This November, it seems like all of my Facebook friends are writing gratitude lists: every single day, expressing appreciation for everything they have, from nice weather to tasty dinners. My reactions range from a light smiles to subtle groans: “Oprah wins again.”
My mind is so screwed up that I feel guilted into gratitude practice: “I should remember what I have more. I should appreciate the people in my life.” I wonder what I would be grateful for, but my list never seems like enough. I am reminded again that my mind can use everything as a weapon — every medicine can be poison if taken in the wrong dose.
I am not, by any means, undermining the practice of gratitude. When I’m humble enough to remember, I have found it a very useful practice. Our minds tend to focus on what we lack, the things that are missing, the things that hurt, and gratitude gently focuses our attention on abundance and joy instead. But I think there’s a more subtle practice that might be even more powerful: receiving gratitude.
Despite trumpeting the power of expressing gratitude, the “mindfulness community” spends little time on the practice of being receptive to it. We fill our lives with so much offering and service and generosity, that when someone says “thank you,” all we can think is, “That wasn’t enough. I could give more.” Perhaps we offer service not out of deep love for all beings, but instead because we feel we must serve in order prove that we have earned being here.
An underlying message of gratitude practice: If I don’t remember all the gifts I have been given, I couldn’t possibly deserve them.
What a dangerous, yet common, thought — and a thought that completely eliminates the possibility of grace. Grace is what we receive in exchange for nothing – grace is what we receive just by being. We don’t have to do anything, we don’t have to give anything, we don’t have to sacrifice anything — and thus you don’t have to know anything, understand anything in order to get it. They say: “God gives grace not because of who you are, but because of who God is.”
Perhaps this concept is seems odd: that’s normal. Intellectually, you can understand getting something for nothing (it’s nearly the American dream, right?) — but when it comes down to it, we can’t sit still and simply receive what is being offered to us. So… we practice.
Take a moment to sit quietly, and settle yourself into the present. Let your breath become steady, and your list-making mind subside for a moment.
Once you’ve found this moment, think of a person who might be grateful for you. A parent, child, partner, friend, sibling, pet… maybe someone who sent you a text on Thanksgiving “I’m grateful for you!” How many of those texts did you get that you can’t remember?
Give yourself a moment to remember what you’ve been for that person, what you’ve done for them in your time together. Maybe it’s hard to a imagine a person like this — maybe you don’t have children, or your relationship with your parents is so strained that you can’t imagine that they might be grateful for you. Maybe you have a dog or cat: imagine, for a moment, how your dog might see you.
If you can’t find anyone — think of me. Because I guarantee I am grateful that you’re on the other end of the screen, reading what I’m writing. I’m grateful that you’re spending your precious time with me, grateful that you bring all your experience to this moment, and are willing to process this receiving of gratitude with me.
Imagine the sense of gratitude that person or being feels for you — not just because of what you’re done, or presents you’ve given. They’re not just grateful because of the checks-and-balances of life, they’re grateful for the space you hold, for how you make them feel about you and themselves. Feel what that gratitude feels like. Feel the fullness of your presence in their life.
Notice the effect on your breath. Notice the effect on your thinking mind. It might make you nervous. It might make you really uncomfortable. Maybe it calms you down. You might think it’s a silly exercise: all of this is information for next time’s practice.
‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’