Gratitude practices like making lists of things we are thankful for can provide a sense of lightness and hope. Taking a moment to pause and reflect on what is going right in our lives rather than focusing on what we are missing can be a beautiful practice...until it isn’t.
Gratitude practices have an undercurrent of shame for those times that we just can’t summon genuine feelings of thanks for what we have.
Years ago, pre-mindfulness, I was in a slump. A pretty nasty one too. I had heard about gratitude practices and I tried them. For a brief time, the novelty of the activity sparked a few extra neurotransmitter doses but eventually I came crashing back down into my depression, except this time I had a crappy list about how great my life was. All it did was make me feel like a spoiled, useless piece of garbage. I mean, there are people without enough food to eat and I couldn’t muster a smile for my safe, privileged existence.
There is a line we walk when we practice gratitude, and it's important that we don't use this practice as a righteous means to stomp out grieving processes or as a way to deny ourselves and others the freedom to feel angry or sad.
Genuine gratitude comes from within. It can never be bullied out of us. Forced gratitude is based in fear and shame, and is often used as a means of control or to feel superior over others and, weirdly, also over ourselves. We think that maybe, if we are grateful enough, we can conquer the dreaded downer within.
And that’s the litmus test for genuine gratitude: if it makes you feel shamed, guilty or scared, it’s probably bullshit and you don’t need to be grateful for it.
For a short time, looking at how another person is living with a downcast, judgmental gaze can be extremely satisfying. Unfortunately all this does is build up a false sense of our own self-worth.
We can never say with certainty that had we been handed another person’s lot in life, including their genetics and their lived experience, we would have turned out any differently. We are such complex creatures, and we never know what will push one person to make a choice that we may consider just plain wrong. There is no such thing as righteous condemnation of another person’s choices.
But what happens when another person’s choices start to affect our lives? What if we just would unequivocally be better off if this person would just make a different choice?
First of all, tough shit. We cannot make other people do what we want them to. We cannot accommodate, punish or judge someone into changing in any authentic way. And if we love this person, this realization sucks. We actually have to love this person where they are, and sometimes this feels impossible.
But there is a silver lining here. When we are repeatedly hurt by another person’s choices, we can choose to change ourselves. Perhaps we learn to let go of our need to control the situation. Maybe we can part with the heavy load of shame that sometimes spurs our desires to change another person. Or maybe we can let go of the relationship altogether.
Not out of anger, or rage, or as an ultimatum, but out of self-preservation and, believe it or not, respect. We can respect another person and the journey they are on enough to give up our hold on them. We can respect others enough to give them the room to make their own decisions, even if that means we can’t be there with them as they do.
My credit card was recently scammed. Boo. Then I got a notice saying my fraud claim had been denied. That old, caustic comfort of wanting to hate absolutely everyone and everything was threatening to stink up the whole day.
It can be hard to see the good in the world when life hands us a turd. This was a relatively small one but it was enough to sprout a bloated rain cloud over my head. I mean, how was I supposed to get on with my day knowing that everyone else was so stupid and just plain wrong?
And that’s how a negativity bias works. We experience something upsetting, painful or downright traumatic, and our mind works like crazy to analyze the situation so it can keep us safe in the future. Then it builds up stories about other people’s intentions, all to corroborate what our hurting and scared minds need to believe in order to cut others down to disposable bits of human garbage.
Thanks brain, but I’m pretty sure not everyone is out to get me.
It can be so freaking hard to believe in people’s own basic goodness. But we can and we should. So how do we start?
We start by trusting our own basic goodness. Not our righteousness or that we are more intelligent, thoughtful or just plain better than other people. Not any of those things because that is our ego trying to carve out a decent spot on the totem pole for us.
Trusting our innate goodness is about tapping into the part of us that can appreciate a sunset just because, or feels really good about a stray dog getting a new forever home. These examples don’t benefit us in any tangible way but we still feel great from being exposed to them because they are the active form of this innate goodness. It is the warmth when our souls get a much needed bear hug.
Believe in the bear hug for the soul. Accept the bear hug for the soul. Be the bear hug for the soul...especially when life hands you a turd.
I got a text message telling me where to pick up the best pork and subsequent plans to take a trip there shortly. Evidence was mounting that this person had mistakenly messaged me. For starters, I didn’t recognize the number but the clincher was that I’m vegan. I replied to the message, letting them know they’d contacted the wrong number. I received a prompt Ok sorry to which I replied Oh no worries, take care. A minute or so later I got a text back: You too, have a great day.
The message took little time and effort but I can tell you that this person’s wish for me to have a great day turned up the love. I felt a bit safer and a bit happier to be in a world where a stranger took the time to wish me a great day.
