“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  -Dr. Wayne Dyer

I wanted to talk about gratitude today because it’s totally self-serving for me to do so. The more I attend to the concept of gratitude in my life, the more easily I can embrace it. I recently learned the term “letting something rent space in your head,” and while there are plenty of things I’d try to evict from my head, gratitude is not one of them. Gratitude is welcome to stay. I knew that writing this sermon would help me make gratitude more welcome. Making space for gratitude changes our perception of things. And since perception is reality, feeling grateful can literally transform your life.

So, gratitude. It seems simple, but it is not easy. So seduced are we by the activity and drama of our lives. Gratitude has to be cultivated. It requires that we slow down a little and observe, you know, actually pay attention—one of its great gifts. Almost everything I’ve read about gratitude puts it in context of a practice. A few years ago, my good friend Kelly started sending a small group of friends a daily gratitude list. I received them, loved them, and sent a few in return. But I didn’t commit to doing it. Incidentally, I didn’t reap the rewards of practicing gratitude because I didn’t, well, practice.

Flash forward about five years. A group of women that I’d met at a workshop invited me to join in a daily gratitude practice via email. Now, I had met most of these women and knew a few of them well, but most I had just met in passing. What blossomed because of this practice was fascinating. First, there were my lists. They started off short and sweet—I’d notice the small things like wind dancing through the trees, my contentment with my family and my work situation, things like that. I honestly might have fizzled out if it wasn’t for all the gratitude lists I was receiving.

If I didn’t get a dozen lists from a dozen different people offering a dozen different perspectives on gratitude, I would have totally hung up my hat on this practice. If I was just jotting things down in a journal, I would have gotten lazy and stopped. But because of the “group-mind” experience, I was prompted to keep going. If I got busy and missed a couple-few days, I’d be reminded by 24-36 emails that could not be ignored. So I’d keep going. Slowly, my lists deepened and got more specific. I found myself taking stock of my day, not only as I sat to write about it, but in smaller more aware bursts throughout the day. After a few weeks, I really did see and feel the changes in my outlook. Even very tough days were seen in a different light.

A couple of months into my practice, my grandmother passed away. This is the gratitude list I send via my cell phone from a darkened hospital room the morning she died:

I am grateful…

…that Rich got a hold of me before I left Portland and I could get to the hospital fast–my 91 yr old grandmother had a stroke.
…for the kindness and comfort of modern medicine.
…that my family is in agreement about her care…even though she did not have advanced directives.
…that I got here in time and could tell her I love her.
…for the feeling of her warm hand in mine.
…for laughter and tears.
…for sitting vigil with my mom and sister…the beautiful “women’s work” of death (and birth too)
…it’s 1:00 am and I am at Maine Med. My grandmother’s name is Miki Matthews and I would be more grateful still if you included her safe passage from Earth in your meditation and prayers when you get this. And please hold me and my family in your hearts.

It was profound to experience a loss, a death even, through the lens of gratitude. Much like a healing balm, gratitude takes the sting out of life’s painful experiences. I shared this list in particular to show that gratitude is not only about the “happy” parts of life and it certainly isn’t about the perfect parts. It isn’t even about always looking for the silver lining or counting your blessings. It’s about accepting “what is.” Anything short of acceptance of what’s happening in your life is crazy-making. It’s arguing with reality. Denying what’s real. Any yet, we do it all the time. We regularly attempt to shield ourselves from the pain of life over and over and over.

In her amazing book Daring Greatly, social worker Brene Brown writes about her ten years of researching vulnerability. Interestingly, she did not set out to study vulnerability. In fact, she was loathe to spend her time on this topic as what she wanted to study was connection. Now, I am a social worker too, albeit not as highly an educated one. But if you were here for my last sermon about parenting or have read my book about communicating with children or have read anything I’ve written at all, you will know that I too think connection is where it’s at. It’s basically what makes life worth living. But when Brene set out to study connection, what she heard about from the people she interviewed was pain, shame, heartbreak, and vulnerability. All those things we aim to protect and shield ourselves from. Denial, right?

Well, this research showed that people who were most willing to “lean into” vulnerability felt the most connection and contentment in their lives. The willingness and ability to engage with the hard parts of life—pain and shame—the very feelings many of us spend ample time avoiding actually makes people happier. The other slight tweak to that, was that it wasn’t actually “happier” that people got so much as “more joyful.” Another twist was that one of the ways we try to temper vulnerability and pain is to turn away from joy when we feel it. Silly, I know, but over 80% of Brene’s research subjects reported feeling terror and vulnerability following a peak moment of joy. She dubbed this shield we attempt to use as “foreboding joy.” This ran the gamut from “imagining the worst case scenario” to “perpetual disappointment.” Ms. Brown uses an example of standing over her peacefully sleeping children at night and feeling like she couldn’t breathe for fear that something terrible could eventually befall them. These fears, of course, drag us away form the joy.

The antidote to this foreboding joy that was discovered in her research was, you guessed it, gratitude. I want to read a passage from Daring Greatly that speaks to this:

“It wasn’t just the relationship between joy and gratitude that took me by surprise. I was also startled by the fact that research participants consistently described both joyfulness and gratitude as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us. Their stories and descriptions expanded on this, pointing to a clear distinction between happiness and joy. Participants described happiness as an emotion that’s connected to circumstances, and they described joy as a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude. While I was initially taken aback by the relationship between joy and vulnerability, it now makes perfect sense to me, and I can see why gratitude would be the antidote to foreboding joy.

Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that there won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult. We’ve learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?

If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough. I use the word practicing because the research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices. More than merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful. In fact, they gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything form keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals.”

So, briefly back to my gratitude practice before I wrap up. I have now been practicing gratitude almost daily for eight months. A couple of months ago I shared my practice with a group of other mother’s of sons with whom I have been meeting monthly for over three years. After a month of gratitude lists we had our monthly meeting and one woman commented on how much more connected she felt to our already tight group. She noted how much more she knew about each of our daily lives—where we felt vulnerable and where we struggled. This was not just a snapshot-striving-for-perfection-Facebook-type gratitude practice. It was real and gritty and filled with compassion. It was also a muscle we were all exercising—one that continues to grow strong with each repetition. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Gratitude is a new view, a lens, a pair of glasses. They are glasses that if you remember to wear them on a regular basis, will alter your view of the world.

“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend…when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present — love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure — the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth.”

-Sarah Ban Breathnach

(Sermon given at Norway UU Church, 12/2/12)