Early last June I took a class at my Buddhist meditation center on Generosity, and our first assignment was to find a “gratitude buddy” in the class with whom we could share daily gratitudes. Our teacher explained that generosity is closely connected to gratitude. Many in the class, including myself, felt that when feeling bereft or lacking in some way, it is harder to feel a generous spirit, but when we are feeling full and content, it’s easier to give. Appreciating what we have fills us up.
Gratitude does not come easily to me. I’m a “half-empty” kind of gal or what in Buddhism is called the “aversive type” – immediately seeing what’s wrong in a situation. A friend of mine once aptly explained it: if I focus on what’s positive, it feels like I’m not being a good critical thinker. Indeed for many years I resisted the approach of positive thinking as a kind of Pollyanna approach which glossed over the harsh reality of how things really are. I also had a rather harsh attitude toward myself, feeling like I “should” be grateful for all I had. Not surprisingly, this didn’t help me very much.
In that first class on generosity, I did find a gratitude buddy – a young woman whom I had not met before. We started emailing each other daily 3 things we were grateful for. I actually looked forward to sending my posts and reading hers – it was like a double shot of gratitude every day. And I almost always felt uplifted by the practice.
I know some people just name 1 gratitude per day, but I think that’s too easy! 3 things makes you dig a little deeper, especially on days where life doesn’t seem so good. When the external conditions are not going well, I usually land on the basics: I have friends who care about me, I am part of several loving communities, I am able to walk, I live in a comfortable apartment, the air outside is relatively clean etc. Sometimes I resort to what I don’t have: I don’t have cancer, I don’t have a grueling job, I got over my cold. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist teacher is famous for sharing his gratefulness for “a non-toothache.”
In the past, I have gone through short periods of writing down what I’m grateful for in a journal. This was helpful, but it often felt like a chore, and eventually the practice would peter out. Having a gratitude buddy makes it so much easier! My class on generosity has long since ended, but 6 months later, my buddy and I are still writing every day. Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I look through the older emails to remind me what is going well in my life and it lifts my spirits. And during the day, I more often notice something I’m grateful for, thinking, “Hey! I could write that in my gratitude email.” Occasionally one of us will miss a day or two of emailing, but then we just make it up by writing extra gratitudes the following day. Knowing that we are accountable to each other keeps us both on track
Gradually, I have come to see that gratitude is a way of re-directing my attention to what is good, without negating what is bad. Through mindfulness, I have seen that when my thoughts focus on what’s wrong, it makes me feel bad. When I feel bad, I think more negative thoughts, and on and on the cycle goes. For a brief period, this approach may lead me to try to make things better, but ultimately I just suffer more because there are a lot of things I can’t control. There will always be things wrong in my life and the world, but I have a choice about which thoughts to feed and where to focus my attention. A gratitude practice is proving to be a more sustainable route to happiness and generosity.