I’m sure we’d all agree that we’d like to experience more peace in joy in our lives, but so often these coveted experiences elude us. For many of us we’ll try all manner of things to feel better and more at peace, but how often do we turn to simple practices like gratitude to improve our well-being?
Gratitude is something we’re all familiar with to some extent, however how to practise it isn’t always all that clear. In fact sometimes we may be left thinking ‘just what is gratitude’ and ‘how will it make me feel better?’
Learning to be more grateful for the things in our life is a principal method for helping us to develop a great light-heartedness, a deep sense of peace and a feeling of joy. So with this in mind, who wouldn’t want to develop more gratitude? Of course it’s not necessarily always easy either
It seems like it’s all to easy to get down about things, easily irritated and end up feeling frustrated, when actually this is entirely avoidable and completely unnecessary
The guiding principle of all spiritual teachings is to help us learn to be happy by shifting our current focus from ordinary points of view to extraordinary points of view. Of course there are many layers to this, but initially it can simply be a good idea to familiarise ourself with some new ways of thinking that help us to achieve our goal of being happier in daily life
To be honest most of it really isn’t rocket science. As background it can be helpful to recognise and understand, from our own experience and discrimination, that all our experiences, whether good or bad, are coming from our mind
That’s not to say there aren’t other supporting conditions out there which may add or detract from our happiness, it’s just that the principle cause of our own experience is coming from our mind. If we relate to things as good or positive then for us our experience is pleasant, and conversely if we relate to something as negative or undesirable then for us that will be an unpleasant experience
Our feelings essentially define our experience, and the very nature of a feeling is that it comes from mind. Intellectually this isn’t too hard to understand. I mean after all, no-one can ‘inject us’ with unpleasant feelings can they?
But because the feelings we experience, when positive or negative things happen, arise for us without control (the terms positive and negative are used very loosely here), we have a tendency to label things as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on how they appear to make us feel (but of course nothing has the actual power to make us feel any way)
The point of outlining this is simply to remind us of our wish (to be happy) and to recognise that we have the power to choose whether or not we are happy at any given moment (even though it might not feel like it). Eventually through training our mind, this becomes more and more apparent
Inspiring ourself to be more grateful
Hopefully now we’re feeling a bit more empowered and incentivised to do something with our mind. The key to our happiness, initially at least, is to develop new ways of thinking that give rise to the type of feelings we want to experience
For some of us the term ‘gratitude’ may come across as a bit new-agey and inauthentic (well I used to think that), but now I can see there’s something very powerful in its simplicity
If we were to relate it to the buddhist framework of ‘lamrim’ (the stages of the path to enlightenment), then if we took a very broad perspective we could potentially identify it as an aspect of all the different meditations
However from the point of view of the gratitude we have towards others, then i particular we could say it encompasses the meditations on recognising every living being as our mother and remembering the kindness of all living beings
In this way we can understand that gratitude is an expansive and all-encompassing mind. The simplicity of it allows us to be happy at any given moment, by recalling a myriad of things we can be grateful for
We can develop gratitude for anything we’re able appreciate in our life. It’s also quite likely there are a lot of things we currently take for granted, but through changing our perspective we can learn to develop gratitude instead, and as result enjoy a happy and joyful mind
If I’m honest sometimes I do struggle to be grateful, not because it’s hard, but it’s just so easy to fall into a habit of being serious. All we need to do is look up into the sky or at nature and think ‘how amazing that I get to see such beautiful things….’
Maybe we start to become more conscious of the people in our life and recognise how many kind things they do for us. It can even be as simple as breathing in…. and breathing out. How amazing is that? I mean, if we start having a problem with this it’s likely we’d become concerned very quickly!
For me travelling at the moment it’s not that hard to see the kindness of others. How wonderful is it to be able to go to new places (courtesy of trains, planes and automobiles) and see all the lovely things they have to offer? As well as benefiting from the kindness of others who let us stay with them
Currently I’m staying at a home in France, surrounded by mountains, with fresh fruit and delicious French food being prepared for us (thanks to our friend Tracey and her beautiful family). How amazing is that? In reality there’s no end to what we can find gratitude for, big or small, it’s mainly just a matter of developing the habit
So what is gratitude?
So after all that, in case we’re still not entirely clear, what is gratitude? When I pop this into google it gives the following definition in the snippet at the top of the page:
‘The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness’
I like this definition actually as it breaks it out into parts: 1) the mind of appreciation and 2) the wish to repay kindness
One of the beautiful things about the mind of appreciation, is that it makes us very open and relaxed. This in turn has a huge effect on the way we relate to others, opening our eyes up to the kindness they show us and naturally developing the wish to repay it
If we check at the moment however, we’ll probably see that we take a lot of things for granted. And yet how does that make us feel? Well just think about how your mind feels most of the time when you have expectations to always get what you want when you want it
It feels normal and our right to have a roof over our head, running water, a body that is more or less fully functioning, enough food to satisfy our hunger, free time to enjoy ourselves and to immerse ourself in the myriad of distractions modern technology offers…. just to name a few
And yet there are many people around the world who can’t say they have the same privileges. How many people, even in our own communities are homeless? How many people throughout the world even have access to clean, running water?
What proportion of people in the world have healthy bodies with all the parts fully functional? How many people have enough food and enjoy comfortable lifestyles like the vast majority of us do in the western world?
Bringing the entire world’s population to mind, if we reflect on these points, we’ll come to see more clearly that enjoying all of these comforts is truly remarkable. Sure life might not be perfect, but that’s life… and no-one’s saying don’t make any effort to change or improve it. If you can, then of course, go for it!
But whilst we’re applying all that effort to change it, why not also try and do something with our mind? I mean if we’re looking for happy feelings and feelings necessarily come from mind, then don’t we need to being doing something to change our perspective in order to get the feelings we want?
Loving the mind of gratitude
So really, becoming more grateful isn’t that hard, it’s more about learning a new habit. When we walk around with some sort of subconscious belief that we’re entitled to all the things we get and that they don’t come from anyone’s kindness how does it feel? Possibly not that amazing….
But by learning to feel grateful, even just for a few simple things, it’s quite incredible the effect it can have on our mind
Within the context of being grateful for something like the roads or running water it’s very easy to become cynical and think that, even though we benefit, we also pay for the courtesy. And sure, maybe we do have to pay for some of the things we benefit from, but taking them for granted doesn’t feel nearly as good as being appreciative
It’s as simple as becoming aware of what we currently take for granted, and instead appreciating it. In fact, every time we’re irritated about something we can see it as an opportunity to develop gratitude
So our shower is broken, but how wonderful we even have running water. Our back hurts, but how amazing is it that we can walk around without trouble. Someone criticised us, but how fortunate are we to be able to hear. The weather isn’t doing what we want, but how wonderful we can still breathe in the fresh air
Thinking in these ways naturally gives rise to a deep feeling of happiness and contentment, and as we continue to develop our minds of appreciation, then we also develop the wish to repay the kindness others may have shown us in any way, great or small
When we get in touch with this mind anything we do can give rise to feelings of joy, as we start to see how many things there are to be appreciative for. And when we can develop a habit of gratitude then our mind will be in a much better place, making it considerably easier to function and do what we need to without all the normal mental resistance
So why not give it a go? What have you got to lose? It’s not like anyone needs to know you’re becoming an optimistic person underneath. And learning to be more mindful of simple tools like these helps us to experience the peace and joy we’ve always been looking for