TURNING THOSE GRATITUDE WHEELS
I don’t do apps (…like I don’t do blogs!)…and as it is for many folk rapidly approaching the landmark ‘Big 50’ birthday , I am trying harder than ever to limit the amount of time daily that I spend on my mobile phone and my laptop. However, if I was presented with the opportunity (…and somehow developed ‘the know-how’!) to devise ‘an app’ for the current technology dependant climate, I would pour all my energies into creating ‘an app’ that looked afresh at, and encouraged a deeper awareness of, the whole notion of ‘Gratitude’.
Thanks might not come so easy to everyone, and that suggestion is frequently levelled at our younger generation. The word itself is hardly part of the vocabulary during our younger years, and I guess it is regarded as more dated and obscure than ever when the conveyor belt of ‘new product’ followed by ‘next new product’ is drifting so fast before our eyes, and leaving us such little time to see the true worth of anything.
Growing up I can only really remember two things that drew attention to the place of ‘thankfulness’ and both took the form of cultural behaviour or instruction. One was the widespread idiom used in the midst of school and home life when one perhaps dismissed or turned one’s nose up at something too quickly, ‘Be grateful for what you’ve got!’ In this instance our increasing material abundance and our life chances were being contrasted to those of another (child?) of comparatively the same age perhaps growing up in a developing country, who did truly recognise that ‘giving thanks’ was integral to their development into a more balanced soul!
I also knew only the one prayer of ‘grace’ that helped me through meal times at the houses of family and friends: ‘Lord, for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful’. I was not entirely certain what the word ‘grateful’ demanded here, but again the word was being used in contrast to thanklessness or a lack of appreciation around food, and from the perspective of a clear faith and high expectation.
These were important elementary lessons and as much about social etiquette as anything else, but they often came across as moral ‘add -ons’, an extra line to say so as to guard against self-centeredness. They seemed as an afterthought, because they were associated with a wider pattern or process of social expectation or behaviour. We repeated the words only because others did so, and in a narrow and specific context. We were never offered an opportunity to let ‘Gratitude’ emerge out of any genuine self-reflection. The broad Hebrew idea of ‘recognizing the good’ (‘hakarat hatov’) that is both here and now within the existing framework of our lives is then naturally lost, because ‘Gratitude’ was, and to some degree is still, not treated as a important life skill or as a tool of therapeutic relationship.
Perhaps this is also why we sometimes only get as far as thinking of our own ‘possessions’ or ‘personal gifts’ in relation to ‘Gratitude’. Are we only thankful because of what we have? And have so much of, relative to so many others? How do we ‘escape ourselves’ in any process of becoming more ‘thankful’ and digest a sense of ‘the good’ - ‘hakarat hatov’ - at all levels?
It was not until my early 40’s whilst studying for a ‘yoga’ course that I began to consider the possibility that spiritual growth could be intricately related to our openness around being thankful. Yoga with its structured focus on breathing, posture and its chants of invocation brings a sense of perspective in our hurried lives. Rod Stryker (author of ‘The Four Desires‘) speaks of ‘giving thanks…..as if what you hope to achieve has already been received’. If we are ‘joining’ the body and the mind in the practice of yoga exercises, we are striving to show gratitude for the ‘whole’ (for an underlying ‘Unity’) that makes up our existence and presents everyday opportunities for calm, renewal and purpose.
As we grow older we recognise how our lives might take distinct twists and turns, for better or for worse, and we come to reflect on how we genuinely do compare with people close and far who might be struggling with so many issues beyond their control. We also begin to see the limits of this ‘mortal life’, contemplate what might lie beyond our lives, perhaps with fresh perspective on the wonders and the gifts that surround us. Our children, our friends, our natural world, our own company can all fill us with a sense that something unique and treasured has come along, found its way to us and to us alone. That we may even be ‘on board’ something special and worthwhile, despite difficulties.
Gratitude is more important than to be left solely to one particular sphere of religious or psychological thought. Putting it at the heart of what we do is a decision to re-align one’s life, to move into new terrain alongside reality and to know that is where we wish to be grounded. In one sense it helps us to speak up and confirm to ourselves a particular truth we have stumbled upon. ‘Thanks’ offered for a step forward or for a positive development in our lives or a much needed personal change. Or ‘Thanks’ offered towards a higher eternal force, as part of a sense of the greater good active in the world. Such postures can pull us away from the world of opinions and judgements, and ultimately away from harmful cravings that cripple our power to transform ourselves and our relationships.
Perhaps critical to our appreciation and to what some have described as the ‘healing power’ of ‘Gratitude’ is its close link with values such as simplicity and tenderness and that we are witness to a deeper and gentle self-knowledge or positive affirmation. When we grow in thanks we are re-connecting with ourselves. It is a means of holding up our own intrinsic worth, the distinct path and integrity of our lives (…and perhaps even, for a brief moment, not feeling that we are holding up someone else’s!). By doing this we are embracing a tenderness that is rare, but vital. We are saying ‘yes’ to our deep inner sensitivities and to the direction that we are heading…although we may not know what it is to be!
