“Change not my circumstances, Lord. Change me.” – Sri Gyanamata, Letters from a Saint
Whether we’re giving thanks for material possessions, happy relationships, or a spiritual practice that connects us to a higher power, taking time each day to express gratitude is not only great for our emotional well being, it’s also great for our health. Like meditation, when practiced regularly, gratitude journaling can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even build our immune system, making us more resistant to disease.
As long as the sun is shining brightly on our lives and we feel healthy, abundant and loved, acknowledging our blessings is a pretty straightforward task. After all, being thankful when things are going our way is relatively easy.
But how many of us feel gratitude if we don’t get our way? When we’re mistreated or misunderstood, and life deals us a bad hand with poor health, loss of a loved one, conflict with work or family, or financial troubles, it can be difficult if not impossible to muster feelings of appreciation. That’s often because our egos get in the way. We’re physiologically hardwired to avoid pain, but chasing “good feelings” can cause us to become overly identified with material, worldly and bodily desires. We can then easily become selfishly attached to the people, places and outcomes that might fulfill them. But if our desires are thwarted, it can make us feel angry, depressed or insecure, and eventually take us off the spiritual path.
To challenge yourself spiritually, consider practicing the other side of gratitude: appreciation for the “negative” things that happen in life. When we search beyond the personal pain of our “I, me, my and mine” focused egos and look for the deeper, universal, spiritual lessons that offer a truer “gift” behind each challenging experience we face, we can mature emotionally and eventually transform into stronger, happier people.
When I lost my father suddenly this year after complications from a stroke, I found myself lost in a sea of sadness, shock and self-pity. To move forward from grief into acceptance, I began to challenge my gratitude practice. Each day, I tried to see how I could wish not for different circumstances, but for an inner change that might help me grow into more of the person I wanted to be. First, I committed to thanking my higher power for the most devastating parts of the experience – from watching Dad helplessly paralyzed in his hospital bed for ten days, to the trauma of disconnecting him from life support after the doctors told us “there’s nothing more we can do.” Then, I took a fearless moral inventory for any spiritual lesson I could find. I tried to be grateful for the intense pain I was feeling, knowing that the Divine’s loving hand was behind all of it. I began to feel grateful that my father had saved us from making a gut-wrenching decision by signing a health directive that clearly stated his wishes not to be on life support. I gave thanks for the strength to step into a care giving role for my aging mother in Dad’s absence. Teaching a stubborn, introverted 77 year old how to drive and use a smartphone for the first time taught me how to be more patient and detached from people, places and things, something I had prayed for prior to Dad falling ill. Though I may not have chosen it myself, the universe found the perfect way to answer my prayer.
Ultimately, after sharing my story with friends and hearing countless tales of caregivers who’ve spent years, even decades nursing incapacitated loved ones in rehab after strokes, I gave thanks that dad ended his suffering – and ours – after just ten short days. I felt grateful that I was given the chance to say goodbye before he passed, while he was still coherent enough to understand how much I loved him. Though at first a devastating surprise, his passing eventually became a blessing in disguise. It helped me appreciate and accept the natural cycles of life, and most important, how fortunate I was to have had such a caring, devoted father for so many of them. It helped me develop a greater appreciation for the precious gift of life itself, and all the ways I could live on in his honor with more grace, humility and passion in the years I had left on the planet.
Whether you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one, or another painfully thwarted desire, practicing the gratitude challenge can help you transcend negativity and connect to the divine plan that is always unfolding in your life. The next time you’re faced with something negative in your life, instead of resisting it or wishing it could be different, pull out your pen and write down your thoughts. To help get your gratitude juices flowing, answer the prompts below:
- List your three biggest life disappointments from the past. In what ways did not getting what you want at the time shape you into who you are today?
- Name a time that you were insulted, humiliated or embarrassed, and how you responded. In what ways were you able to grow from that experience?
- Name three instances where you got what you thought you wanted, but it still didn’t make you happy. How did your desires impact your experience of joy and peace?
- Name three people in your life who are difficult for you to get along with, and why. How has your relationship with each of them helped you to grow and mature spiritually, psychologically or emotionally?
- List a current material challenge you’re experiencing in your life. Perhaps you’re grappling with less than optimal health, financial woes, or feelings of anxiety, overwhelm or dread from world affairs, global warming or the outcome of the recent election. How might your perspective on these challenges shift if you knew without a doubt that they were simply a mysterious part of a benevolent Universal plan? Would you feel or respond differently?
Exactly how you respond to the prompts above doesn’t matter. Expressing gratitude for life’s challenges helps put things in perspective by creating a space for humble surrender, which according to many spiritual sages marks the end of suffering. Despite how painful the twists and turns of life can be, when we remember there is a loving, benevolent higher power silently directing our lives, we free ourselves from attachment to the inevitable ups and downs of life. Even if only for a moment, we get to experience just how precious and beautiful life can truly be.
As Krishna advises Arjuna on being a spiritual warrior in the song celestial Bhagavad Gita, “The one who remains the same towards friend or foe, in honor or disgrace, in heat or cold, in pleasure or pain…that person is dear and near to Me.”