When Matt first came to me, he felt bored and isolated at his IT job. His skills weren’t being fully utilized, and he lacked confidence in his ability to contribute to his organization. In his first session, he realized that he had been focusing on feeling down rather than getting curious about what he could change. 

He created an embodied commitment statement: I choose to move forward with positivity, even when it’s hard.

Armed with his new commitment and the practice of taking in the good, he became more aware of his strengths and of opportunities he had previously overlooked. This is what he said about the impacts of his gratitude practice: 

Coaching with Katherine really got me thinking outside of my little, isolated box and opened up an awareness of possibility. I started thinking bigger, about what I really wanted to do. In response to my internal shifts, opportunities started showing up.

The internal shift helped me to shift my role at work. Before, I was caught in the weeds doing mostly technical work. Now, I have a new position as the point person for a strategic program to ensure that our web and mobile products are accessible to all users. It’s fascinating work, and I’m loving it.

So, what if you long to experience a shift in your perspective and work-life too, but you feel overwhelmed by everything going on in the world?

Simple—though not easy—answer: Practice gratitude, in spite of it all.

Gratitude Generates Joy

Brene Brown’s research demonstrates the power of a gratitude practice. In the Gifts of Imperfection, she writes:

“Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.” 

And in Daring Greatly, she writes:

“I use the word practicing because the research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices, more than merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful. In fact, they gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything from keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals.” 

In other words, pay attention to all the small things you have to be grateful for. And say thank you.

My Gratitude Practice

This past November, I enrolled in an online course entitled Cultivating a Sacred Life Rooted in Haudenosaunee Teachings with Kahontakwas Diane Longboat, Mohawk elder and spiritual teacher. 

In the first class, Diane challenges us to start a daily practice of going outside to greet the sun before sunrise and giving thanks for life and all there is to be grateful for. 

For the past sixty-seven days, I’ve done this practice, sitting on my eastward-facing porch, writing down a couple of pages of all I have to be grateful for. Although I’ve had a consistent practice of taking in the good for years now, I have found that this practice orients my perspective toward gratitude in a way that has been surprisingly helpful in recent weeks.

I credit my gratitude practice—at least in part—with my ability to remain internally settled during the very unsettling events of these past couple of weeks. While the attack on the US Capitol jolted me— and reconfirmed my commitment to work for racial justice—I haven’t experienced the overwhelm that I see many others struggling with.

Your Joy Matters

In a world with so much pain, paying attention to what brings us joy is a radical act. And if you’re engaged in social change work, your joy matters especially. 

I believe that one reason we are at a point of imminent global self-destruction is that changemakers often lack practices to sustain our joy. So many change-makers overwork, overgive, and overdo, get resentful, become curmudgeonly, break connections, burn out, and drop out altogether. Folks who consider getting involved see how hard it looks and opt-out. 

Our communities need leaders with the strength to sustain their passion and love their lives. 

It’s not our fault that capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression make it hard for us to care for ourselves and our communities. But it is our responsibility to choose which norms of engagement we’ll pass on to the next generation of changemakers. 

But what if you feel guilty experiencing joy amid so much heartache?

Gratitude is Not Spiritual Bypassing

Let me be clear: Practicing gratitude is none of the following: 

  • Gaslighting—the act of manipulating someone else (or yourself) into questioning reality and their own sense of sanity. 
  • Sugarcoating—the act of covering up something hard with a superficial level of sweetness and pretending things are great when they’re not. 
  • Spiritual bypassing—using spiritual practices such as meditation to avoid or neglect what is hard. 

Western culture perpetuates a belief that if we’re not happy, it means something’s wrong with us. Society tells us to be more positive or just get over it. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about ignoring injustice, hardship, or challenging emotions. 

Being grateful and working to change what we cannot accept are two sides of the same coin. They are both necessary practices toward cultivating joy and justice. 

From now on, be on the lookout for opportunities to say thank you—to other people, to yourself, to life itself—at least once a day. For example, when someone does something that you appreciate, let them know what they did that you appreciate and why it matters to you. 

Or, write down what you’re grateful for at the beginning or end of each day, big things—health, family, friends, work—and small things you might typically overlook—a comfortable chair, the sound of birds, the air in your lungs. 

I invite you to try this now. 

Practice: Saying Thank You

Grab your journal and get comfortable. 

On the top of the paper, write: What am I thankful for today?

Then, set a timer for three minutes, and… write!

Keep your pen moving until the three minutes are over, and if you want to keep going after the timer buzzes, feel free to do so.

Then, notice how you feel in your body. You might feel like you didn’t quite get it and struggled to notice anything. You might feel a sense of warmth or lightness in your body. Or, perhaps you feel something else. I encourage you to practice this once a day for the next week and pay close attention to any subtle shifts. 

Over time, you will likely notice yourself having an easier time noticing the things that bring you joy, even in the midst of your—and the world’s—struggles.

With gratitude for you,

 

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