“Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty.”
~Doris Day, American entertainer
Before I started writing gratitude lists, I know that I spent most of my time in disillusionment, disappointment, resignation, bitterness and fear. I was negative by habit. And can still be if I don’t keep practicing the things that remind me that I have other choices.
I learned about the effects of a gratitude practice slowly, and I continue to learn it.
After nearly ten years of writing my gratitudes, I’ve learned this: Even though I’ve got deeply grooved habituated ways of negative thinking, speaking and acting, I still get to choose, every day, to liberate myself, to step off those old paths and blaze a new and sunnier trail.
For whatever reason (we all have ‘em), I developed the habit—early in life—of reacting and relating to life from a victimized, deprived and entitled set of responses. Negativity became my grooved neural pathway—my “thrown-to way of being.” Over time, sadly, negative interpretations of reality became not just habitual, but comfortable.
Start with just one gratitude list.
My first business coach, after one session with me, gave me one homework assignment: Write a list of 15 things for which you are grateful every day. “Fifteen?” “Every day?” “Seriously?” Yes. Yes. And yes.
Now I had heard of gratitude lists before. By 2003 I had been clean and sober for 13 years, and you don’t hang around in the twelve-step world without hearing about gratitude lists. I wrote some. Actually I wrote one or two a year, one on my birthday and one on my sobriety anniversary.
But as I’ve learned over time, today’s peace and serenity do not come from last year’s gratitude list, or the meditation I did a month ago, or last week’s t’ai chi practice. Nope, for someone like me, my peace and serenity tanks have taken a lot of abuse for many years and don’t hold much in reserve.
If I want to change, and grow, it helps to do transformational practices like these nearly every day. This way I have a great chance to keep strengthening my peace and happiness muscles and open the way to learn entirely new ways of thinking, speaking and acting.
Willingness can set you free.
So, I took my coach’s suggestion (one of my very first mentors told me that my willingness would set me free, and I think it has). I wrote a list every single day. For the first four years, I wrote my gratitudes in an email and sent it to my coach, who read each one, and commented on the ones that moved her, that touched her heart. How beautiful and inspiring it was to have that goodness in me recognized, as I couldn’t really see it in myself!
(I have this tendency, you see, to immediately disown the goodness in my life because it’s mine. I call it negative flypaper. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, describes it like this: “Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”)
In 2007 I started posting my gratitudes in my blog, which I’ve done ever since. And while the focus of the blog has expanded over time, the core is still about gratitude.
I get how challenging developing the gratitude muscle can be. I also can tell you how big the payoff is.
This is not just based on my own experience—over the nine years since I’ve become a coach, I’ve had clients embark upon this very practice and I’ve watched them visibly change, and listened to them tell me the beneficial, heart-opening, grounding effects this practice had on them.
Gratitude lists and gratitude practice are common now (I get 31 million results when I Google “gratitude practice” and 37 million for “gratitude list”), which might make one think it’s an easy thing to do. But I remember how it was when I started. There were, and still are sometimes, days when my starting place would be “I’m grateful that I’m not having surgery without anesthesia.” Or “I’m grateful I’m not staked to a hill of fire ants with honey poured all over me.”
With gnashing teeth I began to write. Like this (written 8/25/12):
• I am grateful for this beautiful cool late summer sunshine
• I am grateful for the grilled summer corn I just made for myself and ate
• I am grateful for the time on the mat this morning at my gentle yoga class
• I am grateful for a visit with my sister at the farmer’s market
• I am grateful for the bounty of my garden: kale and collards, chard and spinach, beans and squash
• I am grateful for my improving health
• I am grateful for the conscious healers in my life
• I am grateful for those healers who work in the gift economy, who are happy to receive in the “pay what you can” paradigm—inspires me to do the same
• I am grateful for working technology
• I am grateful for a functioning car
• I am grateful for exquisite self-care, which is still so new to me that every single expression of it feels amazing
• I am grateful for the willingness to try something new for my own healing, even if it is way outside my comfort zone
[just counted, twelve down, three to go]
• I am grateful for my friends
• I am grateful for the funds that allow me to live my frugally abundant lifestyle
• I am grateful for this practice, which opens my heart to so much good!
