Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate all the good things in our lives. Each of us has many things to be grateful for, but we all experience pain and suffering on some level. There are periods of sadness, frustration and grief. Sooner or later – hopefully – these emotions pass and we are able to recapture feelings of peace, love and joy.
It seems to me we sometimes have to work at looking for the good, though. We look all around us and see people who have lost jobs; some are struggling financially, dealing with illnesses or with difficult life situations. We watch or listen to the news and see and hear reports of war, violence, poverty and starvation. Tragedies abound on every front: people lose their homes to fires, flooding and other weather related situations. It’s so easy to get bogged down and believe all the world is bad.
I read the other day that each of us has on average 60,000 thoughts per day, 95 percent of which are repetitive – the same thoughts again and again every day and multiple times per day. Eighty percent of those are negative. That’s about 45,000 negative thoughts per day. If this is true, I hope we can figure out how to change those numbers.
Below is a portion of an article that I thought could be helpful. “Attitude of Gratitude: the why and how of positive thinking,” from the Website True Self Yoga.
“The desire for freedom and happiness seems to be a universal human desire. Yet we are bound by our thoughts and often resist the very things that will lead to happiness. The term optimist carries with it some connotations of naiveté and folly. We’ve all met people who are relentlessly positive and while they do seem happier than the rest of us, honestly, this trait can be annoying. Trite platitudes like “it’s all good man” seem to lack compassion for the suffering. We don’t want to be fake or shallow, so we stick with our habits whether or not they are actually working for us.
The worldview I advocate is neither fake nor shallow. There is room within the scope of optimism for pain, suffering, and sadness. In order for optimism to be real and powerful, we must acknowledge these things and then specifically and purposefully orient ourselves towards the positive. We see it all with a wide angle lens, then sharpen our focus specifically on the beauty. No, we do not ignore the ugly. We address it as needed, as we are called to, and as we are able to. But let us not spend the majority of our thoughts turning over the ugly again and again until we begin to embody it.
Victor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and concentration camp survivor says “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way”. The ability to do this in the face of the extreme suffering that Frankl experienced is beyond my imagination, but it serves as inspiration to me in the moments of my own suffering. In each moment we have the freedom to choose from a myriad of perspectives. Each time we make the deliberate choice to let go of resentment, resistance, and self-pity, we are setting ourselves up to notice and experience more happiness in the future. And each time we do it, it gets a little easier.
A key practice for changing thought patterns is cultivating gratitude. By calling up the humble sensation of “thank you”, we begin to strengthen the muscle of finding a positive perspective on any situation. In order to formalize this practice, you can write down 5 things you are grateful for every morning and every evening. Make them little things and you will increase your ability to appreciate the subtle. Then throughout your day make it a game with yourself to see how often you can remember to say thank you. Let your painful emotions be reminders to this practice – every spurt of hurt, jealousy, fear, and sadness can be a motivation to practice.”
So is gratitude the answer? How difficult can it be to say “thank you” at each opportunity? To write down five things we are grateful for – each morning and each evening? I think it’s worth a try. I'm beginning tomorrow.