in trouble! Come up with your own words or use the short phrase above. The important part here is to take the time to stop and connect. Many of us have a strong habit energy to eat on the go or while doing other things. The good news here is that we’re starting small and simple. You don’t have to eat really slowly or stop multi-tasking while eating – the practice here is to take 10 seconds before a meal, that’s it. The food we are afforded is a great luxury that many people around the world do not have. It’s important not to take our relatively easy access to food for granted.
Two: Every morning after I practice sitting meditation I do three prostrations to the earth (see pics above). With each one I offer a different gratitude. With the first prostration I say, inwardly to myself, the same thing each morning, “I bow down to the earth in gratitude for this one precious life.” With the second and third prostration I offer different gratitudes each day. I start each one the same way, “I bow down to the earth in gratitude for _____”, and then I fill in the blank with whatever comes to mind. There are no wrong answers here :) The possibilities are endless! If you don’t practice sitting meditation in the morning that’s OK. You can simply do the gratitude prostrations on their own. You can also alter the prostrations if you are unable to bend down on the ground by sitting erect, closing your eyes, and simply placing your palms facing upwards on your knees. If you are able to do the prostration as pictured above I highly encourage you to do so. While it may feel strange or foreign at first this position is highly beneficial in terms of cultivating humility, connection to the earth, and developing a spiritual reverence for life.
After I do my three prostrations I stand up and do one final standing bow, with the same ending verse each time, “In gratitude for this one more opportunity to live today, may I be useful, may I be kind.” Starting each day with gratitude allows me to set my daily compass in the direction of living and engaging more skillfully.
Getting support can be extremely helpful in creating a new practice or routine. If you’re drawn to start a daily gratitude practice but find it hard time creating the space and time to do it on your own ask a friend, family member, your partner, or a roommate if they’ll join you. The collective energy of doing it together with someone can be very powerful and nourishing. Perhaps you can set up a check-in system with a friend and email or text daily about your practice. If you’re a blogger you can use your blog to offer personal motivation. When I wanted to start a daily meditation practice I used this blog to write about the process for 21-days of sitting. Putting my intention out there to the blogosphere gave me just enough sense of personal responsibility and it helped me to follow through. Having someone to check in with and report back to makes it more difficult to bail on something we’d really like to commit to. Get creative with ideas for cultivating more gratitude in your life. Utilize your friends and support networks. Getting support is one of the most wisest of actions we can engage in.
Lovely Gratitude Quotes:
“Keeping your body healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos – the trees, the clouds, everything.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“Saying thank you is more than good manners. It is good spirituality.” ~Alfred Painter
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” ~Meister Eckhart
“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” ~G.K. Chesterton
“When eating bamboo sprouts, remember the man who planted them.” ~Chinese Proverb