Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing Gratitudes: A how-to guide

(I've been asked a few times to describe my annual practice of doing Gratitudes. Herein follows a basic, if rambling, guide to my process and thinking.)

Between Thanksgiving and the end of the calendar year is when I write my annual Gratitudes. It can take awhile to write them, because you have to stop and think about them often. I usually give myself several writing sessions over a month's time to do them. You go away and do something else, and let them percolate for awhile. Then you come back with fresh insight.

I write annual Gratitudes instead of making New Year's Resolutions. I've been doing this for several years now.

New Year's Resolutions are set-ups for failure, for self-hatred, and for beating yourself up when you cannot live up to your own expectations. Resolutions are toxic. I stopped making New Year's Resolutions decades ago, when I realized that they were exactly like those damaging expectations we lay on ourselves, then use to later hate and harm ourselves for not being able to accomplish. Most people make unreasonably grandiose Resolutions, that on some level they already know they won't be able to meet. So there's a masochistic aspect to the practice, which is unnecessary.

For many years I did nothing on New Year's Eve. I thought it to be one of the dumber of national holidays throughout the year. It has all the excess and self-indulgence of a Roman carnival, without much actual reflection. Every year it's the party at the end of the world. (Of course, in these days, many people do feel it's the end of the world, anytime now.) So for several years I just ignored the whole thing. Another factor, for me, is that I celebrate the turning of the Yearwheel at Samhain, which is the old agrarian pagan calendar new year.

Then, a few years ago I got the idea to start doing Gratitudes, instead, at calendar year's end. I discovered this idea when I was really stuck. I had given up my own life and career to move back in with my parents and become their full-time live-in caregiver. I needed to find something to be grateful for, as I felt life pressing in around me with death, despair, and hopelessness. I felt like I needed to find something in my life to grateful for, or I would drown.

What I do now instead of New Year's Resolutions is to focus on what lessons I've learned over the past year, what I've accomplished, what has been given to me, and what I'm grateful for. Gratitudes need to be very personal, not grandiose. They need to be about what you sincerely are grateful for.

I have found when doing Gratitudes over the past few years that I have to start with very small, insignificant things. I start small, because if you dive into the deep end from the start, you'll freeze up. So I wade in slowly. I start with something like, "I'm grateful for the Xmas ornament my sister made for me last year, which was the first ornament I put on my tree this year."

If I start small, I can gradually work my way up to the really big things, like, "I'm grateful I'm still alive." If I start small, I really mean it sincerely when I get around to the big things.

The big things to be grateful for are harder to be genuine, authentic, and sincere about.

It's really easy to be grateful when you sit down to a feast of abundance at a large table with family and friends.

It's a lot harder—and therefore probably more real—to be grateful during a famine than a feast.

Yet one of the all-time greatest spiritual masters, mystics, and teachers, Meister Eckhart once said, "If the only prayer you ever prayed was 'Thank You,' that would suffice." Sincere gratitude is much more powerful than insincere thanks, even for very small things.

Most people think the big things are the easy things to be grateful for, but they're only easy on a glib, surface level. If all you want to do is live a superficial life with easy gratitudes, that's fine, and more power to you, and I cannot live that way. Most people state their gratitude only for those things in life that make them feel good, not for those things that hurt to learn. If you have achieved success in career, love life, and more, then by all means do express your gratitude. But don't stop there. Don't just express gratitude for all the good things in your life. There's more to life than just the good things.

For me, the really big things to be grateful for, which I work up to, must include those things in my life that taught me the hard lessons. The lessons I needed to learn, but which were not always comfortable, pleasant, or fun. Like, "I am grateful for the obstacles put in my way, that I learned lessons from." Like, "I am even grateful for the hardships I've been through, the suffering and pain I've been through, because each of those taught me to grow up and become a better person, a more whole person."

I am stating those Gratitudes generically here, by way of example. When I actually sit down to write my own gratitudes, you can bet that this year I will be including the illness, surgery, and recovery that I've been through in 2011. It has been a very hard year in many ways—not only for me, but for several of my friends and family. And I am genuinely grateful for the pain of the surgery and recovery I've been through, because I'm still alive. The blunt truth is, 50 years I would have already died by now.

So I have found that writing Gratitudes is a progression from small, simple things, up to the really big life-altering, deeply cosmic, spiritual-level things. That's how I do it. It's what works for me. Someone else might do it completely differently.

I highly recommend this practice of writing Gratitudes to anyone who wishes to do New Year's differently than they have usually done before. It completely changes the way you think about yourself, and about life, at year's end. You still do the same self-reflection, the same overview of the last year to see what you've done and how well you've done it. But you avoid setting yourself up for future sessions of beating yourself up for not living up to your own expectations. It's a lot easier on the nerves, and a lot better for your self-esteem. If your personal level of self-esteem is already under attack, why add more stress to it?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Oh MAAAAAN!

That hasn't happened to me in ages. Writing a long reply in the comment box and having it disappeared ... ugh.

Just this then: good work.

And as to the longish comment, well, we can let some things go. And that's OK.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks.

Sorry about the comment. That's happened to me a couple of times lately, I don['t know why.

10:41 AM  

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