The substance of my lists hasn’t changed much over time. Sometimes what I express is very deep, powerful and profound. Sometimes it’s just a list of simple blessings. And yes, sometimes it’s grim. Life happens, the good and the bad, and I get to choose gratitude anyway.
Here’s a big fat important secret:
More than one of the items on the list above are a reach—out of my comfort zone. I write: “I am grateful for the funds that allow me to live my frugally abundant lifestyle,” even though there are monkeys in my head screaming “Not enough money!” “You’re running out of money!” “Business is bad and not getting better fast enough; be afraid!” Or I write: “I am grateful for my friends,” while my monkey mind reminds me that “You’re not popular,” “Nobody loves you,” and my personal favorite “You are just unlovable—too old, not cute enough…”
This gratitude practice not only gets easier over time, it also creates new neural pathways.
My monkey mind has been in charge of my thoughts for many years, and those monkeys dug deeply grooved neural pathways that are anything but loving, like this: Someone I like doesn’t accept my invitation = I’m a loser. A coaching client leaves my practice = I did something wrong and I’ll never succeed.
What gratitude does to heal this: Every written gratitude scratches a new pathway. It takes time and consistent practice to make the new pathways deep and habitual, habitual enough that the old ones start to fill in, dry up, get grown over, disappear—all from lack of use.
Here are some of the new thought pathways I can recognize in myself:
• I look around at who has accepted my invitation and I express gratitude for their presence (instead of complaining about those who didn’t attend).
• I accept the invitations I receive and make sure to let the inviter know how happy I am to be included (instead of staying home scorning the invitation because, after all, why would I go to any gathering to which I had been invited? Thank you Groucho!).
• When our work is complete, I release clients with love and thanks, knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be in my business (instead of sinking into a tailspin of worry and stress about what I did wrong and why they’re gone).
It all comes back to the central tenet of transformational technology—doesn’t it?—which is [trumpets please]: Change how you are thinking and you can begin to lovingly change how you are living. Or, put another way: How you think informs your experience.
When my thinking is loving and trusting and positive—grounded in gratitude—I have a much better experience of Whatever.Is.Happening. When my thinking is fear-based, victim-based, entitlement-based, deprivation-based, I have a crappy experience of Whatever.Is.Happening.
Are you getting this? I want this to land loudly and lovingly in your heart.
Life happens. Joyful stuff. Difficult stuff. Illness. Death. Endings of relationships. Financial setbacks. Fabulous wealth. Life happens. And it’s completely up to you how you react and how you think, what you say and what you do about what life serves up to you every moment of every day.
Do you have a gratitude practice? If you don’t please just start one. If you need support, you can email your gratitudes to me at Sue@MagnoliasWest.com. I’ll read them! And if you already have some gratitude under your belt, I’d like to ask you to write an article about it for my blog. I’m publishing one guest post a week until the end of 2012. Read more about that here.
Sue Kearney is Chief Inspiration Officer at Magnolias West, her coaching, branding and web design practice. She is a dancer, DJ, artist, and a maker of kombucha, sauerkraut and herbal medicines. Sue is a student of astrology, tarot, and a practitioner and facilitator of women’s spirituality.
Sue coaches women in business who want to reconnect with and fully express their juicy audacity without losing what makes them successful. Ready for us to roll up our sleeves and dive into your business, and your work/life balance, and the full expression of your juicy most creative self? There is still room for a couple of audacious women in the Self-Love Coaching program.
This year, Sue opened up her gratitude practice to anyone who wanted to join, by creating the Magnolias West Gratitude Challenge. For free. Although the year is about eight months gone, you can join any old time you want, simply by sending your first gratitude list in an email. Sue will be personally reading every one of them! Join the Magnolias West Gratitude Challenge 2012 community! Send your emails to Sue [at] MagnoliasWest [dot] com.