This is the second post in a series I am sharing on gratitude. In my last post I introduced the power of gratitude with the latest research on it’s positive effects on impulse control, the health of our heart, brain, sleep patterns and even our finances. Today I will share some of my story on how I began this practice and it’s profound effects on my life.
At 17 in exploring different religions, spiritual practices and self help philosophies I came upon a book I can no longer find, “The Transformational Power of Gratitude” in Spanish. It was a book with personal essays from many of the big self help authors like Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay and Deepak Chopra. For the life of me I can’t remember the author. This was in the nineties so there was not the scientific research behind practicing gratitude as there is today.
I finished the book with the impression that it was all fluff and took up unnecessary space as one more airy fairy, ineffective idea added to the Barnes and Noble bookshelves. I was quite raw in my pain and anger in those days and very far from anything remotely close to feelings of gratitude, yet underneath my skepticism was a sparked curiosity.
Simple is Attractive
I was attracted to the concept because of it’s simplicity. I didn’t have to buy a series of classes to learn it from a “master”, I didn’t have to learn a whole new verbiage to read it’s sacred text or spend an hour every day visualizing white balls of light that transformed into green waterfalls that washed away my every “auric dark spot” etc. The instruction was to just say thanks.
The Practice Begins
I began writing every day what I was grateful for in a diary. It felt very fake and sarcastic at first. My entries would be something like what I mentioned in my last post “Thank you God for my overbearing parents, the pain they caused has gotten me desperate enough to try this stupid thing”. “Thank God for cliques in high school, because of them I have managed to be a complete loner and am better off!” etc. My teenage brain saw mostly everything as tragic and every know and then, amazing, as I remember it.
Within the first month I began experiencing a warmth stirring in my chest while writing. Warmth was much better then feeling painfully hollow, enraged or numb, so I kept at it.
The Fork in the Road
A few weeks into it I came to an emotional crossroads with a friend. We were chatting and in listening to her speak it was painfully clear that she was going down a road I was not willing to go down with her. She was making choices that I saw as having disastrous consequences. When I talked to her about how she could make different choices she pushed them aside and jokingly (and not so jokingly) asked me not to “…be such a drag”. This had come up before and as she gaily went on talking I internally gasped.
The Silent Choice
I made a choice right then and there that I needed to start distancing myself from her. She was headed towards a world of trouble that I couldn’t afford to get into. I was struggling just to live and not succumb to my own hopelessness (I’ve mentioned my struggles with depression in this post) and I had enough drama on my plate.
This was nothing less than tragic for me as I was already a lonely and reserved person struggling to grasp at any form of connection I could find. I saw in my mind’s eye how it would pan out. My not answering her phone calls and running into her saying I couldn’t hang out “cause I was busy”. At the time, I’d offer to get hit by a bus before being upfront and weather a confrontation, truth be told, being shady and cowardly was much easier. I could see her feeling slighted, confused than hurt. The sadness in my chest and shoulders felt heavy.
In that moment I remembered gratitude and made the decision to find something to be grateful for. The idea came that I was grateful for her friendship and positive impact on me up until then. I realized that in the time I knew her our connection had been a refuge in the storm of my life.
The Floodgates Open
What then followed happened in a matter of minutes at most. In the split second of internal effort to reach for gratitude (because it was effort) the heavy sadness lightened and that familiar stirring of warmth in my chest resurfaced. What followed was what I can only describe as a kind of dam that had been broken through within me by a powerful surge of deep joy, reverence, awe and euphoria.
Experiencing Something Bigger Than Myself
This feeling, energy, light… whatever you want to call it, thunderously coursed through me, unraveling me from the inside out at an intensity I could barely contain. An image came to me of a cloth held together by buttons and the cloth stretching as much as it could without the buttons snapping off. I was bursting at the seams. I began sobbing, from what felt like the very bottom of me, making my stomach tremble and heave.
A Vast and Wide Goodness Condensed into a Few Moments
In having reflected and wrestled with myself for years to describe this experience, the best I can come up with is this: everything I’d experienced as pure, true, good and virtuous such as holding a newborn baby, being cuddled by my grandma, standing next to the ocean for the first time, relief from the bitter, outside cold upon entering a warm space, smelling a fragrant rose, the victory of accomplishment after persistent toil, dancing with family at weddings, a rib aching belly laugh; had incited my highest peak positive emotions and were condensed in an inner climax within seconds that felt like eternity.
My friend stopped talking mid sentence in shock and hugged me, asking what was wrong as I choked on my tears. I couldn’t speak. How to describe such ecstasy? In those moments all my pain, held resentments and questions were small and unimportant in the light of such vast, consuming amazingness. In those moments everything and everyone was perfect, doing the best they could, life was a miracle and all was well.
It felt like some sort of baptism had occurred and I was permanently different from that point on. How could I not be? I had sought to be as still as I could physically be, in silence and solitude in the days that followed, as if my insides had been reorganized and I was very fragile.
Life crudely conveyed, this was not the case.
My ugly issues were still easily triggered by those same people I only, days before, had seen as perfect and complete. “Vast amazingness! Where are you?!!” I’d inwardly yell to the universe in the middle of a heated interaction”
Years Spent Trying to Understand
It took years of more experience and life lessons to understand that that experience is not something I could incite and trigger as much as I tried, since then.
It was a gift of seeing what life could be like if I had the capacity to accept life as the miracle that it was, all the time. Until then, I had to do the work to make this kind of perception, this grateful perception, a habit. The intensity of this experience let me know that the effort would be worth it.
Fear Creates a Detour
Although the fear and puzzlement of not understanding this cataclysmic event led me to stop the practice a year into college, my questions regarding this experience still guided my decisions in self exploration and self care up until now. Almost as if I needed some distance from the practice as a whole to try to understand it.
Knowing what I know now, I regret not having continued the practice and wonder what I would have lived had I continued. Coming across research on gratitude in the recent 3 years renewed my appreciation of it and dedication to making it a staple in my daily habits.
Before I close this post I will leave you with this one thing I know to be true from this experience in the hopes that it will be useful to those of you in pain right now.
There is a special opportunity available to us when in the midst of pain that is not present at any other time. Somehow being in touch with that vulnerable part of ourselves (that many times only pain can incite) and choosing to go against the knee jerk reaction to contract and coil into the fetal position by instead softening into it with gratitude, unleashes power.
In the next post I will share more about this.
If you found this post helpful take a second to share, like or comment. As always thank you for stopping by, until next time!