Reflections on Gratitude – Even for the Hard Stuff

With Thanksgiving upon us in the U.S., let’s remind ourselves of what this holiday is about.  Linda Graham, MFT, explores the use of gratitude as a buffer and offers tools to help practice gratitude even in the most difficult situations.

Gratitude works its magic – to buffer us from falling into swamps of grudge, trauma and suffering in the first place, or pulling ourselves out of those swamps once we’ve woken up to knowing that we’re not in our right mind or heart space anymore – by bringing us to the experiences of loving awareness and loving presence from which we can respond to confusion, despair, fear, hurt, threat, more wisely.

Gratitude is one of the most direct ways to find our way to a loving awareness of this Being-ness because it immediately brings us into the arc of presence – openness – connectedness with all there is that helped us become all of who we are – acceptance of all that is-ness, that leads to an inner peace and well-being that is the wellspring of love and wise action.

“Gratitude practice taps us into the energy field of life itself, from which comes all joy, compassion, forgiveness, etc.”  (October 2010 newsletter)

From this energy field of life itself, we can move from being well to faring well in the world.

1- Gratitude to soften grudge

If you’re like me, or my clients, or my friends, holidays may be a mixture of anticipated delight and dread.  You may have to re-engage with a parent or sibling who could still be shamingly critical or derisive, or even just negative, with no awareness or accountability for the pain they are inflicting.  Some gratitude practices that might be helpful:

  • Read your own signals of when it’s safe to connect and when it’s not. I.e., knowing from within when it’s safe to be open and when it’s best to have a good boundary.  After years of practice, I can finally, finally catch the wave in my body that says “uh-oh, this doesn’t feel safe, I’m outta here,” that has me walking out the door and around the block before I’m even aware I’ve left the conversation.  Focus on your heart, your presence, your attitude, your behavior.
  • Find something to appreciate, right now, about the person you feel like clobbering with a frying pan.  That they held the door for you as you walked into the house even though they didn’t pay attention to anything you said.  Or they’re being attentive to their 4 year old even though they have no bandwidth for anyone else. Or remembering that a year ago they surprised the heck out of you by getting your daughter the poodle puppy she had so yearned for.
  • Find something to appreciate, right now, about the connection, the dynamic between you and this person, which may simply be “I get to practice patience right now” or “I get to practice compassion right now” or “I am moving 20 minutes closer to sainthood right now.”
  • Find something to forgive right now.  When you’re struggling to be tolerant rather than contentious with someone, imagine this person as a vulnerable one year old, or a greedy two year old, or a defiant three year old, or a full-of-life ten year old, or a confused sixteen year old, or a desperate to find a direction in life twenty year old.  (Which may be who’s actually driving this person’s behavior in the current moment.)  Allow your heart to open to the more vulnerable version of the person you are struggling with, seeing your grudge in this larger perspective, encompassing all of the person and letting the grudge soften.

Savor the gratitude for your own practice of softening the grudge and easing your heart.

2-Gratitude to heal trauma

I’m part of a clinical study group developing an integrative model for treating trauma; this past week my colleague Joanna spoke of “embracing the defensive structures,” meaning:

We all use our innate survival responses of fight-flight-freeze-collapse when our resources for coping through connection are overwhelmed or we perceive connections themselves to be unsafe.  These survival responses are hard-wired into our body-brains in utero. They operate much faster than our adult conscious appraisals of yes-no, green light – red light could possibly operate.  When one or all of those survival responses gets repeatedly encoded in our developing neural circuitry (my early-learned pattern of regulating the anxiety coming up in  a conversation by walking out the door for fresh air still coming up, unknowingly, when I am perfectly safe in a conversation now) or when traumatizing events like betrayal or violence lock those survival response patterns into our body memory, our normal openness and expansiveness of resilience and well-being can be blocked by these contracted survival defenses.