I am a compassion crazed nut about little interactions like this. They make me light with gratitude. I’m not suggesting we start sending random well wishes to whatever phone number we can dream up. Not at all. This would quickly fall into the realm of disingenuine. But when we do get a chance to be a little sweeter, gentler and more thoughtful to others, regardless of what we will get in return, then a craving for compassionate living starts to boil.
The driver that waited so another car could pull out into heavy traffic. The clerk who noticed the eggs were a little worse for wear and pointed it out before they were taken home. The person who made eye contact and gave that little nod of recognition: Hey other human being, I see you.
These tiny, fleeting interactions are nourishing for the souls of such social creatures. They remind us of how interconnected we are. And the reminder can be as simple and lovely as letting a stranger know you hope they have a great day.
I was reflecting on the solemn agreement made in a wedding vow. These promises evoke a sense of undying love so solid that nothing could ever break it. I mean, my partner is dope and I feel so fortunate to be with him, but let’s say he suddenly changed and started lying to me or cheating on me. I have developed expectations of him that exclude this kind of behavior, and this has made my love grow rigid and therefore fragile. It is the continuous choice we make each day to treat each other with respect that keeps our love and the life we’ve built together from shattering.
Our love for each other is conditional.
I think a more accurate wedding vow would say I feel a great deal for you at this time in our lives as we both currently are, and hopefully we won’t change so much so that I no longer feel this way.
Maybe it’s not as romantic as reciting Corinthians but you have to admit, it’s a lot more honest.
Conditional love can be found in any relationship, including between friends and even between a parent and a child. We have a certain set of expectations of another person and how they fit in our lives. And I think this is a good thing. We need boundaries. The trouble is that we often look to others for unconditional love and it is painful when they fail us again and again in delivering it in the way we think they should.
Only we can offer ourselves truly unconditional love. And this is so hard. Just like in relationships with other people, we have learned to put conditions on the love we give ourselves. I will love myself when I lose ten pounds. I will love myself when I get a better job. I will love myself when I am perfect. The difference here is that we can learn to let go of these conditions because we are the ones who have developed and enforced them. They are ours to burn down with gratitude for who we are. We are the only ones with the true ability to love ourselves fully, no matter how we grow and change.
Have you ever said something harsh or judgmental to another person and then, upon seeing their hurt or anger, quickly retreated behind the free pass of just being honest? I’m pretty sure most people have and it’s a sticky spot to be in. On one hand, we are told that honesty is the best policy but on the other, we also know that if we don’t have anything nice to say then we shouldn’t say anything at all.
Between these two conflicting adages is a middle ground of the social responsibility to be kind without lying. We shouldn’t have to hide or deny our values, ethics or concerns just so we don’t upset another person. But how important is it that your friend knows you think her makeup skills make her look like a second rate drag queen? What outcome are you seeking in giving a voice to this catty opinion?
The only person with whom complete honesty is the best policy is ourselves. In doing so we save ourselves and others a lot of unnecessary pain. This means questioning our reactions to other people until we have had time to wade through the swamp of feelings, past experiences and their present day biases, and our true intentions so that our words and actions can be thoughtful, kind and genuine.
Consider the following updated and non-contradicting proverbs to guide a more authentic existence: Seek the kindest option and Don’t bullshit yourself.
It’s easy to blame others for our own feelings of discomfort, especially when it seems as though another person’s inconsiderate or poor choices are directly the cause of our suffering. The frustrating truth is that these feelings and reactions are in actuality our own doing and therefore our own responsibility.
That is a tough pill to swallow.
Especially when another person’s words or actions are offensive or cruel. And we as humans can be terrible to each other at times. But in these moments when we feel hurt or hard done by, it is wasted effort to try to transfer or infuse our own pain to the person we have decided is the cause. It will never work. We may succeed in making another person feel some guilt, shame or even remorse, but this is not the salve to heal our own wounds.
This is an important topic to me. I’ve wasted precious time and energy on fighting for the principle of the matter. And even the few times where I could say I won, I lost. I lost my time and a bit of my sanity, and I got nothing truly valuable in return.
If there are people in your life that constantly leave you feeling angry, hurt or betrayed take this as an invitation to lovingly let go of the relationship as it is. You can and should continue to love those dear to you but it’s okay to stop putting yourself in positions where you constantly come out hurt and frustrated. It’s okay to take a hard look at your relationships and say, it just isn’t working. From this point comes the real opportunity for growth and reward. The relationship can now end or it can evolve. Either way, we get to sit in the driver’s seat of our own emotional wellbeing and this includes cultivating loving and equitable relationships that are worth our energy.