This is not about being smug or beaming self-satisfaction, but more acknowledging that we might have gone through a moment or experience that is indescribable in words or actions, but simply joyous to our delicate heart. A well-meaning ‘Thank You’ places us neatly into this world of wonder. And takes us out of the world of worry and of materialism.
It is a huge challenge however to ‘offer thanks’. It raises so many questions. Who to? When? Why? Yet, it is precisely because it raises those questions about our own nature that we should consider it on a more frequent and urgent basis. It can help us keep a healthy mind and outlook by bringing up these ‘Ultimate Questions’ from time to time and not hiding from them. We need to think big so as to seek to uncover ‘the good’ around us.
I am not advocating a particular pattern or formalised devout or religious procedure around thanks here. It is vital to recognise that ‘Thanks’ for where one finds oneself in life can take various forms – our recreational time brings us new understandings, children often help us see things differently again, nature likewise has a powerful capacity to re-shape our appreciation, as can new openings in our personal and our public life, with job opportunities, further study and intimate friendships.
Some years ago I explored one approach that involved using ‘Gratitude Wheels’. Most vehicles (…I think!!) have 4 wheels and here we are thinking of the first two wheels as representing ‘the Past’, the third as ‘the Present’ and the fourth wheel as ‘the Future’. By applying the wheel image to those three distinct phases, the objective is to help us bring to the surface those things that we can be thankful for and to keep them in view.
Using a circle on a plain piece of paper (…yes, old school!) we can divide up the space of the first circle into sections with titles that reflect those fields or spheres of our life where we can explore an opportunity to give thanks. You might have four, six or eight segments to the circle. Such sections might be around family, friends, work life and local community but you could also broaden the segments to include positive news stories, nature, musical passions, art, the unexpected within our daily life, etc.
At the end of the exercise – a 2-3 minute reflection on the segments - we took a little more time (individually or with a partner) to fully engage with the areas which surprised us – those fields which we don’t usually consider to be particularly worthy of gratitude.
For the second circle we do a similar reflection identifying important principles or tenets by which we wish to live e.g….creativity, compassion, environmental awareness, humility, selflessness and we reflect on the fact that those qualities lie latent within us in some way. Again we may choose to feed this back and expand on the sections with examples if working in a pair or a group.
The wheel image helps us to consider that the pattern of our lives and the thanks we offer ‘up’, or ‘outwards’, or indeed ‘inwards’ is in regular motion or movement. There are a range of new things every day to be grateful for, that take our breath away and affirm reality as a valued entity. Perhaps it is also akin to a wheel steering a heavy ship through unchartered waters away from obstacles towards a calmer course of travel. We are turning ourselves towards an appreciation and admiration for the ‘hidden’ in the world at large and our place in it.
The third circle takes life ‘here and now’ with no segments or sections and includes the small, to the medium, to the big. It could be that you list bird noise, a photograph nearby, a ray of sun, the company of another human being or pet. It is a blank canvas to express thanks for the things of that moment or that minute. A brainstorm in the instant!
The fourth gratitude circle also needs no sections or segments. It works merely as a short couple of sentences or a paragraph expressing our hopes and desires that the features identified can remain an integral and formative part of our lives. Our thanks here should be distinct from our ambitions. They should express how some things that we have identified in the past and the present can remain at the heart of who we are in the future. ‘Gratitude’ in this sense becomes an invitation, but it also allows the positives to be clearly highlighted and articulated. Storing this circle safely we can revisit it at any time to see where our ‘focus for gratitude’ can be. Some people may choose to accompany their ‘fourth circle’ writings with a piece of art work, a photograph or memory, a song or a poem.
The goal of the whole exercise is to feel that gratitude is never weighed down by regrets in the past, unhealthy desires in the present or fear of the future. We are in this way liberated by seeing gratitude in motion, linking the various stages of our journey.
Often we are constrained by roles and responsibilities, perhaps even anxieties and insecurities that tie us into looking at the worst of things not the best. 'Gratitude' lets our sometimes over tight grip, or our hold on the world relax a little and provide a genuine balance. In short it can help steer us a little nearer to a soothing ‘trust’. The words of Psalm 116 begin to resonate with us again: ‘…you have loosened my bonds, I shall offer you a thanksgiving offering'.
Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘“If the only prayer we ever say in our lives is “Thank You”, that will be enough.” We might not be the ‘praying type’ or the ‘thankful type’, but if we were bold enough to just put down our smart phones and tablets, and dare to say a quiet ‘Cheers’ for the opportunities around global communication, we might even feel that’s enough technology time for the day!’ That said, I’m off to devise my ‘app’ for the next generation.
And of course....needless to say I'm most grateful to you for reading!