The practice of Gratitude has been an important part of my life for about two decades now.
It began sort of by accident in the fall of 2003, when I had gone back to college as an adult to study art, and was taking a class in Contemplative Art at the University of Colorado. It was a combination of art history and studio work, and at one point in the semester, I had an individual meeting with the professor, and she challenged me to find some kind of contemplative practice that I could do every day for the next two months, and make some sort of record of it as an artist. My first reaction (although I didn’t say it out loud,) was, there’s no way I could possibly do that, I’m too busy! I was working two jobs as well as taking college classes, and knew there was no way I could do yoga every morning or meditate for half an hour every day, or anything.
But that afternoon, as I was walking from campus to the next thing on my schedule, I remembered something I had read in an article a few years before, about the Jewish practice of ‘making blessings.’ Now, I am not Jewish, but it struck me as a lovely idea that there were these little pauses in daily life to acknowledge the source of the things we encounter. There are many traditional ones, for everything from specific foods, to wearing a new piece of clothing for the first time, to a blessing said while washing one’s hands after using the bathroom. Most of them start with the same words; ‘Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates… (fill in the blank.)” It has a lovely rhythm to it, even in English, and I decided I would take on the contemplative practice of writing my own; essentially looking around for things to be grateful for, and writing them down in that poetic format. I carried scratch paper in the car and a notebook in my purse. By the end of 8 weeks, I had written nearly 400 of them, and it had opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world, where I saw the connected-ness of everything, even in the most mundane objects and experiences. (If you would like to see the piece of art I eventually made that was informed by this practice, you can see if here: The Heavens and the Earth. This piece now hangs in the meditation room at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder CO)
This experience was powerfully transformative for me, and even though I no longer write them down all day, it has become second nature to look at the world through the lens of gratefulness, which is probably why my husband gave me the nickname “the gratefulness fairy.”
If I had to define what has changed in me, I would say that rather than allowing the external circumstances to dictate my state of mind, and waiting for something nice to happen to me and then (sometimes) reacting with gratitude, it’s now like I meet the world with the knowledge that everywhere I go there will be something to be grateful for, and I am looking for it. For me, gratitude is a way of remembering how connected with the amazing sacred interwoven web of Life. Each culture, tradition, and time in history has had its own language to describe this reality, but beneath language, culture, and religion, it is a shared experience.
Eventually, I started being asked to teach and lead retreats about gratefulness, and I found that while many folks wanted to practice it, they didn’t really know how. This led to the creation of a set of inspiration cards that I wrote and designed, called Grateful Every Day, and a little hand-lettered booklet called the Little Handbook of Gratitude Practices.
If you are interested in developing your own gratitude muscles a little more, along with the resources I designed, you might want to check out the website Grateful.org. It was started by my dear teacher Brother David Steindl-Rast, with whom I used to spend a week on retreat each summer. There are many marvelous resources there to encourage you.