Gratitude in a Changing World

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When we are young, our parents teach us to be grateful. This, in turn, teaches us that gratitude exists in the mind, that it is an emotion that can be forced into existence by saying “thank you” often enough. But even children may suspect that this is not the case. After all, we are forced to say grace whether it is broccoli or ice cream on the table, and to say “thank you” whether we receive a shiny bike or an ugly pair of socks under the Christmas tree. 

In this regard, gratitude is not simply saying, “thank you,” any more than loving is the act of saying, “I love you” over and over again. We may wish it were so, but gratitude is not something that we can convince ourselves that we feel. Why? Because gratitude exists in our inner self and there is no convincing the heart of what it does not feel. As the saying goes, the heart has its reasons that the mind does not understand. Yet, we still try to force gratitude of the heart when we should focus on simply allowing it to be instead.

Indeed, forcing is not only counterproductive, but totally antithetical to the idea of gratitude. By definition, gratitude must be spontaneous and joyful—not fraught with expectation and stress. Nevertheless, the temptation to intellectualize emotion is ever present in our society, in large part because so many of us have lost touch with our hearts by living in our heads all of the time. 

In order to experience gratitude, then, we must first learn to give our “head” (i.e., our mind) a well-deserved rest. A quick “thank you” might be a good start, in the same vein that tidy guru Marie Kondo “thanks” piles of unneeded possessions before they are discarded. After all, it is our “head” that has allowed us to learn all kinds of things, to accomplish all sorts of things, and to appreciate all manner of things. Our “head” puts money in our bank account and food on our table.

Still, our “head” will not allow us to be grateful. It is far too busy protecting us, worrying about dangers imagined and real, and practicing cynicism. So, we must leave our “head” behind for a little while, but consciously so. Somehow, we need to stop thinking while simultaneously maintaining our awareness, and then connect with our heart.

How?

Prayer is a popular way to connect with our inner self. Meditation is another, but the shortest distance between “head” and “heart” is what I call intermittent silence. Don’t worry, this is not like intermittent fasting, where you deny yourself something only to spend hours thinking of nothing else. Yes, intermittent silence is a means, but its “end” is gratitude. Allow me to clarify by exploring how intermittent silence can be practiced.

First, become comfortable. Acquaint yourself with your surroundings. Whether you are alone in the midst of a quiet forest. or crammed in a loud apartment does not matter. You will find the silence within yourself.

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Next, close your eyes and breathe. Be conscious of the oxygen entering your body and the toxins leaving it with each cycle of your breath. Imagine fingers of sunlight stretching down through gaps in the trees and a stream flowing beside you. This stream is your consciousness. Observe it without analyzing it. Realize that your thoughts can exist outside of yourself. Don’t judge them; recognize them, and then allow them to pass.

Now, conjure a small table next to where you are sitting. Consider all of your accomplishments, as well as those things that you never did but have not yet let go of, and set these on the table. Observe both these categories in the same way—without judgment. Realize that you are not them, and that they are not you.

Then, build a fire and feed all of these things to the flames, one by one. Throw in your expectations and fears for good measure, as well as your ego if you can. You will feel so much lighter now, as though you could soar to new heights. Don’t let go of this feeling. Embrace it.

When you feel ready, open your eyes. You may feel joy, or you may feel incredible warmth, though neither sensation is (nor should be) forced. A smile may have formed without effort. Somehow, you have let go of everything you thought was you. You escaped your mind, even for a short while. Gratitude should be all that is left. 

Krishna Bhatta is an author, surgeon, and inventor, currently practicing as chief of urology at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine.

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