Gratitude plays a key role in unpacking and re-wiring these trauma responses by de-pathologizing them.  No shame-blame-weakness in normal responses to abnormal,Reflections on Gratitude - Even for the Hard Stuff terrifying, or toxic circumstances.  In fact, we can be grateful that these innate survival responses did allow us to survive, even if they constrict us or cause their own suffering later down the road.  By becoming conscious…and compassionate…and accepting…and embracing of those mechanisms that kept us afloat, even though they sometimes threaten to sink us now, we soften our grudge toward ourselves, or toward the traumatizing events, and deepen into the place in our hearts and minds that can resolve and let go of the trauma and the defenses against the trauma.  Embracing our defenses as they are, even while choosing to use other more adaptive coping strategies now, does re-wire the brain, does change our conscious relationship to those habitual patterns now, does create conscious, alternative choices.  (See Exercises to Practice below for examples of how to do this.)

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.  – Carl Rogers

3-Gratitude to move through suffering with grace

Suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition and human conditioning.  Gratitude helps us move through our suffering with more grace and peace of mind and heart:

  • Allowing us a respite from the suffering, even for a few moments.    Gratitude drops us into a space where our survival patterns of responding to hurt, danger, life threat aren’t operating, at least for a few moments.

When my brother was in the hospital with life-threatening and painful blood clots, those moments he and I spent on the phone every day in gratitude practice gave him a much needed respite from the pain and fear, not because the gratitude was a distraction but because it moved him into a state of mind and heart where the pain and fear weren’t operating.

  • “Waking up” to the larger perspective and learning the lessons hidden within the suffering.

One of my favorite teaching stories of all time is the story of the Chinese Farmer and the Horse, from the Zen tradition.

A Chinese farmer has a horse; his neighbor comes over to visit and exclaims, Oh, how fortunate that you have a horse!”  The Chinese farmer non-committally says, “We’ll see.”  The next day the horse runs away.  The neighbor comes over to offer his sympathy.  “Oh, how unfortunate that you’ve lost your horse.”  The Chinese farmer again says non-committally, “We’ll see.”  The next day the horse returns to the farmer, bringing a new mare with him.  The neighbor rushes over to congratulate the farmer. “Oh, how fortunate!  Now you have two horses!”  The Chinese farmer replies as before, “We’ll see.”  The next day the farmer’s son is out riding the mare to break it in; the mare throws him and he breaks his leg.  The neighbor comes over as before, “Oh, how unfortunate.  Your son has broken his leg!”  The Chinese farmer replies, “We’ll see.”

A month later the army comes through the area recruiting soldiers.  They can’t accept the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.  The neighbor again comes over to sympathize, “Oh, how fortunate!  Your son doesn’t have to go into the army!”  The Chinese farmer again replies, “We’ll see.”

The story continues on.  We learn to keep an open mind about any particular event; we don’t always know how fortunate or unfortunate any particular circumstance is.  But the equanimity that comes from being grateful, at least accepting of every experience, every moment, no matter our initial view of it, brings us to the larger perspective that we often don’t know in the moment the opportunities hidden in what appears to be monolithic tragedy or trauma.  We often say, as my friend Paula did after suddenly losing her job of seven years in an unforeseen downsizing of her company,  ” I wouldn’t wish the pain and suffering of those days on anyone, and there’s no way I could have known at the time how things would turn out, and things don’t always turn out for the better, but losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never would have found my deeper dream of having my own photography studio if I had stayed there another 10 years out of being scared to leave.”

  • Maturing ourselves through the suffering itself.  From three of my favorite wisdom teachers:

Gratitude in our darkest times is more than a matter of remembering our blessings so we can hold the hard stuff in a bigger perspective.  With understanding, we see that often it is the suffering itself that deepens us, maturing our perspective on life, making us more compassionate and wise than we would have been without it.  How many times have we been inspired by those who embody a wisdom that could only come from dealing with adversity?  And how many valuable lessons have we ourselves learned because life has given us unwanted challenges?  With a grateful heart, we’re not only willing to face our difficulties, we can realize while we’re going through them that they are a part of our ripening into wisdom and nobility.   – James Baraz

The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening.  The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you.  The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface.  And that becomes the moment of truth.  You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.  – Pema Chodron

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.  It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.   – Melodie Beattie

Gratitude is simply one of the most effective tools we have over the long haul to reliably soften grudge, resolve trauma and move through suffering with grace.