You know when you’re having a really bad day, and that crystal healing lady from your office points out over Zoom that self-pity is a “very dark energy”? Or maybe it’s that irritatingly “spiritual” friend who meets your very legitimate complaints about life with questions like, “But what are you grateful for?”
Listen, I am not here to retraumatize you.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to lure you in from the cold and then suggest in a slightly condescending tone that you “should” be grateful for what you have. (In fact, I regularly hiss at people who say stuff like that. And so can you!)
What I am going to do is share a little bit of the (annoyingly) convincing science behind gratitude. And then I’m going to bash you over the head with some surprise Buddhist teachings. Kidding, kidding. I’m going to, ahem, *invite* you to try some non-triggering gratitude inquiries with me.
THERE’S A LOT NOT TO LIKE
There’s a lot to be upset about right now and in general. So it makes sense if your first response to the suggestion that we express gratitude is distress or even disdain. I mean, come on. So many of us are out of work, isolated, and feeling helpless as we watch the virus spread and the economy crash.
And if that’s not enough material for your brain, feel free to throw in your experience with loneliness, aging, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, self-loathing, romance (or lack thereof), general angst, or, get ready for the big guns, your family of origin.
There’s plenty to argue with, which is why our brains might not love the idea of a gratitude practice.
My brain has a million objections. This is stupid, it says with pointed contempt. Things aren’t okay, so why should I pretend like they are? I’m not condoning any of this sh*t. Know what sounds better than gratitude? Resistance. To. Everything.
It’s a common enough hitch. We wrongly believe that to accept a situation means we are, on some level, agreeing with it, that we approve of it. But that’s not what the stance of acceptance is about.
To me, acceptance means that, as wrong as life seems right now, I make a choice (over and over again) to stop fighting against reality.
Sometimes I still really hate what’s going on, but I’ve at least acknowledged that it is what’s happening. When I realize that relaxing into life could mean relief, I say a prayer with my whole body: please help me get on board with this.
Let me be clear. I’m also not suggesting you bypass your legitimate human experience with a smile that hurts your face. In my book, crankiness is actually preferable to toxic positivity. Plus, what if the very real grief you’re experiencing could even be part of what you’re grateful for? ()
HOW BRAINS MAKE IT HARD
Okay, so you’ve probably heard the term negativity bias. It describes how our brains are wired not only to respond more readily to negative experiences but also to ruminate on them the same way a cow chews cud. Over and over, we return to the source of pain as it worms its way into our neurobiology.
Negative experiences are stored five times stronger than positive ones in our unconscious or “implicit” memory. Yup, that’s the tone of our brains when it comes to our attitude about being alive (namely, cranky).
I used to think of the lizard brain like a rabid T-rex character stalking the pathways of my mind with menace and taunting me with its baby nosferatu arms. But what if, instead, it’s just a helpless newborn lizard?
I recently complained to a good friend about the anxiety T-rex wreaking havoc on my nervous system. In response, she made the following declaration with great purpose, “I speak for the lizards!”
Patty, Queen of the Lizards, reminded me that the primitive part of our brain is fundamentally intelligent, that it’s trying to protect us. It’s just doing its job with the limited information and resources at its disposal.
But it also turns out that the more recently evolved part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex, goes beyond mere survival. It can shift our attitude toward orientations like compassion, empathy, and, you guessed it, gratitude.
GRATITUDE MAKES YOU FEEL BETTER
So why should we care? Well, because it turns out that gratitude is good for us. (I’ll wait for the hissing to die down before I continue.)
Yeah, yeah. You know that the benefits of gratitude include things like better immune and cardiovascular health, less physical pain, greater happiness, freedom from toxic emotions, and, my personal fave, amazing sleep.
Over time, gratitude can make you more resilient and resourceful. It even helps heal painful experiences, including trauma. Did you know you can actually measure distinct gratitude brain activity on an fMRI?
It gets tricky because the human brain is wired to look for threats and danger (shout out to those tiny baby lizards, y’all). But you can use gratitude practice to combat the neurobiology of negativity.
Pathways in the brain can be changed and reorganized over time— a quality called neural plasticity. Because even the adult brain is malleable in this way, repeated efforts can directly restructure patterns of thought and behavior.
Here’s how it works. The basic principle of neurological learning is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Each time we have a feeling, thought, felt sense, or experience, thousands of neurons get triggered in an electrochemical event that takes place in our brains. With enough repetition, our brains learn to activate the same groups of neurons as a response to a stimulus.
This means that the more we travel down specific neural pathways with thoughts, attitudes, and feelings, the deeper their grooves become.
The Buddhist term for these grooves is samskara, which translates roughly to “formations.” The more we associate these pathways with experiences, the more likely certain moods or dispositions become.
Plus, the more times we go down a neural pathway, the greater the likelihood that we’ll make that trip again. (And again and again.)
Ugh, fine. It sounds like gratitude could be a nice thing for the cheerful yogis. And maybe even for one or more of your chronically irritable friends or family members. But does it actually apply to us?
