Practicing gratitude

Continuing along the line of this self-improvement post and inspired by reading Brene Brown’s books, I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of gratitude recently.

Brown points out that gratitude is not an attitude, but a behavior that we have to practice on a regular basis. Gratitude is the act of taking the time to appreciate what we have, rather than dwelling on what we don’t. By practicing gratitude, we change the filter through which we see the world – instead of seeing a world of scarcity where there’s not enough for everyone, we move to a world of sufficiency, where we have enough and we appreciate it.

She quotes Lynne Twist on moving from an attitude of scarcity to sufficiency:

We each have the choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.

Along those lines, I have read that a Buddhist teaching is that suffering is caused by desire (apologies in advance for my limited understanding here). We suffer when we desire something, when we dwell on the difference between what is and what could be. Moving towards an attitude of sufficiency reminds us to not dwell on that gap, and focus on what we have, today and now. Everything is impermanent, and we may lose even what we have today. That sounds like a good reason to practice gratitude.

My focus on gratitude is a result of reflecting during some recent time off on how lucky I am to have the life that I do. When I needed help, my friends and family stepped up. I work for a company that let me take the time I needed, and with a team that stepped up to cover for me while I was out. When I’m at work, I get paid well to do work I find interesting and challenging. I have a healthy body that has let me live my life with few restrictions, and enabled some ridiculous experiences last year. I have a life of privilege and I need to be thankful for the circumstances that led to that.

Practicing gratitude is having a positive filter on the way we see the world – looking for opportunities to be thankful for what I do have, and to thank those who make my life what it is. I have been trying to make it a practice that when I mention a friend in a positive context in conversation, I follow up by dropping a note to that friend to thank them (e.g. when I was at Overlap and people asked me how I had heard about Overlap, I was reminded to thank the friend who first introduced me to Overlap). It creates more opportunities for connection and for being appreciative of what is good in my life.

There are those who suffer from the Disease of More – they aren’t happy with what they have because they resent that somebody else has more. Or when they achieve something, they immediately look ahead to the next thing they haven’t done (okay, I have this tendency too). But this sort of negativity seeps into the soul – by focusing relentlessly on what one doesn’t have, it poisons any joy that one achieves. It also distorts how one sees the world – it’s a negative filter that blocks seeing the good that one has, and highlights what one doesn’t. It is not a very pleasant way to live, as each achievement is fleeting and meaningless in light of the next goal to achieve, and each moment of joy is outweighed by the perpetual grind of disappointment and yearning.

Another way of framing it might be that those with the Disease of More are playing a finite game, where they believe that somebody else has to lose for them to win. They don’t realize that we live in a non-zero-sum world, where we all benefit when we work together to “grow the pie” (expand the realm of possibilities). By practicing gratitude, I focus more on what is and what could be, and find more opportunities to connect to others for the benefit of all.

And to properly cap off a post on practicing gratitude, thanks to those of you out there who read these posts. Even though this blog is a vehicle for me to explore and document my own thinking, I really appreciate your feedback and commentary, as it sharpens my own thinking and forces me to clarify what is fuzzy. Thank you.

13 thoughts on “Practicing gratitude

  1. No, thank YOU 🙂

    One mini challenge. You said [By practicing gratitude I focus more on what is and what could be.] I’d suggest gratitude is more about what is THAN what could be; it’s a very present mindset. But we’re so forward-thinking — creative, world-changing, tikkun olam, think-of-the-possibilities — that it’s really really hard to experience true gratitude. In some respects, that perspective (thinking about what could be) is an *obstacle* to gratitude.

  2. Another common formulation of the Buddhist maxim is: Attachment is suffering — which seems to me to highlight even deeper levels of the struggle. Attachment is natural (says somebody who put his kids to bed not long ago), but I imagine it gets in the way of being present with that to which you would have yourself be attached.

  3. Most English translations of Buddhist texts do indeed say desire causes suffering, something I never found accorded with my personal experience of life. Recently, however, I read a translation which gave the key consequence of desire as being frustration. This accords better with real world experience, as desires are often unfulfilled or delayed, and gives a very different cast to Buddhist ideas.

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