At the grocery store, a friend was bowled over by the simplest act of kindness: A stranger let her step ahead of him in the checkout line. It was such a little thing, and yet it swelled her heart with happiness. What she experienced, she ultimately realized, was more than just gratitude for a chance to check out faster—it was an affirmation of her connection to a stranger and, therefore, to all beings.
On the surface, gratitude appears to arise from a sense that you’re indebted to another person for taking care of you in some way, but looking deeper, you’ll see that the feeling is actually a heightened awareness of your connection to everything else. Gratitude flows when you break out of the small, self-centered point of view—with its ferocious expectations and demands—and appreciate that through the labors and intentions and even the simple existence of an inconceivably large number of people, weather patterns, chemical reactions, and the like, you have been given the miracle of your life, with all the goodness in it today.
It is easy, as Roger L’Estrange, the 17th-century author and pamphleteer, said, to “mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.” The truth is, you are supported in countless ways through each moment of your life. You awaken on schedule when your alarm clock beeps—thanks to the engineers, designers, assembly workers, salespeople, and others who brought you the clock; by the power-company workers who manage your electricity supply; and many others. Your morning yoga practice is the gift of generations of yogis who observed the truth and shared what they knew; of your local teacher and of her teacher; of the authors of books or videos you use to practice; of your body (for which you could thank your parents, the food that helps you maintain your good health, doctors, healers, and the “you” who cares for that body every day)—the list goes on.
When you awaken to the truth of this incredible interconnectedness, you are spontaneously filled with joy and appreciation. It is for this reason that one of the most transformative practices you can engage in is the cultivation of gratitude. Patanjali wrote that santosha (contentment, or appreciation for what you have) leads to unexcelled joy, while other yogic texts say that this sense of appreciation is the “supreme joy” that naturally leads to the realization of the Absolute. Thankfully, gratitude can be cultivated. It simply takes practice.
Love the Gifts You Get
If you’re like most people, you notice what goes wrong more often than what goes right. Human beings seem hard-wired to notice how reality fails to meet some idea of how they think things should be. How many times a day do you sink into disappointment, frustration, or sadness because others haven’t met your expectations? If you limit your attention to how life lets you down, you blind yourself to the myriad gifts you receive all the time.
You may, for example, have ideas about the “ideal” holiday visit with your family: where it will take place, who will be there, how everyone will act, what you’ll eat, what kinds of presents you’ll exchange. But the visit surely won’t match that ideal. And that’s when you’re likely to act like a child who has his heart set upon a certain toy for Christmas: As he unwraps one present after another, not finding that one toy, he grows ever more upset and disappointed. Utterly dejected, the presents he has received lie unattended.
You can end this frustrating situation by mindfully shifting your attention. Begin by paying attention to the reality of what is rather than the desires you cling to. For the fact of the matter is, regardless of how dissimilar your holiday gathering (or any other moment in life) might be from what you had imagined, there is much to be grateful for.
Consider the effort it took for your family members to get together; the vehicles that brought you all to the same spot—and all the people who constructed and helped maintain them; the house where you’ve gathered; the trees whose limbs burn in the fireplace. Your food, whether vegetable or animal, was once a living thing and is now providing you with nourishment. And that food did not just magically appear. Before it was cooked, it required the energy of the sun, the minerals of the earth, the rain, the work of farmers, processors, truckers, and retailers—plus the cooks in your family—to bring it to your table.
It is, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, the gift of the whole universe. When you stop and really look, you see that you are supported continuously in literally countless ways. This is the highest wisdom of yoga, the truth of interbeing, of no separation.
To begin to pay attention to how fully and completely you are supported, you have to break out of your constricted cage of Self. Once you have a more balanced view of reality, you are less preoccupied with what’s not meeting your expectations, and more present to what is given. You grow more appreciative of what you have, and seeing how dependent you are on others, you grow in generosity, wishing in some small way to repay at least a part of your debt.
To begin cultivating gratitude, it helps to be aware of some of the most pernicious obstacles to doing so; often it is these very roadblocks that provide the opportunities for practice. One of the most obvious obstacles is the failure to notice what you have—a roof over your head, a family with which to share the holidays. As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” So, the first thing you need to do is to start paying attention to what you have!
And here’s where expectations can prove to be an obstacle. You expect your alarm clock and your car to work, your loved ones to be there for you. Once you come to expect something, you tend not to pay it attention. You take it for granted. Use your expectations as reminders to cultivate gratitude.
Another big obstacle, and therefore another opportunity to cultivate gratitude, is the trap of feeling entitled. Gratitude may not spontaneously arise when the garbage man takes away your trash, since he’s “just doing his job.” But the fact is, regardless of his motivation, you are benefiting from his efforts and can meet them with an expression of gratitude.
One formal practice for cultivating gratitude, developed in Japan by a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, is known as meditation Naikan, which means “looking inside.” It’s a structured method of self-reflection that encourages an objective survey of yourself and your relationship to the world.
At its most profound, Naikan is practiced on retreat with trained counselors. From dawn until night, every day for a week, you sit and reflect on your mother—what you received from her, what you gave to her, and what troubles you caused her. You generally spend about two hours reflecting on your life from birth to age six, and then for each three-year period after that, meeting with a counselor after each session, until your whole life has been examined in relation to your mother. You then move on to your father, siblings, lovers, friends, and others. In such a situation, you are free to honestly look at how you have lived your life.
Naikan can also be done as a daily practice. The rewards will become immediately evident in the blossoming of a natural, deeply felt sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life and for all the gifts you receive daily—gifts that you realize were always there but that went unnoticed and therefore unappreciated.
The practice of Naikan can lead you to the realization that you are rich indeed, and that you are not only not alone but are truly supported by the universe! You may even come to see the truth in the exhortation of the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”