Nourishing Gratitude

I grew up on the east coast, where the cool air and rust-colored leaves of autumn always evoked feelings of appreciation for the crisp beauty and fading light, mixed with a sense of nostalgia. As Thanksgiving approaches, we can use this time to reflect on and cultivate gratitude.

The emotion of gratitude reveals the treasure of an all too often forgotten word: enough. Gratitude practice runs counter to our culture of consumption, competition, and achievement. It also runs counter to the negativity bias that is so pervasive in our minds—always noticing what's wrong, what's missing. Gratitude is, by definition, deeply connected with a sense of presence and contentment.

The legacy and origins of this classic, American holiday are clearly mixed. What has been enshrined in the mythology of our school history books as a time of generosity and good will simultaneously marks the beginning of a dark period of attempted genocide, stolen land, and broken treaties.

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One question that comes out of this awareness is how to find more harmonious ways to live. Gratitude is a key part of learning to live together and share resources on this planet, for noticing that which we appreciate uplifts the heart, strengthens resilience, and brings contentment. 

We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world. 
— Joanna Macy

Three Steps of Gratitude Practice

Reflecting on gratitude can be hugely supportive for one’s meditation practice, and bring a lot of happiness and joy into one’s life. At various times, I’ve spent a period of my early morning meditation recollecting gratitude, or kept an evening gratitude journal. The practice has always nourished, warmed, and uplifted my heart.

The basic practice of gratitude has three simple steps:

  1. Settle your body and mind; collect your attention in the present moment.
  2. Recall something specific that you appreciate—the more concrete and tangible, the better. Instead of "having food," consider something delicious you ate recently, or any food that's in your cupboard.
  3. Enjoy the feelings and sensations that arise; let them spread through your body.

I like to use the image of striking a bell to explain this process. Step one is holding the bell. Step two is striking the bell. Step three is listening to the resonant sound as it moves through you. You can use this process during your formal meditation practice, or to keep a gratitude journal.

Below is a short, guided meditation on gratitude. You can use this as its own practice, or integrate it into the beginning or end of a period of meditation. I hope it’s supportive, and wish you well during this season of thanksgiving.

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A version of this article was originally posted at Mindfulschools.org, where Oren works as a Senior Program Developer. Mindful Schools is a nonprofit organization training educators worldwide to practice and teach mindfulness.