Along with the meditation and mindfulness, the term gratitude is very much in fashion right now. Recently a friend lent me a copy of the ‘The Book of Joy’ which documents the week that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu spent together in northern India. This weekend I read the chapter on Gratitude and the part it plays in our sense of Joy. So many people in retirement get caught up focussing on what they don’t have any more or what they have lost, so I feel it is relevant to share some of what I learned from my reading.
These two elderly spiritual leaders who refreshingly spend much of their time teasing each other and chuckling over their words of wisdom agree that joy is a by-product of a life well-lived. As the Archbishop says, “ if you set out to be happy, clenching your teeth with determination, this is the quickest way of missing the boat”. They centre their discussion around qualities of heart and mind that we need to develop in order to achieve this by-product.
One of the qualities they discuss in depth is gratitude. Both of these men came from very humble beginnings. The Dalai Lama was subjected to violence and displacement at an early age and the Archbishop spent his years as a young man under the tightening grip of the apartheid regime. Yet both men look back on these years with gratitude for the learning that came out of them. For example, the Dalai Lama’s throw away comment is that if he had not been forced to set up a new seat for Tibetan Buddhism in northern India he would never have had the opportunity to meet and influence world leaders. He certainly would not have been breaking bread and comparing religious traditions with a Christian Archbishop! Both men choose to focus on the fact that they are fortunate to be alive. They firmly believe it is essential to express gratitude.
As you look back on your life, what do you have to be grateful for? Is it harder to list these than it is to list what is wrong with your life right now? The discursive mind loves something negative to ‘play with’ and how often do we fall into the trap of feeding it negative content. Comparison, competition, materialism, capitalism, pessimism …. are all vehicles to feed our negativity and these are pervasive in our modern culture. Gratitude, on the other hand, focuses the mind on the positive.
People talk of keeping a “Gratitude Journal” – a book in which you list daily the things you are grateful for. It is believed this acts as a positive affirmation and brings positivity into your life. I have however found that creating this habit takes a measure of discipline. One recommendation is that you write your entries at night in order to fall sleep on a positive note to promote peaceful sleep. Let me know if this is something you already do, or if you feel enthused to make a start, share how it goes.