The Mechanics of Gratitude

A few years ago, my wife accepted a job in San Diego, but there were very few jobs available in education, so for two years we both made the three-hour commute back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles on our days off.


Given our budget, my residence during the week was a studio apartment in a downtrodden part of LA. There was no kitchenette and the shower was a lukewarm trickle. And most mornings I didn’t have time to wait for the trickle to move past frigid.

Years later, we own a home on a quiet street outside of San Diego. Compared to many of my peers, it may not be very luxurious. But compared to what I’ve known, it feels like a palace.

I feel gratitude the moment I wake up. I appreciate how refreshed I feel stepping out of a hot shower with some amount of water pressure, let alone the rest of it.

On the one hand, going through periods of doing without can help us appreciate what we have. But there’s another way in which the contemplative path helps us grow in gratitude.

As we drain our psyches of ego more and more, we see not only the thoughts we habitually cling to, the mental tapes we play over and over, but also appreciate that things come and go. We’re less and less prone to define ourselves by the illusions of what we own. They have less hold on us.

We’re less susceptible to get caught up in a culture of materialism or what New York Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto in his powerful acceptance speech called “lives devoted to buying things, a philosophy of accumulation.”

The little daily interruption in our normal and highly susceptible flow of consciousness helps let go of these things. It helps us take a new relationship to the thoughts, things, and people around us. It helps us consciously choose what these relationships are.

Another benefit of this practice is learning that the only given is nothingness. When we periodically enter silence and nothingness for little stretches, the feast of sound and color and taste around us all the time seems like endless gifts, not an expectation, not entitlements. The expected standard of living drops to nothing. We lower the bar all the way to zero. Then gratitude becomes inevitable.

An 18th century Japanese poem tries to capture this idea. Returning to his small home to find it ransacked, the poet wrote: The thieves left it behind:/the moon/at my window.

Everything is a gift. We sometimes have brief moments of this insight after spending time away from loved ones or watching a holiday movie. But mostly a culture of competition and accumulation keeps us in “gimme more” mode. But cultivating an inner practice of letting go paves the way for gratitude.

The mechanics are as follows:

  1. Practice letting go through daily contemplative or meditative practice.
  2. Realize that everything we feel entitled to is our social or cultural programming.
  3. Realize that absolutely everything, from having a body to seeing a trembling leaf on the bough to sipping champagne on a 50th birthday is an absolute gift.
  4. Practice further by writing down three things every morning you’re grateful for from the previous day.

As author and Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast puts it: “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us happy.”

Question: What are some concrete ways you cultivate gratitude in your practice? Share your answer on Facebook or Twitter

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