Most of us like to hear the words “thank you”, especially when we’ve done something nice for others, and we also give them out quite frequently to family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, clients, bosses, colleagues, and employees when they’ve done something for us. But we hardly ever think of expressing gratitude to others as a wellness practice—it’s more of a custom or ritual. Perhaps, many any of us are not truly aware of its real and profound value in both attitude and words. For example, while “the path of gratitude” usually reminds us of saying “thanks” for all the good things in our lives, how would we benefit from this approach if we expressed thankfulness for both the good and the bad? Would it be a high road to somewhere or nowhere?
Treading the path of gratitude involves not only the good and the bad experiences of life, but also the past, the present, and the future. As the old saying goes, “leave no stone unturned.” After all, value can come from anywhere at any time. We’re more likely, however, to start with the past because it’s where the dreadful skeletons exist in the form of painful memories or phobic sensations as well as the highlights of our lives. All the while, though, we may be overlooking the dragons and positive aspects of the present that deserve our gratitude as well. Moreover, things that will most certainly occur in the phenomenal world of our future also merit our attention—for example, death.
Of course, as we go about using gratitude to mine the depths of our past experiences, we might be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised about what it uncovers and how it makes us work. Delighted to say “thank you” to the good memories, we could discover numerous things within them which border on the sad or otherwise upsetting. For example, receiving awards for deeds well done while we notice that others were either left out, put out, or absent from the ceremony celebrating us—however, this is our opportunity to express gratitude to them as well. Just saying “thanks” to them may cause us to empathize and experience their hardship in seeing us rewarded, to even uncover the unapparent. For example, as Aung San Suu Kyl, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, so rightly states, “It is from hardship rather than ease that we gather wisdom.” Thus, this revelation might help us to be more inclusive when we receive accolades in the future.
On the other hand, expressing gratitude to the bad memories, at first, could dredge up more than we’ve bargained on, and that’s why we should take our time going into this part of the practice, starting with the general and not so painful before taking on the specific and especially horrible experiences of the past. We’ll find there are real payoffs in facing these adversities again. Just as Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, says, “In our hardships, we discover the courage not to succumb, not to retreat, not to strike out in fear and anger. And by resting in a non-contentious heart we become a lamp, a medicine, a strong presence; we become the healing . . .” And that’s what this work is really about. Therefore, when working with really difficult or tragic recollections, initially it’s not necessary to look at them directly but just approach the sensations associated with them with an attitude of gratitude and curiosity. This is a desensitizing process. It may be necessary to engage and disengage numerous times before it’s possible to look at what we recall straight on and say “thank you.” Wisdom and/or a reciprocal feeling of gratitude, in my experience, frequently arise as a result of right effort.
For example, just this morning, I was recalling and saying “thank you” to a really difficult person for whom I had worked in the military. At the beginning of this experience, I found all the feelings of the past were coming back (hate, anger, fear, and the desire to strike out). However, as I continued to repeat “thank you,” I also noticed the sensation of grasping for my personal being, an attempt to protect myself. Almost immediately, I realized there was no self to grasp or be protected. How liberating it was to observe such a release from suffering, see the trauma my ex-boss was undergoing in trying to protect his own being, realize that neither one of us were independent of the other, and know that none of this hardship had been necessary. It was as if the veil had been pulled back, causing an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and compassion for the other person.
Consequently, we learn that returning to the past and expressing “thank you” is essential in resolving difficult situations. Here are a few that I offer as examples:
-the slap on the child’s face that allows the adult child to see the emotional pain of his father and feel compassion for him
-the cold and wretched fear of the dark in the stomach of a three-year-old, in an old farmhouse in the middle of the night, which permits him to find peace with his shadow side as an adult
-the experience of touching the bottom of a drinking problem that allowed a person to leave the path toward alcoholism and continue to realize prolonged sobriety
-the divorce that inspired a person to improve his or her ability and willingness to function in healthy relationships
-a mother’s threats to send her child to the reform school to deal with teenage rebellion, which resulted in “showing her” he could become a law abiding citizen
Coming back to the present, perhaps we realize more than ever the value of expressing gratitude now rather than waiting for years to do something so important. It’s not only essential to do in person but can also to be practiced effectively when we’re alone in what is called vertical time; that is, we recall the person and/or the event as we’re sitting, backs straight, and focused in the present. Beginning with the good things in life, we say “thank you” knowing that such a feeling of gratitude will expand and carry over to help the people around us feel better too. Subsequently, we take the things and people that are bothering us and start “thanking them” as well. Not only will we feel better but we’ll also know, according to Carlos Casteñeda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, when to depart from the tyrants in our life. As we convert our negative feelings into gratitude for the difficulties in our current reality, we may very well restore loving relationships, keep our jobs or get better ones, eliminate fights with teenage children, and find inner peace. This kind of practice is endless in its rewards.
Finally, expressing gratitude for the future by bringing it into the present includes contemplating what will definitely come true—the loss of life, the loss of possessions, the loss of being able to achieve everything we want, and the loss of loved ones and dear friends. Initially, there may be a lot of sadness in this part of the practice—kind of like saying goodbye to experiences before you ever have them—it’s a real letting go. From a practical standpoint, it may simplify your life, help you to appreciate those close to you much more than you do now, and assist you to become more introspective. Quality time will enjoy a much higher priority. Discarding what you truly don’t need will become more commonplace. The preciousness of people, just as an old friend of mine, Jean, used to say, will become such a reality that you’ll treat them with an enhanced level of loving friendliness and kindness.
I would surmise that by now, especially if you’ve already started practicing, the path of gratitude will have become a high road to a better place in life. Finding out that saying “thanks” to people and events of the past, present, and future does begin to uncover the stones; however, the truth is they’re almost endless. Discovering the wisdom and joy in this exercise, we also develop the valor not to give up, not to flee, and not to lash out in alarm and rage, for we know gratitude is forthcoming. Thank you!