We know that feeling and expressing gratitude is a good thing. But what needs to happen inside us so that we’re more mindful and present for the experience of gratitude? How can the experience of gratitude open us to life more deeply and connect us more intimately with each other?
Gratitude is a sense of appreciation for the good things that meander our way. It begins by recognizing that something happened just then. Someone commented on our kindness or perceptiveness. We received a kind word about something we wrote or a project we completed. Or, someone holds open a door and flashes a warm smile as we walk in.
On one level, there’s nothing here that’s a big deal. Just a passing moment of ordinary life. But a part of living a creative life is to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Life is made up of simple, passing moments. Living the breadth of it rather than just the length of it means noticing and holding these moments a little longer.
Try to recognize the small ways that people show kindness toward you. If you’re not sure about their motivation, give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps more caring comes toward you than you notice.
Relaxing and Receiving
Once we recognize a precious moment where someone recognizes our existence and offers something to us, we’re better positioned to let it in. We can’t receive what we don’t notice.
Most of us are not very skilled at receiving a gift, compliment, smile or hug. We might feel that we don’t really deserve it or if they really knew us, they wouldn’t be so kind or responsive. Shame may clog our receptors, making us unavailable to receive graciously.
Disallowing ourselves to receive is actually a form of narcissism. Rather than receive gracefully, thereby signaling to the giver that their kindness touched us in some way, we divert our eyes, shut down, or dismiss it. We’re consumed by the self-consciousness of shame (that we’re not worthy or deserving) or fear (that we have a big ego or will be obligated to give back in some way). Our self-referential thoughts, fears, and insecurities keep us preoccupied in a world that does not allow an easy flow of giving and receiving.
Once you recognize that someone offered you a kindness, see if you can let it in. Is your stomach getting tight or is your chest constricted? Take a slow, deep breath and allow your attention to rest comfortably inside your body (or gently notice your discomfort). Is there a way to relax and receive this gift a little more deeply?
We often don’t allow ourselves to relish the good things in life. Perhaps we fear that people will think we’re self-centered or we’re afraid that it won’t last. As Buddhism teaches, everything passes; nothing is permanent. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t relish what comes our way, allow it to pass when it does, and be open to the new moment.
As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön suggests, “The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging.”
Relishing a positive moment means getting out of our heads and self-preoccupations and simply allowing ourselves to enjoy what someone just gave us or did for us. I’m not suggesting that we become giddy, or inflated, or read more into the situation than it merits. A warm smile from a woman we’re dating in response to our humorous comment doesn’t necessarily mean she’s prepared to mix our silverware. And yet, life becomes richer as we awaken to poignant moments where something happens between two people, however small.
When someone gives something to you, gently hold the good or warm feeling inside you. Allow that feeling to be there and expand as much as it wants to.
We often react with an automatic “thank you” when someone offers something kind to us. This is meant to convey that we noticed and appreciated the kindness. But how much richer our response could be if we pause a moment and take time to more deeply recognize, receive, and relish the kind act or word.
The art of opening to and receiving things more deeply may move us to respond in a more creative and touching way. A warm smile, astonishment in our eyes, or excited exclamation such as “Oh wow!” might convey more than the socially expected “thank you” that we’ve been trained to say.
Letting people know that we’ve been genuinely affected by their gift (if indeed we have been) gives more meaning to what they’ve offered us. It’s a gift to the giver to let them see and feel our gratitude. A lovely flow of giving and receiving can happen between two people who meet with open hearts and mutual receptivity.
Before reacting automatically, allow the good feeling to build or grow. Don’t submit to a self-imposed obligation or pressure to respond quickly. Take a little time and notice what would feel like a “right” response from you at that moment.