Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gratitude: A Spiritual and Mental Health Practice

Something I would uniformly recommend to anyone whose looking for positive transformation in their life is to practice gratitude more frequently.  It's a bold, probably over reaching statement but I'm going to break down how I use gratitude and how others could use it as a helpful tool, whether or not they incorporated it  as part of a spiritual practice. 

For me gratitude is in part a spiritual practice.  Beyond identifying things that are going well in my life that I'm pleased about, it's about thanking a higher power for those moments and acknowledging their presence in my life.   Not all of my gratitude work involves the divine, but I do tie a lot of my work back into my faith. 

For those of us who spiritually practice gratitude as part of our conversation with our Gods(esses) and Guides, we usually have a daily practice that includes giving thanks.  My personally gratitude practice happens twice daily.  I start in the morning as I prepare for work and settle my dog.  It's part of how I start my morning dialogue with the divine.  I don't always have time to light candles, make offerings, say long prayers, or even do a simple tarot reading--though I often tell myself I should get up earlier to make myself available to do these things.  I always have time for a quiet good morning, I feel healthy, the dog seems well, it's beautiful outside (maybe), I'm running on time to work, thank you.  Exactly what I say varies based on what's true, but that's fairly standard format.  

The end of the day has more ceremony.  I can make offerings and light candles.  I can speak directly to individuals.  I'm trying to get back into tarot and meditation, though that is hit and miss depending on my mental level, the dog's needs and the mate's needs of me that day.  I often have more concrete things that happened to me during the day to talk about either in joy that they happened or as an opportunity for me to continue my work.  

I don't think there is a god or human being who wouldn't benefit or appreciate five minutes in the morning and five in the evening talking about what was a win for them (even if it's just enjoying the weather or a silly text).  

That's a huge aspect of practice for me.  Working gratitude doesn't have to be something big.  It doesn't have to be something I've earned.  It doesn't have to be something meant just for me.  It doesn't even have to be a change from one day to another.  I have been grateful for and mentioned in some way my dog, my family, and my mate pretty much every single day, usually more than once a day and I'm never less grateful or sincere in my utter joy to have them as part of my life.

The practice of gratitude is very informal, which makes it accessible to all people at all times.  You don't have to write it down or even speak it out loud.  There is no wrong time to start working gratitude.  There is literally no religious practice I know of that frowns on acknowledging things that helped make today special.

Beyond my spiritual practice, I use the formal written version of gratitude as an excellent  "interupter".  Am I hyper focusing on a bad moment and fixating on one wrong thing?  Time to sit down pull out my small portable notebook with colorful pen and write down at least three things I'm glad for today.

Did someone's offhand comment or text start spiraling me into a land of upset and hurt?  Again time to re-direct my emotions from that one element into something going well. This isn't me trying to run from every confrontation, but instead it's me trying to get myself in a mental space where I can describe without hurt of offense what upset me to others. It's been a very useful tool for me, and I think it could do the same for others.

Have I caught myself eating a bunch of terrible junk food or craving that extra coffee, then its time to stop and write three things I'm happy about.  One of those three things is always that no matter when in process I caught myself, even if it's right after I indulged and there's nothing I can do to take back those empty calories, I'm grateful I noticed because I can't correct a problem I don't notice. 

My practice with gratitude has further opened my natural empathy.  Instead of leaving me hurt and drained through understanding where another is coming from, as it once did, the experiences energize me and help me to see dispassionately what I can do to help or when there is nothing I can do but listen.  I feel less powerless in these encounters and I feel less guilty about any potential privilege I have that has allowed me to escape or navigate around the situations these people are in.

More than any mediation to create a barrier for a sensitive person, or any "I am" affirmation.  Just taking a moment to acknowledge good things has helped stabilize me and make me more able to constructively work with others.  I think part of it was me coming from a place of mental strength, but part of it is seeing how others are not always coming from an authentic natural center for themselves.  When people are in pain or under pressure, they do not always make healthy choices for themselves or those around them.  We do have some control on how they impact us in part by controling how we respond.  I think my gratitude has helped me know better how to respond to others in crisis. 

My gratitude has helped solidify what I value in my own mind.  I was surprised by some of what I found, and joyful at the gradual organic process which led me here.  Things that have hurt me a lot in life include relationships with my family, and it was a huge surprise to me to realize that part of why they hurt me so deeply was because these relationships are something I am deeply grateful for, but also something I am not truly authentic within.  The dissonance between my value and my ability to present 100% of who I am within the relationship is the source of strife.  This is why I have shown preference to chosen relationships with people I carefully vetted before accepting and showing all of myself before vs family relationships that I value as greatly but am less able to predict.

I was surprised to learn how linked my guilt and gratitude are.  The same things that make me feel good about myself and comfortable in the way I live also make me feel guilty that others don't have something they would value this way.  I do live with a certain level of privilege in my life.  Most people do, as this worlds isn't about what we earned or deserved but about a lot of fickle circumstances beyond any individual's control. I hadn't been aware of how bad I felt to have good things, which is something I'm working through still.

 I think within the capitalist system and  in the US in particular guilt and want is a tool used to manipulate people.  There is always something more you need to be complete.  You could always be doing better and if you don't want more or better you should feel bad.  See if you have enough, you need to feel bad because others don't have enough, which forces us into a mentality of needing more just so we don't have to feel bad about feeling satisfied.

  This culture is toxic.  To combat it, we need (or at least I need) to start sending our own messages of joy, completeness, and the idea that what we have has worth beyond being a stepping stone to something more. Ideally I think gratitude could be best when we come together as a group to be thankful for aspects of our life and to support others gratitude for what they have.  This next step though is something I lack community for at the moment, but think there would be power to be leveraged in such a gathering.

This doesn't mean that we need to stop working for better in our lives and the lives around us. It just means we don't have to be mindlessly chased from one project to another.  We should be glad for at least some part of where we are and we should do our best to rejoice in the journey.  After all we are alive and we are in a position to grow and seek more that makes us happy, what a wonderful place to start a journey in gratitude.

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