“Remind yourself that it’s up to you whether you actually experience gratitude and the preciousness of your life. The fleetingness and the rareness of it, or whether you become more resentful, and harsh and embittered and feel more and more cheated. It’s up to you how the law of karma all works out.” ~ Pema Chodron
It is not easy to feel thankful when we are chronically ill; in fact, sometimes we feel cheated out of life when we have yet another bout of pain, or have to go through the red tape required to get the financial assistance we may need, or start on yet another medication with possible side effects. We may find ourselves comparing our capabilities to others’ and coming up short. We are affected by a society which tells us acquiring more possessions will make us happy, along with a flurry of activities, a driving ambition, and worldly achievements. The inner spiritual life is not spoken of; seemingly left to hermits, gurus, and other spiritual masters we have heard about. Keeping this in mind, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves complaining and wanting our lives to be different than what they are.
Therefore, in order to manifest gratitude, we must cultivate it by practicing it regularly. Like any other discipline, be it exercise or meditation, in order to get the best results, just by doing it once in a while, isn’t going to get it. With regular gratitude practice, we develop a greater appreciation for our lives, despite the struggle in them.
There are several ways I know to practice gratitude. The following is a short, yet powerful practice:
Before settling in for the night, think of three things you are grateful for. I found that no matter how hard it has been for me that day, I could always come up with three things. They can be as basic but as needed as the breath that moves through your body, or the roof over your head. This practice can wake you up to what you do have and what is working in your life.
Another practice I recommend to activate gratitude, is to make a list of things you are grateful for. Perhaps you could put this list on your fridge or your mirror – some place where you are most apt to see it, in order to remind yourself. Some items on my list are my partner of 25 years, my caregivers, and that I live in the country. When you really begin to think about it, a lot comes to mind. It can shake us up doing this practice, because it puts us in touch with all the little things we take for granted.
Another practice is to start a gratitude journal. Recently, for a week, I did just that. Before, I made lists, but I thought I’d take it a step further and see what would happen with journaling. I wasn’t sure it would bring me anything different. But it did. It allowed me to go deeper into the feeling of gratitude by going into the fine details instead of skimming the surface.
Instead of just saying “I am grateful for the rain”, I wrote: “This morning I am grateful for the rain, the way it soothes the ground, saturating it, smells of the earth rising up, greeting it, embracing it. The sound of it surging out of gutters.
I am grateful for the nor’easters I experienced when young, the way the clouds would gather and grow dark, grow purple and move across the Vineyard Sound, changing the color of the water rapidly, as white caps raced to the shore.
Then the clouds would move towards our house, lightning zig-zagging, thunder roaring, electricity in the air popping and fizzling, the surrounding leaves from tree branches turning inside out.
Then the rain would pound our roof, which seemed barely to protect us, our home uninsulated, magnifying the sound. Nature stopping us in our tracks, taking over, silencing us with its power”.
I am grateful for the rain.
We can come to gratitude in other ways, as well. Ironically, living with chronic illness can lead us to appreciate the ways our bodies are working well. For example, one day after picking some berries, I noticed a small thorn had embedded itself in my finger. It began to become sore and inflamed. I started to wonder if it was infected and considered making an appointment to see a doctor. But then, after a few days, it began to heal, and the redness and soreness subsided. I felt grateful to my body that in this small way, it was working well and taking care of itself; something I would’ve easily taken for granted if I was able-bodied.
Small occurrences like the above take place in our bodies daily, without our recognition of them and stopping in wonder. By practicing gratitude, we begin to see all kinds of things in our life that we can give thanks to: The caring attitude of a pharmacist, the trees growing in our backyard, the shoes on our feet.
Feeling grateful allows us to feel complete and satisfied. We are no longer searching for something or someone to fulfill our ongoing needs, but feel the grace that comes from the acknowledgement of our appreciation. We feel restored and even empowered by the inward calm that is a by-product of this practice. Giving thanks is a way of blessing our own lives.
Gratitude and generosity go hand-in-hand. As we begin to experience abundance we attain from gratitude, it feels natural to give back. On our gratitude list is surely our support system. Can we do something special for them? Perhaps we can’t afford a gift, but can we craft them a poem, create a collage? Sharing our sincere words of thanks can allow them to feel acknowledged and appreciated, and may be the biggest gift of all. Another unusual way we have to give to people that help us out that we may not notice at first, is to allow others to give. Many is the time I’ve had to ask for help when feeling seizury or recovering from a seizure. It has always been difficult to do when expressing that to my caregivers. I’ve often been told that it made them feel good to give in this way and they ended up enjoying the quiet and reflective time that came from it.
Also, with all that we know in coping with our illness, can we share our insights and knowledge gained by experience to others who are in a similar place? A kind word here, a thoughtful suggestion there? We can share our stories with others who are new to chronic illness, which can lead them to feel understood and lessen their loneliness?
We can also, of course, listen to their stories. Simply bearing witness with an open heart can allow others to feel heard, which can lighten their load. I once spoke with a woman surviving breast cancer, who had been through tremendous hardship. I asked her how she was doing, and she told me in great detail what her experience had been with surgery, chemotherapy and other medications and the side effects she had to endure. Her story was difficult to listen to and yet, having practiced sitting with my own difficult and weighty emotions made it easier not to run from hers.
Another way to help is to call others we know who are struggling with difficult symptoms and check in with them when we are feeling a bit better. We know from experience how uplifting that can be for us during more acute times of our illness, so if we have a little energy one day, this is certainly something we can do to contribute to others’ well-being.
Giving back in these simple yet profound ways gives us the opportunity to see we have something to offer our community, which increases our self-esteem, gladdens our heart and adds to our sense of purpose in the world.
What are you grateful for?