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The Art of Gratitude

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” ~ A. A. Milne

In the mid-1970s, the girls of the Bethel Girls Orphanage in a remote village in the Indian state of Kerala, gathered in our Sunday-best to remember the generosity of American families for our Christmas. We had a plastic Christmas tree with ornaments from America, including my favorite: holly leaves with red berries. I had no idea these trees were real until I came to America. Our home in northern Virginia has one holly tree in front and one at the back of our house. I am grateful to these two trees for keeping me grounded and not letting a day go by without remembering how lucky I am to have gone from an orphanage in India to America--the land we all dreamed of--against all odds, coming from the family and background that I had. 

IMCW teacher, Anna JohnsAmericans sent us a variety of chocolate (stores only had two types of candy that I only saw on my daily walk to school), colorful hair clips shaped like flowers or birds (we only had bobby pins) and once, a beautiful yellow dress with faux-pearl buttons. We celebrated America’s kindness and generosity annually—those are my earliest memories of practicing gratitude. 

That special day we forgot about our impoverished existence, which started with a breakfast of plain cornmeal porridge, made from meal in sacks with an American flag on them. After traveling from the U. S. the meal was full of tiny black bugs, which gave it a bitter taste but we picked them out and devoured the porridge. 

During mango season I would skip the porridge and wait under the mango tree for a ripe, juicy mango to fall. You have to be fast, because there were 199 other hungry girls with the same breakfast plan. But on that special day in December, I gazed at the beautiful shiny objects in my hands. Even the painful, infected sores from the lice in my hair that plagued me didn’t matter; someone cared about me enough to send these awesome things. Now, lucky enough to be living in America, I have to say, thank you America for everything.

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ~ Marcel Proust

Research shows grateful people are happy

The one thing all humans have in common—from the unlucky beings living in the slums of India to those living comfortably in the West—is that all of us want to be happy.

I started gratitude journaling with my children a few years ago as a way of introducing gratitude practice to my family. Here are two of my favorite entries from my then 6-year old’s diary:

“I am happy that we have 3 bathrooms,” upon a reminder that there are many in the world who have no bathrooms, and “I am happy that we will have a dog,” in anticipation of Hank the Min-Pin (miniature pinscher).

Gratitude is a skill we can cultivate using science-based practices, like meditating on the helpful or pleasurable things in your life. At the end of the day, thinking about three good things is a great way to tune in to the positive events in your life. So too is keeping a weekly gratitude journal and focusing on intentions: when something good happens to you, consider how someone purposely tried to bring that goodness into your life, even at a cost to themselves. Finally, research suggests that thinking about our own mortality makes us more grateful for life we have been given.

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The regular practice of gratitude can cause our neurons to fire in more positive, automatic patterns. The positive emotions we evoke can soothe distress and broaden our thought-patterns. Gratitude is an emotion of connectedness, which reminds us that we are part of a larger universe.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ~ Albert Einstein

Researchers have concluded that we can cultivate significant feelings of gratitude by writing down just five things, once a week and then spending some time pondering how we would feel without them.

No matter how you currently perceive your life to be, you can always find something to be grateful for. You might only think of one thing, but with continued practice you will start to notice more. Using tools that have been shown to be effective, we can see how much we actually have, which will lead to true happiness.

 

Anna Johns teaches a weekly meditation class on Saturdays, and is a co-founder of the Asian Sangha, which meets monthly.

It is the mission of IMCW/The Insight Meditation Community of Washington is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

IMCW
P.O. Box 3
Cabin John, MD 20818

Phone: 202.986.2922

Email: meditate@imcw.org