Thank you to everyone who responded to my post on gratitude. I suspected it would ruffle some feathers. But most folks either agreed with my point of view or or were able to see their gratitude journaling as part of a larger way of being in the world. I’ve included a few of the responses on the benefits of the gratitude list at the bottom of this post, as well as a link to Ginny Lee Taylor’s wonderful post on the benefits of gratitude for survivors of sexual trauma.
I want to make a distinction, however, from using gratitude to shift one’s perspective — not a bad thing — and experiencing gratitude as something that blows through you unexpectedly and feels like awe. That’s not something you can will into being.
One reader asked me to elaborate on Natalie Goldberg’s teaching that gratitude is the most mature emotion. I can’t say what Natalie was thinking, although I can share my experience as a parent, trying to teach my child to say please and thank you, which I can tell you does not make her grateful. It makes her polite. You can show children the world as it is — drive into underprivileged neighborhoods, visit a homeless shelter — and maybe that brings awareness of what they have, and perhaps has an effect. But we all know when our kids express true gratitude by their tone of voice, and it’s usually when they are older and mature enough to understand what they have been given.
How do we cultivate and express mature, spontaneous, big gratitude as we get older?
Dogen wrote that,”Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude.” He was talking about Zazen meditation, but it also applies to writing practice, yoga, calligraphy, whatever you show up for regularly with the intention of being present.
I am not a Dogen scholar or Zen teacher. I can’t say for sure what Dogen meant, but I do know that showing up to practice day after day, making effort to be present, cultivating a relationship with mind, watching your thoughts, meeting yourself and meeting the world, is an affirmation of all that is.
As artists, when we have a regular practice, we affirm life in all its complexity as well as open to the world as it moves through us. We tame the ego, listen and wait for what calls ,and respond through right action.
As I look to my roots as art historian, curator, and arts writer, I see that for my entire adult life, I’ve been chasing the same principle, first through art history, later through studying meditation and writing practice with Natalie: the ability to pay attention, to be awake in this world, and report back. To experience the physical world fully and intensely, and affirm it in my work as well as see it in the work of others. I suspect that is what many of you are after as well.
This is what I’m going for in Continuous Practice, 2016. I want to create a structure of support for artists who want to engage in practice, to affirm the world through daily commitment. As a community of creatives, to show up for ourselves and one another, to connect with artist/practitioners present, past, and future.
I’m gathering a group of accomplished artists, with daily practices in a variety of forms — from meditation and yoga to dance, calligraphy, and (you heard it here first) laundry, to share their experience, describe how their daily practice has effected their creative work (for many, it is one and the same), and to offer instruction. We’ll discuss our challenges, brainstorm ways to keep our practice fresh, how to set parameters, and see what the masters had to say, especially Dogen.
I’ll have more to share in the weeks to come. In the meantime, why not join Continuous Practice 2015? Begin showing up for yourself now. Feel the power of connecting to the universe through practice. See what happens when you arrive day after day after day at the front and back door of your mind.
From the comments on the blog and Facebook:
I am with you on this. I am also with the idea that bringing into awareness the big and the small things we have to be grateful for can be a useful practice. I know it’s not useful or meaningful to everyone. I think it’s possible to do both, recognize the suffering and scariness in the world and in our own lives and recognize those things we are truly grateful for and that are important and meaningful. I also think well being involves being able to recognize both hardship and beauty, and the ability to harbor joy and despair.
I have approached the practice of gratitude a bit differently this past year. I was too wounded/fragmented/exhausted/numb to keep a list so I put out a jar. Whenever something touched me deeply or was a moment that made my heart smile or wake up in whatever way I tried to take note to that – I suppose for me it has helped me focus on hope in the midst of one of the most difficult years of my life. I love your admonition to embrace all of life, whatever is. Grief has taught me valuable, even sweet, lessons. I am in awe of this.
I hear your reality and think that I understand where you’re coming from, Saundra. I’ve been suspicious of gratitude lists a few times. If the gratitude list ever became a denial of what’s happening in the world for me, I would quit it as well. Gratitude is not the same as seeing the whole world as rosy and positive. As a profoundly pessimistic person (PPP), I’ll continue to make my gratitude list. For me, it balances my worldview a bit in contrast to the rampant racism, greed-enforced poverty, corporate-fueled war zones, and so on. Much to my occasional chagrin, I am aware of the strife and injustice in our world. Again, I _do_ hear you. And for the sake of my sanity and (dare I say?) reality, I will continue to notice my gratitude.
I do understand your frustration with the trendiness of gratitude at the moment. I think that it is for many the first step toward compassion for others. Realizing the beauty in all the facets of life may have to start with recognizing how privileged you are.
And here is the link to Ginny Taylor’s post, “R is for Remember Gratitude.”
I look forward to practicing with you in the coming months and year, expressing our gratitude by showing up for ourselves and each other.