“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, and confusion into clarity….It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melody Beattie
As someone who tends to function with an All-Or-Nothing mindset, it is necessary for me to find opportunities that help expand my narrow point of view and absorb the brilliance that still remains in the world. My therapist mistakes me for an idealist. This has to be a joke because I know that nothing in life will truly ever be what I would consider ideal. How’s that for all-or-nothing thinking, huh? Soooo….even though my therapist believes me to be an idealist, I would consider myself more of a realist. While I desperately want (or hope) people to treat each other well and do the right thing, I know that most of us really are just selfish assholes.
Nine times out of ten we will choose our own compulsions over altruism. Now, I would like to think that, after years of practicing yoga, I have outgrown most of my attachments, but in truth there are still many things I cling to. As a human being, and a member of the animal kingdom, I am hardwired to choose survival over helping another in need. The need to survive is inherent in all of us. Some of us believe we “need” more than others in order to survive, however. Left unchecked, we start to believe that there is not enough to go around. This causes many of us to operate from a place of lack, which leads to a hoarding type of mentality.
During bouts of depression, it is easy to allow this mode of thinking, and these perceived inadequacies, to govern my emotions. A depressed person believes that there is not enough kindness or love to go around, since we obviously are incapable of feeling it towards ourselves. Therefore, it makes it exceptionally challenging to extend goodness to others. The person who believes that they are not worthy of love and affection constantly seeks affirmation and approval from others out of the fear we will be abandoned by those we love. This insatiable need for validation will eventually drive others away because it is impossible for them to fill a void left by one’s own meagerness. When the loved one leaves, it confirms our original notion that we are inadequate. We get caught in a cycle, seeking out a variety of ways to inflict abuse upon ourselves, either through bad relationships, alcohol or drugs, to further prove just how unworthy of love we truly are.
The Buddha taught his followers that all of life is impermanent and that it is our denial of this impermanence that causes our suffering. Generally, we are grateful for that impermanence in relation to the negative aspects or events of our lives, because the pain they cause passes with time and light eventually returns to our hearts. Yet, there are times when we forget to pause and recognize the relief, the gratitude, we feel when that pain has passed, but instead let it negatively impact our choices forever forward. By not allowing ourselves the feeling of gratitude when bad things happen, we can get stuck lamenting over life’s disappointments.
Rarer still are we thankful for the impermanence of the positive aspects of our lives. There is profound irony uncovered within the statement, “All good things must come to an end”. When we are in the moment, fully embracing all that is good, we deny the truth that the moment inevitably ends and are left dismayed because it didn’t last forever. We become fearful that the the universe will be unable to provide us with enough happiness in the future, and we also know it can’t last. Indeed, ALL of life is impermanent. Holding onto things, money, or people will only cause us great suffering, especially when those things, or people, are no longer a part of your life. It’s even harder still when you haven’t been able to admit that to yourself just yet.
Our aversions are sometimes easier to understand – we generally avoid things that make us uncomfortable or that we are fearful of. But, as a friend of mine explained recently, attachment and aversion are two sides of the same coin. We cling to the positive attributes of life, while denying that they are impermanent. If we cling to an idea, to a thing, or to a person as our only means to happiness, we will never experience contentment and will remain in a perpetual state of suffering. The same holds true for our aversions. If we ignore a negative attribute of life, an event, or a person, we give ourselves a false sense of security that nothing is wrong with the world. When the bubble of denial is burst, we have a harder time accepting things as they truly are, rather than how we think they should be. In order to experience true happiness, we need to understand that positive and negative must exist in unison.
Most recovery programs, whether it be from substance abuse, co-dependency or depression, ask their disciples to morph endless feelings of discouragement into hopefulness by finding things to be grateful for. Rather than focusing on what is missing from life, they are taught to appreciate what is currently available. Think of it this way…when you focus on what is absent from your life, you are no longer living in the present moment. By giving attention to what went wrong in the past, or wishing for how things should be in the future, we miss out on what is currently happening right in front of us, in this moment. Cultivating gratitude helps to make us aware of what is abundant in our lives right NOW., it brings us back to the present everyday goodness in our lives.
Often times, days will sail right past me and I don’t even notice where the time went. This can be blamed on various distractions like work, phone calls, emails, Facebook, text messages, but really it is an overall lack of mindfulness. So, for the month of November, I opted to complete what I termed a “gratitude challenge”. For 30-days, I tasked myself to find five things every day could be grateful for and then I shared them on Facebook. By providing an inventory, to the general public, of each day’s events, people, places, and things that were either pleasant or unpleasant it helped prompt me to pay a higher amount of attention to life happening around me. It is after all, only MY LIFE – I guess I should sort of be aware of what happens to it…..right????
Then, a week or so ago, a friend of mine and I were speculating about what we might do to change our lives if we had the chance to travel back in time. It really got me thinking about how the events and people of my life had shaped me. If I went back and changed the bad parts, in order to avoid the pain, then the good parts may not have happened. All of the good things grew out of all of the shit. It reminded me how truly grateful I am for the struggles that I have endured, nor do I have any regrets, in my life. Each of those awful moments was a stepping stone that took me to the beauty that lies before me now. Of course, there is a certain amount of anticipation in not knowing what the future holds, but I liken it to that feeling you have before leaving on vacation – you know the journey won’t be perfect, yet it will be amazing. Once we can accept what has happened in the past is over and done, and we don’t have much control over what is planned for the future, we can find peace. It is that sense of peace that allows me to move forward free from attachment, or aversion, and also free from suffering – this is when my life truly began.
To all the victims from Sandy Hook Elementary, I am grateful to be reminded of the importance of working for peace in this world. We do so in your honor, and in the honor of any person who has ever had to endure suffering and violence in their lives, or in their hearts. Pray for Peace.