A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude
“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.” AN 2.118
As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators. Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude. I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.
Gratitude practice as an antidote to life’s challenges
One of the practices from James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course that I’ve continued to come back to is the daily exploration of gratitude.
A few years ago, I hesitantly brought this theme into the men’s prison where I was volunteering. I’d assumed that it would be a challenging practice for the men, given their circumstances. But to my surprise, almost as soon as I mentioned the word “gratitude,” every man there began to speak animatedly of the many different aspects of their lives that they appreciated. If it hadn’t been for the “movement bell” signalling the end of the session, the discussion could have kept going for hours.
Similarly, earlier this year I visited Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that experienced a devastating earthquake four years ago that flattened the city centre and killed 185 people. Our host told us that in her experience, after the earthquake there was a profound shift in people’s attitudes to life. One of the striking benefits was that people began to express a lot more gratitude; they no longer took anything for granted, and were grateful for even the smallest acts of kindness or generosity.
Daily gratitude email practice
One of the practices recommended in the Awakening Joy course is to work with a gratitude friend, and email each other a list of 5-10 things that you appreciated each day. I’ve been exchanging these (almost) daily gratitude emails with two friends for a few months now, and am still surprised that even on the most ordinary-seeming day, there are so many things to appreciate – when I turn my attention in that direction.
One of those friends is dealing with a major health challenge, and yet her gratitude list often exceeds the suggested 5-10 items. This inspires me to look more closely at my own life, and the more I look, the more I see. It’s quite magical!
Gratitude as a form of appreciative joy or mudita meditation
Gratitude in the form of appreciative joy or mudita is also one of the four brahma-vihara meditations that the Buddha recommended we practice regularly, to free the heart-mind from ill-will and aversion.
If you’d like to experiment with mudita practice, here’s a link to a guided meditation I gave at IMS last week:
Neuroscience benefits of gratitude
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …
One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
In honour of the Native American tradition of Thanksgiving
Excerpts from a Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address
Greetings to the Natural World
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue.
We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things.
So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.
[the address then continues with the following categories:]
The Earth Mother … the Waters … the Fish … the Plants … the Food Plants … the Medicine Herbs … the Animals … the Trees … the Birds … the Four Winds … the Thunderers … the Sun … Grandmother Moon … the Stars …
The Enlightened Teachers
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages.
When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people.
With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.
Now our minds are one.
[then The Creator …]
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words.
Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out.
If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.
Now our minds are one.
The full text is here:
May our minds be one in gratitude.