In a fiercely individualistic world it is easy to believe we make everything happen by our own efforts. Whether it is the success of business endeavors, the accomplishments of our children at school, or the provision of the food on our table, we train ourselves to say, “this is mine”. Even if it is not our intent or desire to cultivate self-centeredness, it is a natural consequence of the way society is structured and aligned.
Such autonomy is an inaccurate reflection of an interdependent world, so it will eventually crack. And it also builds barriers between us and those around us, reducing the opportunity for love and connection. Recognizing the contribution of others to your life, cultivating the ability to say “thank you”, has the power to transform your life from one of external success to one of internal harmony, love and happiness. (And there is no reason why you can’t be externally successful at the same time!) Here is some structure for bringing gratitude into your life:
Three Reasons To Say “Thank You”
- Cultivating Gratitude: To say, as a typical Christian meal grace might, “Thank you for this food….for bringing us together to spend time with our friends…for the opportunity to do this work…” is to cultivate gratitude towards the divine. Alternatively a Buddhist meal gatha which begins, “This food is the gift of the earth, the sky and lots of hard work, may we consider how it comes to us,” also opens up the heart to appreciation for everything that supports our life. However you approach it, whatever structure for gratitude you find works for you, finding regular times and places to practice and develop it is a reinforcing virtuous cycle that builds an ever-increasing appreciation for the wonder of your life, a joy in the opportunity this gives to live and experience and help others.
- Cultivating Mindfulness: Whenever you intentionally say “thank you”, you are bringing your attention and awareness to both the object and to the fact of your gratitude. By stopping to say “thank you,” you are moving away from taking your life for granted. When you pause and notice the process of living, as well as the details that make it up, you are breaking the chain of unconscious behavior, of being governed by your instincts and ego. A similar move in Islam is to follow every suggestion of a future act (e.g. “See you tonight”) with “Insh’allah”, which means “If it pleases God”, a reminder that while we can do much, it is not in our power to make or define the future, that our successes and failures are not entirely of our own creation.
- Feeling Connected: Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Interbeing” to describe the way that we are all interconnected with each other and with the whole universe. Your body, quite literally, contains atoms that once were part of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), and the historical Buddha…as well as Genghis Khan and Confucius! The computer on which you are reading this was manufactured and delivered to you by people who came into being through the food they ate and the water they drank: none of this would have been possible without the great causes of the universe, and the universe itself. The electricity that powered the factory in which the computer was manufactured derived from water or fossil fuels, again connecting in a couple of short steps to the entirety of creation. This message you are reading on your computer screen could not be here without the entire universe, without the great causes usually labeled “God”.
Five Times To Say Thank You
- Having a Meal: This is perhaps the most obvious and easiest time for remembrance. Saying grace, or a meal gatha, or in other ways offering appreciation for the food we are about to eat and the company with which we are about to eat, is a time-honored practice in many cultures, faiths and traditions. But whether or not you want to engage in any of these lineages, I’d suggest that something magical happens when you eat food, especially when you eat with others. In an important sense, physically you literally become the food you eat. It’s a great time to pause, to reflect, and to say “thank you” – even if you quietly intone it under your breath!
- Taking A Drink: In an age of tapped water – or even more privileged, bottled water! – seemingly everywhere, and with a Starbucks or McDonalds on every corner, not only need one never be thirsty, but the standard by which we measure thirsty has shifted from a feeling that can persist for a considerable time – hours, if not days – to a whim that can instantly be satisfied. Many of us have a bottle of water permanently by our side. If you could remember to say “thank you” for the availability of water and other drinks even half the times you open your lips to drink would change your awareness of your life completely!
- Going to Work: Work is a wonderful gift: it offers the opportunity for you to contribute to the world in which you live; it provides a way for you to engage and cultivate your skills; and it also represents a mechanism by which livelihood can be met, bills paid and food, shelter and more provided.
- Going to Bed: We could run up the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and offer gratitude at every step, but having a bed and shelter is a biggie. To be warm and safe at night is a great privilege. The act of getting ready for bed is a great time to remember and express gratitude for the joy and privilege of warmth and shelter. In many traditions children are raised in the habit of saying a nighttime prayer. This may not be your preferred approach, but however you choose to approach it, this is a great time to remember and say “thank you”.
- Starting a New Day: Similarly waking up and having the opportunity to face another day is something we usually simply take for granted….until age overtakes us and physical frailty causes us to approach the new day in a different way. How much better, how much more healthy and wise, to allow yourself every morning on waking, on brushing your teeth, on getting dressed to embark on the wonderful adventure ahead of you, to notice and say “thank you”.
Remembering Your Benefactors
In addition to three reasons and five times for saying “thank you”, I’d like to offer up four benefactors who you should remember, four benefactors who I’d suggest you include in your expressions of gratitude. Placing such remembrance is an aid to mindfulness, to feeling connected, to humility…to all that we’ve talked about in this article.
- Your Parents: Let’s begin with the individuals who brought you into being and who, for most of us, raised you. This is complicated, of course: there are parents who were not around; parents who abused or caused harm; parents who neglected or deprived. And in our modern day it’s in vogue to analyze our unhappiness and attribute to childhood causes. Through all of this – and through simple lack of mindfulness – it’s easy to forget how important your parents are to you, in the simplest terms that you would not be here today without them. Whatever anger or other feelings you might have towards your parents, surely gratitude for your existence and for what they did give you should be on that list?
- Your Teachers: These are many, and almost certainly more numerous than you realize. Everyone has their favorite childhood school teacher, remembered with fondness and perhaps a misty eye, but there are so many more, mostly forgotten. You went through twelve years of school, and likely more, and during those years myriad teachers helped you on your way. Friends and friends’ parents and wise people you met along the way helped you make the choices that shaped educational, career, and other life choices. And colleagues, friends and mentors (whether you have yet figured out who they are or not!) have helped and continue to help you navigate the complexities of your life and your career. We all have these teachers to whom we rarely say “thank you”. You may not wish to formally express your gratitude, but it behooves you to pause and reflect and start to appreciate the number of teachers you have and their influence on your life.
- Your Financial Supporters: Like your teachers, these are legion and likely many are rarely acknowledged or appreciated. Most directly you can look to those who supported you through childhood and education, which in most cases is parents, but there are a lot more than this. You have likely had a whole series of jobs, from the babysitting you did as a kid to your current occupation. That money was given to you in exchange for services doesn’t take away the existence of the financial support of those who paid you. If you have ever been the beneficiary of a will, or received a gift, or been behind someone in the drive through who paid it forward and bought your drink, you have benefited from a financial supporter. And it may have been an ordeal to work your way through our scandalously expensive higher education system, but somehow you did it, and the money came from somewhere. Occasionally pause to notice and say thank you!
- Your Nation and Its Leaders: At a time of such political divisiveness and discontent it’s easy to have scant respect and gratitude for our national leaders, but we still have an enormous amount for which we should be grateful. This nation in its formation, its constitution, and the dream that sustains it today, is a great benefactor. The political and social system that has been put in place and is maintained by politicians, civil servants, and the front line government employees provides a backdrop against which our lives play out. Legal, police and military systems offer domestic and international security. We can complain about a lot, and many horrible wrongs have been and continue to be perpetrated, but against all of this, if we reflect, there is so much to be grateful for.
If you work on it, you can more often remember to be grateful for these three reasons, at these five times, and towards these four benefactors, and in doing so you will slowly transform your life, cultivating greater happiness, warmth and love for yourself, and building a safer and more loving space for those around you. Surely this is worth a try?