As we move away from summer and the days shorten, our energy naturally turns inward and begins to wane. Often we feel a corresponding drop in our mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the technical name that’s been given to the emotion that some of us feel at this time of year. However another emotion inherent in the season that can create a more uplifting state of being is the emotion of gratitude. Gathering friends and family around a bountiful table is our seasonal way of expressing that gratitude. Gratitude for those we love, gratitude for the richness of the earth.
The dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality or condition of being thankful.” The word comes from the Latin root gratia, meaning “favor,” and gratus, meaning “pleasing”. Research has shown that when people regularly engage in the cultivation of gratitude they become happier and more pleasant to be around. Furthermore, studies show that gratitude is one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives.
Many cultures throughout history have marked this time of year with elaborate festivals and rituals to express their gratitude for the God who protects them and their crops throughout the year. Thanksgiving celebrations held by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews, the Chinese, and the Egyptians all reflect this spirit. Even in prehistoric times, the first Americans observed ceremonies at this time of year to express gratitude to a higher power for life itself. The words of an early Seneca ritual echo this sentiment – “Our Creator shall continue to bless us from the sky and we on earth will give thanks to him by feasting on his gifts from the earth.”
Our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is derived from a mix of European and Native American traditions. Some believe the tradition began in 1565, when the Spanish celebrated their arrival in Saint Augustine, Florida. But most trace the origin of the modern Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts. While initially, the Plymouth colony did not have enough food to feed half of the 102 colonists, the Wampanoag Native Americans helped the pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish. In recent years, this collaborative effort is echoed in the way that food kitchens across the country join with local stores and volunteers to provide a Thanksgiving meal for those who are hungry or in need.
One of the unique characteristics of the day is the diversity of people, rituals and food that is part of it. All ethnicities and religions are involved and a great range of dietary preference is honored. This is certainly something to be thankful for – a day when the distinctions fall down and we all give thanks, each in our own way.
Daily, whether rich or poor, each of us is presented with a diversity, not only of food choices, but of sounds, sights, smells, thoughts, feelings, opinions. So on this first day of November take time to be grateful for your life, just as it is – its wonderful rich diversity. At the beginning of the day, find a time to quiet yourself and focus on the people, activities, and possessions in your life. Acknowledge the ones that particularly stand out with gratitude, then write each down on a piece of paper. Carry the paper with you throughout the day and return to it whenever you begin to feel stressed or down to remind yourself, saying, “I am grateful for . . . .” As you move through the day, replace negative thoughts with feelings of thanks. Before bed, take time to affirm the blessings of the day.
If at any point you find yourself forming a picture of how things should be, set that aside and notice diversity right in front of you. Give thanks for what is. Be open to being surprised. Direct your energy toward gratitude rather than regret, possibility rather than limitation. Celebrate the month of Thanksgiving with thanks for the diverse miracle that is your life. The more you can open your heart in gratitude, replacing doubt and fear with thanks, the more your life will transform into what you want it to be.
In my own life, I’ve had the opportunity to feel gratitude’s transformative power. Eight years ago I was in the process of beginning a new and challenging venture. An editor had suggested that I write a novel rather than the non-fiction I’d been previously writing. The thought was terrifying. “Am I up to it?” I wondered. “Do I have what it takes?” Consumed for months by doubt and uncertainty, I found myself paralyzed – afraid to go forward, at the same time unable to go back. Endlessly, I tortured my friends – “How can I do it?”
“Try practicing gratitude,” one friend finally suggested. “First thing in the morning meditate on what you have to be grateful for . . . throughout the day replace fear with thanks . . . and in the evening before going to bed, remind yourself of all you’ve been given.”
Dubiously, but with nothing to lose, I began. At first it was difficult, the notion was foreign, the inner voices relentless. Not knowing quite why I persisted, and gradually I found something shifting. Without really noticing, the doubts began to fade and a deeper “Yes-I-can” slowly took hold. Like exercising an unused muscle, these daily pushups of the spirit created an increasing inner strength from which to write. Words poured out on the page, characters and a plot appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Each time I thought, who do I think I am? I can’t do this, I replaced my doubts with gratitude for what I had. Now, eight years later, I look back. Not only did I succeed in actually finishing the novel (though it’s still being revised), but I strengthened my confidence – in all areas of my life.
This inner strength has stayed with me. And though each time I step out of my comfort zone I still confront the same doubts and fears, each time I do I find a new and unexpected part of myself and expand my sense of what’s possible. With each step, it becomes easier. Doubts come and go much more quickly and I find myself able to move forward with greater ease. All of which adds to my list of what I have to be thankful for.
In one sense the act of writing a book is an act of giving thanks, and each work of art, an expression of gratitude. Therefore, as well as including books on gratitude, I’ve included books that reflect that spirit – novels, books of poetry, books of art.
