My practice. The love in my life. Eating ripe cherries off a tree. The internet. Being able to walk without pain. Air travel. The roof over my head. My amazing patients. Tea. Music. Sight. Hot, running water inside my house. That the Earth continues to orbit around the sun without my help. These are just a few things I’m feeling grateful for right now.
In Chinese Medicine, our qi is said to follow our intention or mental energy. And different mental and emotional patterns do different things to our energy: over-thinking and worry knot the qi; anger makes it rise up , fear sinks it, sadness dissolves it, and so on. In addition to having directionality, mental/emotional activity also affects the internal organs. For example, habitual worry tends to affect the Spleen, like a knot in the gut, resulting in digestive problems. Habitual anger tends to affect the Liver, resulting in high blood pressure, tight neck and shoulder muscles in its partner channel, the Gall Bladder.
I have not come across references in the Chinese Medical classics as to what gratitude does to the qi, but in the laboratory of my body, it provides a kind of gentle buoyancy and softening. I have used it to shift out of many less desirable mental/ emotional states. Of course, the so-called “negative emotions” are part of life, and they are to be fully felt, digested, and integrated. But when any mental or emotional state becomes habitual or excessive, or when it limits our ability to experience anything else, it’s time for an intervention. And gratitude is great one.
- Gratitude turns scarcity into wealth, whether the scarce resource is time, money, or energy. I remember my father in horrible physical condition after a particularly brutal week of chemo and radiation, tuning into the feeling of the sun on his face and saying “I’m a happy man.” It has turned me from completely broke to among the wealthiest people on the planet without altering my bank account one penny.
- Gratitude can stuff a sock into the mouth of the shrill inner “to-do” list reciter. When I tune into what I’m grateful for in my life, I realize that not accomplishing all the stuff on the list usually does not jeopardize any of it. When there is a potential consequence, that becomes the priority, and the rest can be let go. Clarifying.
- Gratitude can silence the inner critic. Is it possible to be critical and grateful at the same time? I don’t think so.
- Gratitude makes loss bearable. In coping with loss of loved ones from my life due to deaths or break-ups, I have found that gratitude doesn’t wipe out grief or loss, but coexists with it, walking with it arm-in-arm in a way that allows moving forward. Celebrating the life of the loved one who has died or the relationship that has ended helps the sadness to recede.
- Gratitude ends worry. Worry is too much thinking about things that may or may not happen in the future or things beyond our control. Gratitude reflects the present moment, which is the only moment that counts, or even exists. If I can find something happening right here, right now that I can truly appreciate, that trumps any hypothetical future that may or may not ever transpire.
I love gratitude and have a few practices that I employ daily. Before I eat a meal, I take a short moment to tune into gratitude for the plants, sunshine, earth, water, farmers, and cooks that went into creating the food, as well as the people with whom I might be sharing it. I try to thank each patient and student for coming in to see me, thus allowing me to do work I love, and to learn and to grow. When I stretch out after a workout, I send mental thank-yous to the parts of my body that I am feeling: the muscles, bones, my heart pumping my blood, my lungs giving me oxygen. I do these things because living in gratitude feels great, and that’s how I want to feel.
A Note on the Misuse of Gratitude: I sometimes hear from patients “I should just be grateful, because so-and-so has it worse than me” or because “people are starving in other parts of the world.” These people are often extremely burned-out caregivers, castigating themselves for not being able to feel gratitude, but more significantly, for having any needs at all when they perceive that someone they love has it worse. Note the use of the word “should” and the implied “I should just shut up.” This person is denying her own needs. What is called for here is acknowledgment and honoring of the unmet needs, followed by self-compassion. (and perhaps strategizing as to how those needs could be met). Then gratitude can follow.
How does gratitude feel in your body? What does it do for you? I’d appreciate your thoughts.
*A photo I took at Cafe Gratitude in Berkeley, CA. That day, I was grateful for being with my sisters, and for delicious raw vegan strawberry cheesecake.