Pay attention and you'll find that even a seemingly uneventful day is filled with precious gifts.
On the surface, gratitude appears to arise from a sense that we're indebted to another person for taking care of us in some way, but looking deeper, we'll see that the feeling is actually a heightened awareness of our connection to everything else. Gratitude flows when we break out of the small, self-centered point of view —with its ferocious expectations and demands —and appreciate that through the labors and intentions and even the simple existence of an inconceivably large number of people, weather patterns, chemical reactions, and the like, our life is richly supported.
The truth is, we are supported in countless ways through each moment of our life. We awaken on schedule when our alarm clock beeps thanks to the engineers, designers, assembly workers, salespeople, and others who are behind the clock on our bedstand; by the power-company workers who manage our electricity supply; and many others. Our morning yoga practice is the gift of generations of yogis who have shared the teachings and practices through millenia; of our local teachers and of their teachers; of the authors of books or videos we may use to support our practice... the list goes on.
When we awaken to the truth of this incredible interconnectedness, we are spontaneously filled with joy and appreciation. It is for this reason that one of the most transformative practices we can engage in is the cultivation of gratitude. Patanjali wrote that santosha (contentment, or appreciation for what we already have) leads to unexcelled joy, while other yogic texts say that this sense of appreciation is the "supreme joy" that naturally leads to the realization of the Absolute. Thankfully, gratitude can be cultivated. It simply takes practice.
If you're like most people, you notice what goes wrong more often than what goes right. Human beings seem hard-wired to notice how reality fails to meet some idea of how they think things should be. As Rick Hanson points out, we are like teflon for the positive and like velcro for the negative. How many times a day do you sink into disappointment, frustration, or sadness because others haven't met your expectations? If we limit our attention to how life lets us down, we blind ourselves to the myriad gifts we receive all the time.
And we can end this frustrating situation by mindfully shifting our attention. When we stop and really look, we see that we are supported continuously in literally countless ways. This is the highest wisdom of yoga, the truth of interbeing, of no separation. When we do this, we grow more appreciative of what we have, and seeing how dependent we are on others, we grow in generosity, wishing in some small way to repay at least a part of our debt.
To begin cultivating gratitude, it helps to be aware of some of the most pernicious obstacles to doing so; often it is these very roadblocks that provide the opportunities for practice. One of the most obvious obstacles is the failure to notice what we have. As Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." So, the first thing you need to do is to start paying attention to what you have!
And here's where expectations can prove to be an obstacle. You expect your alarm clock and your car to work, your loved ones to be there for you. Once you come to expect something, you tend not to pay it attention. You take it for granted. You can actually use your expectations as reminders to cultivate gratitude!
Another big obstacle, and therefore another opportunity to cultivate gratitude, is the trap of feeling entitled. Gratitude may not spontaneously arise when the sanitation worker takes away your trash, since they're "just doing their job." But the fact is, regardless of their motivation, you are benefiting from their efforts and can meet them with an expression of gratitude.
A formal practice for cultivating gratitude, developed in Japan by a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, is known as Naikan, which means "looking inside." It's a structured method of self-reflection that encourages an objective survey of oneself and one's relationship to the world.
At its most profound, Naikan is practiced on retreat with trained counselors where one is guided to survey all of one's major relationships from your parents on. However, Naikan can also be done as a daily practice. The rewards will become immediately evident in the blossoming of a natural, deeply felt sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life and for all the gifts you receive daily —gifts that you realize were always there but that went unnoticed and therefore unappreciated.
The practice of Naikan can lead you to the realization that your life is rich with connection and support. You may even come to see the truth in the exhortation of the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart: "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was 'thank you,' that would suffice."
Set aside 30 minutes, preferably at the end of the day, to try this Naikan practice.
Sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, take a few moments to bring attention to your breath, mantra, or any other technique that you normally use to center yourself. When you feel settled, ask yourself this series of questions:
What have I received today?
Be specific and reflect on as many things as you can recall. It can be something as simple as your partner's smile, the sound of a bird singing at dawn, the driver who let you merge into the crowded freeway. Remember, the motivation or attitude of those who gave you something is not the issue. Maybe you were offered lunch because you showed up at lunchtime, not because your friend made a personal effort to make you lunch. The fact is, you were fed, and you can feel gratitude for that. The mere fact that you benefited from someone's actions is all that is needed to cultivate gratitude.
Notice which of these things you did not appreciate as they happened. Can you recall what was taking your attention when one of these acts of grace occurred? Were you stuck in problem-solving mode, thinking of your to-do list, or making judgments?
We often live as if the world owes us. As you reflect on what you have been given today, you will likely see that, if anything, you owe the world an insurmountable debt. This insight is more than merely humbling; you may find yourself feeling a deeper sense of gratitude and a natural desire to be generous in serving others.
What have I given today?
Go through the day's events in the same way, but this time notice what you have given to others. Be as specific and concrete as possible. As above, your motivation is irrelevant. What did you actually do? It may have been something as simple as feeding your cats, washing the breakfast dishes, or sending a friend a birthday card. You may find that without great fanfare you contribute to the well-being of many people and animals —you make a positive difference to the planet.
What difficulties and troubles did I cause today?
Again, be specific. Don't overlook the seemingly insignificant. Your list may include things like "I backed up traffic while looking for a place to park" or "I chased the cats off the lounge chair so I could sit there." This question is often the hardest, but its importance cannot be overstated. It may bring up feelings of remorse, but its primary purpose is to provide a more realistic view of your life.
In general, we are all too aware of how others cause us inconvenience or difficulty, but rarely do we notice when we are the source of inconvenience. And if we do, we usually brush it aside as an accident, not that big a deal, or simply something we didn't mean to do. Due to the attribution bias, we tend to cut ourselves a huge length of slack but attribute bad intent or character defects in others! But seeing how you cause others difficulty can deflate your ego while reminding you again of the grace by which you live.
These questions provide the framework for reflecting on all your relationships, including those with family, friends, co-workers, partners, pets, and even objects. You can reflect on the events of one day, a specific person over the course of your relationship, or a visit with family or friends.
Remember, what makes this a meditative practice is that you are not analyzing your motivations or intentions; you are not interpreting or judging. You are simply shifting your attention from self-centered thinking to seeing things as they are, and as all yoga traditions point out, in such seeing, there is wisdom and liberation.