THANKS!; How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier – by Robert Emmons. Emmons is a leading authority on gratitude and his research is responsible for much of what we know about gratitude. In this book, Emmons presents clear and practical ways in which everyone can begin improve the quality of life. The book is backed by scientific research. Emmons looks at gratitude from an interdisciplinary perspective, including literature, psychology, religion and health, synthesizing scientific and popular inspirational writing. He tells us that gratitude is shown to strengthen people’s social relationships, improve people’s health, and motivate people to act in ways that enhance the quality of their moments, days, and lives. At the end of the book Emmons offers ten ways to cultivate gratitude, including keeping a gratitude journal and learning prayers on gratitude. “Gratitude is more than a tool for self-improvement,” Emmons writes. “Gratitude is a way of life.”
365 THANK YOUS; The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, by John Kralik. The impetus for this book came when Kralik received a thank you note from a friend. Having been depressed by a second divorce, his law firm failing, plagued by health problems, Kralik was inspired by the simple act of thanks he received to focus his energy on what he had to be grateful for, rather than what he didn’t have. One by one, day after day, he began to handwrite thank yous – to loved ones, to business associates – from college friends, to doctors, store clerks and handymen – anyone who had done him a good turn. Kralik found that the act of expressing thanks began to change both his circumstances and himself. “With the help of my three hundred thank-you notes,” he writes, “I found that the like I had viewed as perfectly awful was a lot better than I had been willing to acknowledge.”
SAY HER NAME by Francisco Goldman. Goldman writes intimately of his life during the year following his young wife’s drowning. The book is part biography, part meditation on grief, and, most importantly, a deeply moving expression of gratitude for her presence in his life. In the following passage, Goldman describes the way their souls intertwined. “We followed the trail farther in to that hidden lagoon. Soon we were watching the iridescent pastels of the sunset spreading over the water and blazing in the sky . . . the whole place throbbing with bird calls, as if every glowing tree and plant hid a boisterous bird or two, and we both felt stunned into separate peaceful meditations on the crazy sublimity of what we were witnessing, each of us filling with a sense of mystical wonder and loneliness that merged into one mystical wonder and loneliness together . . . Sometimes I think that if cenotes really are portholes to the underworld and I can go through one and be reunited with Aura, it’s on the shores of that jungle lagoon that I’ll find her waiting.”
GILEAD by Marilyn Robinson. This book, framed as a letter by a preacher at the end of his life to young son, is more than an account of the old preacher’s life. It is a meditation on faith. It is testament to life’s universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness. Ultimately it is a blessing. “I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that the word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,’ but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout.”
PIG EARTH by John Berger. This is the first volume of a trilogy. In a series of stories and poems it tells of the lives of the peasants who live in a small village in the French Alps and of their traditional way of life. There are a great range of stories that cover daily life and the 24-hour a day commitment that their lives require. In the most elemental events, Berger presents small daily miracles. “Mucus is a protection, a kind of love. The calf lay there exhausted, like a leaf when it first comes out. Faintly she had the smell which once proceeded – for all of us – the first smell of air. Herbert rubbed the calf down. His happiness was without excitement; a response to an event which gave itself to the stillness which now followed it, like the last note of a fanfare still hanging in silence, the trumpeter’s arm still raised. His happiness took the form of a small drawn-out feeling of pride which lasted all day.”
THE MERCY; poems by Philip Levine. Mercy reveals the diversity out of which America emerged. Focusing on Detroit factories, machine shops, blue-collar neighborhoods of his childhood, Levine’s poems blend larger social struggles with his own personal ones, creating an intricate mosaic. In the last poem in this volume, he pays tribute to his mother who had recently died. Toward the end, “The watching stars shed what light they can, the moon/ – with all its distant power/ – rides out the darkness. Your sea, / a mountain range away, calmed, / enters a safe haven/ that will last a single night. / The quail quiet at last. We/ are one, sharing whatever/ you are as blindness descends.”
NATIVES AND VISIONARIES;, ed by Martin Friedman. This book is the catalogue of an exhibit (by the same name) in 1974 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was the first exhibit of outsider art in this country and I came across the catalogue when it was first published (which coincided with the exhibit.) The exhibit was transformational for me – reaffirming my belief at that works of art should not be limited by mainstream taste or tradition. The exhibit was a collection of self-taught artists, who, though marginalized by the art world of the time, were deeply inspired by their own inner voices and felt an overwhelming urgency to express themselves. They created their works, not to be famous or to make “ART”, but to communicate their own unique perception of life. Each work in the catalogue is a celebration and a thanksgiving.
EVEN THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES SOMETIMES HAS GOT TO STAND NAKED by Ari Marcopoulos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book of photographs with such a range – the jagged and harsh, the achingly poignant, right next to the exquisite and delicately transcendent. The juxtaposition of images is breathtaking. A personal paean, encapsulating a whole mix of what it is to be alive.
My retreats – Finding Stillness, Cultivating Creativity and Developing Balance – are six hour retreats and take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadow, oak, bay and redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. The retreats are designed for individuals and can be scheduled throughout the year at your convenience. There is also the option to stay at a nearby inn, dividing the retreat over two days so that you can take advantage of nearby Russian River and the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Consider giving one as a birthday present to a friend, or taking one yourself.