Last spring, a close friend and I had a serious disagreement. In one of our discussions, I spontaneously said to her, “Regardless of what happens, I will always be deeply grateful for the friendship we’ve shared.” In my heart, in the midst of conflict and potential loss, I truly felt grateful. I didn’t realize in that moment how important those words of gratitude would be to my healing journey.
Sadly, our relationship ended. And I recalled what contemplative teacher and writer, James Finely, said once during a retreat he gave on the spirituality of healing: “What we touch in love, will dissolve in love.”
I chose not to dismiss all of the feelings I had over this situation—the anger, the hurt, the disappointment and sadness. Instead, I felt grateful for my willingness to accept ALL of me, which was a form of compassion towards myself. I noticed that whenever I felt the loss, if I touched the memory with love and sincere gratitude for the friendship we shared, then I experienced a deeper sense of healing. I allowed myself to be thankful for the friendship and support we gave each other for so many years.
Gratitude truly is a grace that can allow us to find acceptance in many situations. Brother David teaches that it’s possible to be grateful simply for the opportunity to be grateful that each situation presents us with. He reminds us that the gifts of gratitude are healing, and allow us to become more compassionate, forgiving, and accepting of ourselves and others.
Yet, responding to life’s ups and downs with gratitude requires presence, vigilance, and commitment. When things are going well, gratitude comes easily, but during times of stress or struggle we may face resistance that comes from anger, disappointment, comparing, feeling overwhelmed, or not accepting what is. When that happens, gratefulness can become a choice we make, nurtured and strengthened with practice.
Practice, in this sense, is creating the conditions that allow gratitude to flow through our hearts, from the heart of the Divine. Gratitude isn’t about trying to feel good about everything that’s happening in our lives, but instead is a way of being in relation to the ebbs and flows of life.
It’s important to notice what blocks us from deepening gratitude in our lives—what thoughts, feelings, and habits get in the way. The Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, invites us to water the seeds of joy in ourselves, even during times of difficulty. He writes, in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, “When you are suffering, look deeply at your situation and find the conditions for happiness that are already there, already available. You have eyes that can see, lungs that can breathe, legs that can walk, and lips that can smile.”
When we water the seeds of gratitude in our daily life, we create the conditions for more inner peace. Rather than pressuring ourselves to be grateful, we can allow gratefulness to emerge with ease by taking a loving look at ourselves and our life.
A few years ago, I was listening to a priest at my local parish give a homily that wove together his personal experience of loss with his growing sense of compassion. He was telling us about the tragic loss of one of his siblings that occurred when he was much younger. Through the years of processing the grief, he said to us: “I’m grateful for suffering such hardships in my life because they made me more compassionate towards others who may also be suffering. I’m much more able to offer compassion and empathy because of my experiences.”
I’ve never forgotten that talk. Gratitude can become a healing gift in our lives as we grow in love and compassion for ourselves and for others, through all that we experience.
Deepening Our Capacity for Gratitude
Allow gratitude to be a healing force in our lives. Try engaging with the following practices:
- In the quiet of your heart, allow gratitude to touch a loss, transition, or change that you’re currently going through. See if you can find something you can be grateful for in that situation.
- Look for small and immediate ways to empty out—let go of something you’re worrying about, laugh at yourself in the most generous way, catch a critical thought and release it—and make more room for gratitude.
- Lean into the presence of love and open your heart to accepting yourself. Radical self-acceptance is a pathway to deeper gratitude.
- Throughout the day, practice saying “thank-you” aloud, 10 times, when you wake up in the morning, when getting dressed for work, and in the other daily moments of your life. Surprise yourself! Notice the way that gratitude kindles your spirit.
- Light a candle and set an intention for gratitude to bring healing into your heart and into the world.
Colette Lafia is a San Francisco-based spiritual director, workshop leader, and writer. She is the author of Seeking Surrender: How a Trappist Monk Taught Me to Trust and Embrace Life, and Comfort & Joy: Simple Ways to Care for Ourselves and Others. Colette has a passion for helping people connect more deeply with the presence of the sacred in their daily lives and blogs about it at www.colettelafia.com.