DON’T MAKE IT WORSE
When someone draws me into gratitude practice the usual way, using words like “should” and “thankful,” my brain digs its cranky heels in and prepares for war.
But don’t worry. We’ll approach the whole be grateful thing a little differently.
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Gil Fronsdal, sums up Buddhism in four perfect words: don’t make it worse.
When the Buddha taught this, he used the metaphor of first and second arrows. The first arrow is, ouch. Being alive hurts. We are born, we age, we sicken, we die. Pain is implicit in life. We, The Cranky, know better than most.
But the second arrow is the suffering we add on top of the unavoidable pain of being alive. It’s the suffering of our thinking, the wounds we can’t stop inflicting upon ourselves with our ideas about what’s wrong, what’s threatening, what’s dangerous, how things should be different than they are. It’s a petri dish for crankiness.
So even if life feels like total bs right now, Gil is extending a lifeline to those of us whose cranky brains need relief the most. Since life is implicitly painful enough, maybe practicing gratitude can be one way we attempt to suffer less.
WHAT ISN’T WRONG RIGHT NOW?
Sometimes I like to start a reluctant gratitude practice with the question Gil asks: what isn’t wrong right now?
Wow. This dude summed up Buddhism with four words and then gave even the crankiest among us an invitation that’s pretty hard to argue with.
So (maybe, no pressure, only if you want to) ask yourself that question. What’s not wrong right now?
Here’s what I notice: The wind outside is blowing the trees against each other in the darkness of the morning. I hear the tinkling of the chimes from a distance.
The dahlia tree is heavy with pink blossoms whose petals scatter the wet earth. My dog’s ears defy the laws of physics with their impossible softness.
Ready? I’m about to say something upsetting. Come into your body. If you’re alive, this will probably be uncomfortable. (Remember that whole first arrow thing?)
That’s okay— welcome to your alive field of experience. This is where life happens.
So what’s not wrong with how life is happening right now? What information is available to your senses? You might have to work for it. Totally fine. Be gentle with all those cranky neural connections. It took practice to form those, and it’ll take training to develop these, too.
Need a little more encouragement? Think of all the stuff you don’t know you appreciate until it’s gone. Is your electricity on? Is your body miraculously free of leprous growths…again today? Are your lungs breathing air without conscious effort? Has your heart been beating since you started reading this essay 6 minutes ago? I bet you can find something. Take your time—I’ll wait.
RELISH IT WITH YOUR WHOLE BEING
And here’s something that still truly alarms me. The physiological effect of thinking about what could go wrong is the same as if that perceived threat or worst-case scenario were actually happening.
But here’s the flip side. The more time we spend inside our own bodies savoring the parts of life that aren’t wrong, the more opportunity these experiences have to be integrated into our hearts, minds, and beings.
One of the best ways to give the good stuff a chance to settle in is to relish the experience with our senses. But we can do a few other things to maximize its impact.
This is where the training comes in *cues Eye of the Tiger.* Whatever turns out not to be wrong with now, bring full awareness to it and lean the f*ck in.
Stay for as many moments as possible because the more time you stay and savor the good, the more intense the positive neural pathways become. Plus, the longer you focus on what isn’t wrong, the more stimulating it becomes emotionally.
AP GRATITUDE PRACTICES
If you’re feeling like a newly anointed gratitude superhero, here are some AP gratitude suggestions to enrich your what-isn’t-wrong experiences even more.
- Center your attention on what feels best or most rewarding about the experience. Why? It means more dopamine is released in the brain, which not only makes it easier to focus single-mindedly on what isn’t wrong but also strengthens neural connections in your unconscious memory.
- Cultivate the not-wrongness by purposefully calling forward other memories of what it’s like to feel loved or validated. This stimulates oxytocin and can deepen the felt connection to what’s (dare I say) good.
- From right in the middle of the lived experience, let the good sink into your cells like the warmth of the sun does for a few delicious moments on a winter day. Relax into that glow with your whole being and soak it up.
HOW I GET DOWN
Remember that dog I mentioned, the one whose ears defy universal law? She happens to be asleep in her puppy bed at my feet, snoring gently like a piglet. I get on hands and knees and crawl clumsily to her side. She’s old now, so she doesn’t wake up even when I press my whole face into her raised ears.
I rub my face back and forth across her delicate fluff, baffled anew each time I change direction by its unthinkable softness. I breathe in the smell of my sleeping pup, her paws rich with the fragrance of corn. She opens a sleepy eye momentarily, shifts her position just so, and sighs herself back to sleep.
I savor every moment, storing the awareness of this aging canine queen deep inside my cells. I enshrine each of her silken hairs within my very being, my memory an altar to that which is truly deserving of the word sacred.
So that’s how I get down with what isn’t wrong in my own slightly dramatic, dog-obsessed fashion. And so can you! I’ll repeat my message one last time to all the cranky brains out there. Gratitude belongs to you, too.
It doesn’t have to feel gaslighting or disingenuous or like such an uphill battle. And hey, if the feeling isn’t quite there yet to consecrate each of the individual hairs on your dog’s head to the gratitude altar of your mind, start with something else. You know, like coffee or whatever.