What Does It Mean to Be Grateful?
Can we be thankful for the bad times as well as the good?
Posted Nov 25, 2011
Sitting in gratitude, I breathe in, feeling a delicious warmth spreading across my chest as I exhale with an audible "m-m-m." Clearly, I am enjoying this very pleasent moment of reflection.
Continuing to sit with eyes closed, I breathe in a sense of abundance and then breathe it out to Life in general. I feel surrounded with love, as if Life and I are thanking each other for sharing this moment. We need no objective reason for gratitude—only our mutual presence.
Of course, there are also specific sources of my thanks giving. I am grateful for family, friends, work, and home. I am always grateful to be living in Colorado—it was nearly 70 degrees yesterday! And I am especially thankful to everyone who has been reading my book and blogs. I really appreciate your kind support and positive feedback.
These are all good things. And, believe me, I'm not knocking happy times. But it makes me wonder if it is possible to also be thankful for the inevitable challenges and heartbreaks that are part of the deal of living here in time and space.
I think it would require a very evolved (or possibly very troubled) state of consciousness to instantly welcome dramatic pain and loss as long-lost friends. We naturally recoil from injury because it hurts. If the discomfort persists, we cry. And if our suffering comes from the loss of someone or something precious to us, we grieve—sometimes for years.
In the shocking first moments of being visited with bad news or a distressing event, our natural response is to survive, maintain, restore whatever equilibrium is possible. Gratitude for what we have experienced as an assault on our world comes later—if it comes at all. And therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity of the Thanksgiving holiday: Can we be grateful for the bad times as well as the good?
I think the answer is Yes!—if we allow ourselves to fully grieve the losses. This is a big theme for me because I consider grief to be a brilliant guide that can lead us into the light of a new day if we don't resist the process.
One key for staying in the flow is to deeply breathe in the pain of grief and then follow it to discover exactly where the hurt is lodged. When we do that, we can often learn a truth about what the departed person or thing has meant to us, exactly what it is that we have lost, and how we might creatively incorporate that essence into our life—going forward in a different way.
The agony of loss can teach us a lot about what others have done for us. I find myself celebrating with great appreciation the years I had with my husband, Stephen, because I have come to so profoundly understand what our relationship meant to each of us.
While he was still alive, Stephen also developed a spirit of gratitude for what he called "the gift of acceleration" in the cancer that took his life. The fact that we were losing each other gave us multiple opportunities to go deep into unconditional love and mutual service. And in that attitude of gratitude for each other, we transcended mountains of human pettiness.
What this experience has taught me is an ability to simultaneously hold two opposing thoughts. For example, I am not pleased that Stephen died. I still miss that smile and his calming presence. But I am enormously grateful for the internal process that has brought me to a place of healing, happiness, and wholeness.
So, it seems to me that, in order to fully experience the joy and love of pleasant gratitude, we must be willing to also breathe in the heartache that Life may send us. Because when we allow the pain of loss to burn up the dross of limitation and fear, our ability to feel a deeper, more profoundly universal gratitude is multiplied a thousand fold.
And in that place of understanding and peace, I believe it is possible to feel Life itself sending back on the return breath its gratitude that we have entered in to a true spirit of Thanksgiving.