Intuition is a seemingly innate ability to sense a correct course of action without any supporting evidence. Statements such as I just knew are often associated with decisions attributed to one’s intuition, but I’d argue against doing so without considerable reflection. Not because our gut feeling might be wrong, but because I doubt the existence of intuition.
I feel that we are shaped by so many different experiences and interactions that it is hard to be completely conscious of them all. I believe what we often credit as intuition is actually a subtler example of learned behavior. Perhaps we experienced a negative interaction at some point with someone wearing an orange shirt. We may not even realize it but our brain has probably held onto that information and the next time we see someone wearing orange, our body gives us a sense of insecurity that may feel as though it is without cause, and thus attributed to intuition, but is in fact because of our past experience. This is more a shaped instinctual response than anything mystical.
Why does this distinction matter? I think we should care because it is easy to get on automatic pilot and react without much reflection or consideration of deeper pulls for our knee jerk decisions. We may miss exciting opportunities because we are trusting our guts, when in fact we are letting past trauma and fear steer the ship. Or we put ourselves in harm's way because we just have a good feeling about something, when we are actually allowing something that feels positive like excitement act as the captain because excitement has felt good in the past, and not because we are necessarily making the best decision in the present moment.
This is not an argument against trusting ourselves. Absolutely not. It’s actually a plea to do just that. While I question the existence of intuition in its inexplicable and spiritual incarnation, I wholeheartedly believe in mindfulness and trusting our own goodness. When we can do this, we can push through fear, excitement, lust or sadness, without attaching to these experiences as having deeper meanings in need of blind action. We can open to what is honest and truly in line with our values as interconnected beings. We are open to the input of our thoughts, feelings and emotions, but we see them for the fleeting experiences that they are, rather than allowing them to become erratic and unreliable guides.
As the world grows closer through the aid of technology, it also grows more overwhelming. We are bombarded every day with news stories of more human and environmental tragedies. Sometimes these ignite a passion in us to help and we offer our unique gifts to the world in hopes of making it a better place. Other times, we want to hide and pretend that it’s not happening. In the same vein of turning a blind eye, we often feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness and choose to focus on our own material gains without regard for the rest of the world because the alternative is too damn hard.
So what do we do? Where do we begin? Do we save the whales? Should we donate to a disaster relief society? Should we physically place ourselves in the epicenters of suffering and do what we can to help?
I propose that we start here. Just in this moment, just in this breath. We start in our own hearts. We are shaped and moulded by an infinite constellation of genetics, family and society, and it can be really challenging to sort through it all to realize who we are and what matters to us. But we have to. We must take on the automatic responses we have to our world and examine them for their authenticity. We must look at our own lives and become truly discerning for what is enriching and what is merely a distraction taking up space and time. We must learn to choose love over “being right”. We must open ourselves up to the possibility of another way of being instead of running over the well worn tracks of isolation and fear.
We are good. To our cores, human beings are good. We see love and potential in our world, but sometimes it gets away from us. We need to see our own innate value because once we have, it’s impossible not to see it in others. And if we value ourselves and others as the unique and beautiful treasures that we are, we would surrender all the lies and the distractions. We would value whatever precious time we have here and fill it with love without worry of being taken advantage of or used. The scramble to the top would come to a halt because we would no longer see the use in holding others down to push ourselves up.
Save the world by the saving the precious gift that is our true natures.
Fear without understanding mutates into hatred. It makes us construct hierarchies of validity and importance. Our fear that we may someday find ourselves at the bottom of these hierarchies fuels the fires of isolation and hatred. We then separate ourselves from each other even further through violence, oppression and inaction.
Fear then becomes an instrument of control and manipulation. We use it to justify divisive words and cruel actions. Others use it to sway our decisions in what they perceive to be their own personal favor. But leading with fear never wins.
Fear of being alone, of going without, or of being forgotten. This spurs us on to make choices that are incongruent with the purity of love we are all cut from. Meet your fear with an open heart. Before your mind tries to protect you from it by finding someone to blame for your fear, try to see what message it has for you. What is your fear actually trying to tell you?
Know that you are worthy. Know that you are acceptable. Know that you are loved. When you truly know your own value, you can’t help but see the value in every other human. Having this deep love and respect for yourself is not about vanity or me-time. It’s much deeper, richer and unfailing. This kind of love will be the light of our darkest moments. It is a love that never leaves us, no matter what we’ve done. It is an unconditional love that we all deserve. Take it in for yourself and give it out to others. We all matter.
Much love to everyone. May we be safe. May we be peaceful. May we know our own goodness.