The Contemplative Gift of Gratitude
“If the only prayer you say in your life is “thank you,” that would suffice.”–Meister Eckhart
A few weeks ago, one of my friends developed pneumonia. Her doctor instructed her to call 911 to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Already living with a compromised immune system, this illness threatened her life. And yet, as her conditioned worsened that week, she decided to deal with the situation with an attitude of gratitude.
A few minutes later, she opened the door to five paramedics who started oxygen and she began thanking them. Once in the hospital, she made a point of expressing her gratitude to everyone caring for her. She felt so grateful for those who cared for her when she needed help. She acknowledged their willingness to put their lives at risk to serve during these pandemic times. When she returned home on the seventh day, she continued maintaining an attitude of gratitude.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude transforms life into an experience of grace. By giving thanks, one focuses the mind on the positive aspect, thereby creating positive energy of spirit and health in the body. During this month in which we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to encourage you to maintain an attitude of gratitude and experience firsthand this goodness and grace.
The people of the Bible include this practice in their life of prayers. The worship book of the Hebrews (Psalms) brims with gratitude. The Psalmist recommends: “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praises on the harp to our God.” (Psalm 147:7). When Jesus heals the 10 lepers, only one returns to give thanks. He tells the grateful Samaritan that his faith has made him well (Luke 17). The epistles include instructions to give thanks. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6). Also in Thessalonians 5:18, we read: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Recent scientific discoveries within quantum physics suggest the observer influences what happens. Our outlook on life transforms not only our inner world, but also events and people around us. When we choose gratitude as a daily practice, we cultivate joy for ourselves and others.
We’re all human. It is very easy to dwell on the negatives in life. It’s hard not to be anxious, angry and frustrated in 2020. But these are times when we also desperately need spiritual practices that help us cope and move forward with hope. I believe gratitude to be one of those practices.
For many years now, I begin my day with journaling and meditation. Almost always, I give thanks the gift of a new day. Life shines with such a sacred quality in this early hour. I go on to remember special moments, people, learnings, events, answers to prayer from my previous day. Such a gift to start my day with these smiles.
I remember an older friend, a woman in my church, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer at 88. She asked me, “Nancy, is it wrong to say that I’m thankful for cancer? If I never got this illness, I would never have known how people feel about me.”
Why was she so happy? Because our pastor told us in church one Sunday that she was lonely and we should visit her. I did. As I sat with her, I decided to make an appreciation book for her.. I asked church friends to fill out a sheet and return it to me, filling in the blank for several prompts. “What I appreciate about you is…”, “Thank you for…”, “My prayer for you is…”, “A special memory I have with you is…” I made a little photo album with pictures and these comments for this woman, and suddenly, she knew that the people in our church truly appreciated her smile, her kind words, her presence with us each Sunday. She kept it by her bedside, reading it again and again. “If I didn’t get sick, I never would have known how they felt about me, Nancy,” she told me. It’s one of the mysteries of the contemplative life that ripples of goodness extend out from one life into another when we take time to express appreciation and thanks.
Another way I practice gratitude is on Thanksgiving each year. Instead of writing a list of five things, I challenge myself to go to 100. The first time I did this, I noticed my whole body felt lighter and happier that day. As gratitude shifts the inner self to joy, it affects not only the mind and spirit, but also our physical selves. Such a very good way to live.
These days, there are so many books written on this topic. A book I found transformative is by Barry Neil Kaufman, Happiness is a Choice (1994). When Barry and his wife gave birth to a severely disabled child, they were instructed to put the child into an institution. But they chose to ignore that advice and to choose happiness, welcoming the child as a gift which became transformative for them, eventually writing about it to share their story of joy. I gave this book to my mother in her later years after I read it. A month later, she learned her breast cancer had spread to her tailbone. I didn’t think she had time to read the book, and I never would have given it to her after her diagnosis. But in fact, she did read it and proceeded to write a letter to me and other close family members, asserting that she was choosing happiness in the time she had left. She instructed us to help her laugh when we came to visit, rather than to cry. When we visited, my sons would read her jokes. We played games and laughed. We watched funny movies and tv shows. And my mother’s cancer disappeared.
My writing coach, Kathie Giorgio, experienced several whammies in recent years, including an assault while walking her dogs by a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in the week after the presidential election of 2016. Not wanting to give in to despair, she made a commitment to blog each day about one thing for which she was grateful in the midst of very difficult times. She called it “Today’s Moment of Happiness Despite the News.” Shortly thereafter, she received a diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer, and then her husband lost his job, taking with it her health insurance. The blog became quite popular and her publisher turned it into a book, Today’s Moment of Happiness Despite the News (2019). She says now that this practice saved her life.
Here are some suggestions for a personal practice of gratitude. And I’d love to hear other strategies you have to be thankful and how gratitude transforms your life. May Thanksgiving this year launch you into a life brimming with gratitude into 2021 and beyond.
Suggestions for a Personal Gratitude Practice
- Pick a time each day to give thanks. If you already have a journaling practice, incorporate that into your journal. If not, consider keeping a small notebook by your bed and make a list of five things from the day for which you are grateful, every night before you go to bed. Or if you prefer, do it when you first wake up. Take time once a week, perhaps on Sunday, to read over the gifts of your week.
- Take time to give thanks for the food before you eat. Consider not only a general note of thanks, but for the gifts and miracle of the Earth, for those who harvested, for the animals who gave their lives, for all the workers who labored to get this food to your table, and also give thanks for the ways the food will nourish your body and give you energy for your day.
- Make a habit of writing thank you notes and appreciating the people in your life.
Find a chapter on the contemplative practice of Gratitude, as well as other contemplative practices, in my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit.