Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, has specialized in the study of gratitude. In a 2009 presentation at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Emmons distinguished between feeling grateful and being grateful. “Feeling grateful is a response to a benefit,” while “being grateful is a way of life.”
Emmons’s research shows that “gratitude has the power to heal, to energize, and to change lives.” Yet often, many of us neither feel grateful nor are grateful.
In his book A Handbook for Constructive Living David Reynolds observes:
I am wearing clothes others made for me, eating food others grew and prepared for me, using tools others designed and fabricated and taught me how to use, speaking words others defined and explained. The list goes on and on. Any verb I can think of—sleep, play tennis, drive, lecture, watch, bathe—can be followed by a phrase attributing the action to some supporting role by others. There is nothing I do that is thanks to my own efforts alone.
As Reynolds explains, “Most of time [we] fail to notice the efforts of others on [our] behalf.” Why? We are caught up in our own suffering. In the words of Emmons, we focus on “what life is denying” and we fail to notice “what life is offering.”
When we focus on what “life is denying” we see the world as amiss and we struggle. A Course in Miracles observes:
Gratitude is a lesson hard to learn for those who look upon the world amiss. The most that they can do is see themselves as better off than others. And they try to be content because another seems to suffer more than they. How pitiful and deprecating are such thoughts! For who has cause for thanks while others have less cause? And who could suffer less because he sees another suffer more?
In his book Naikan, Greg Krech offers an antidote:
To live a life of gratitude is to open our eyes to the countless ways in which we are supported by the world around us. Such a life provides less space for our own suffering because our attention is more balanced. We are more often occupied with noticing what we are given, thanking those who have helped us, and repaying the world in some concrete way for what we are receiving and have received in the past.
The practices that Reynolds and Krech suggest will help us feel more grateful, but how about gratitude as a way of being in the world? Emmons jokes that his wife tells him that he is the least grateful person she knows. In other words, Emmons is illustrating that being grateful is something that must be cultivated; knowing about gratitude is not enough.
In my own experience, being grateful is no different than being loving or being compassionate. We are naturally grateful, naturally loving, and naturally compassionate when we remove our own internal barriers to being so. And how do we remove these barriers? We become aware and look at all our thoughts that are not grateful, not loving, and not compassionate. By becoming aware I mean we look without justifying, without resistance, and without judging our lack of gratitude.
To look without justification, resistance, or judgment requires that we begin to loosen our identification with our thinking. Unloving, ungrateful thoughts arise; and we can become aware of our thoughts without grabbing hold of them and creating a story around them. In that way, we can let them go instead of cementing our identity around them.
As we first become aware of and then let go of our dysfunctional thinking, gratitude rushes in to fill the space we have allowed. We not only feel grateful, we are grateful.
In the lesson “Love is the Way I Walk in Gratitude,” A Course in Miracles encourages us to be grateful for our place in the unity of life: “We thank our Father for one thing alone; that we are separate from no living thing, and therefore one with Him. And we rejoice that no exceptions ever can be made which would reduce our wholeness…We give thanks for every living thing, for otherwise we offer thanks for nothing, and we fail to recognize the gifts of God to us.”
A very happy Thanksgiving to all.