Animals and nature are a great way to cultivate appreciation
Being grateful and expressing that gratitude are habits that take practice like anything else, especially since we have so many years of practice at looking for what's always missing or not enough in our lives.
Over the last two months since I've started writing again, I've really tried to incorporate gratitude into my life as a habit and see the difference it can make. I can say that even though it only has been a short while, I notice a huge difference in how I handle problems and every day situations - and most importantly how I bounce back from situations that are very challenging.
For me it struck a chord when I realized that gratitude was the answer to everything. Literally every negative state that we are in can be cured by building a habit of being grateful - a habit of being on the lookout for how "enough" life, this moment, the people around us are.
It's not easy, and certainly there's challenges to that state of being every day. We all have our mechanics and reactions to things we have to deal with, and those are OK and will be there for life. The key is to begin building supplemental behaviors and attitudes to help make sure you never slide off the deep end from something little and pointless - as is human tendency.
So, here's a list of a few simple things that I've incorporated into my life that have made a big difference and maybe some of them can make a difference in yours, too. These simple things have helped me train my sense of observation for what's "enough" in life rather than what's not working, they have helped me to practice the expression of gratitude (different than being grateful) and overall maintain a healthier state of being even when there are plenty of reasons to spiral downward. Thanks for reading!
#1: Invest Yourself
Up until this last year, I had no idea that I was avoiding people. I used to pride myself that I 'don't have many friends, but the ones that I had were really good', as if somehow that justified in my mind that I had fulfilling connections in my life despite the other myriads that I would avoid to even begin.
Or think that I was just 'too busy' to socialize, priding myself on my productivity when in fact, like many people, I was using that as an excuse not to participate in social interactions because I felt awkward or uncomfortable not being in my comfort zone.
Or I'd even think that I was an 'introvert' despite all the glitz and glam in my profession, and in reality I just 'naturally' liked to just sit at home quietly by myself - when this, too, was just a cover for the difficulty I had in opening myself to new possibilities, listening to people, connecting and sharing myself.
But, thanks to some priceless personal improvement courses I took this year through Landmark, I gained a window into looking at all of these things I would say to myself and I realized that, in fact, I was shutting people away and killing off what I wanted most: to have a connection with people.
We all have self-sabotaging mechanisms that get in the way of living the life we want, and most of the time they are hidden from view so we come with a series of excuses or pretend as if that weren't reality.
The truth is, being alive and living are two different things.
Most of the time, as ordinary humans, we are just in survival mode. It's just my mechanics and your mechanics and we are just moving forward. Life is fine, it works, has worked and will keep working. But there's something missing, isn't there?
That something missing is a genuine sense of belonging, connection, expression and creation. All of these things happen when you are generous with yourself by allowing people in your life - by being vulnerable to the possibilities around you, listening to others' lives and taking them in (however briefly) and just generally being with people.
Up until this year I never understood what it was just to be with people. Like truly be present with them, let them be and see what happens.
That's why #1 on this list is really about vulnerability. Your willingness to invest yourself in others, in ideas, in commitments, projects - this is the key to living a fulfilling life. Take it from me, for years as a kid I hid in my room with my face glued to the computer screen and couldn't stand being social or cared about anyone or their life, yet it cost me dearly and that's something I committed to changing a while ago.
Invest yourself, invest yourself, invest yourself. Courage or foolishness, but regardless throw yourself in. Let people in, let opportunities in. Be curious, don't write things off so quickly. Be willing. Try new things, ask questions to strangers and truly listen to what they have to say. Don't be afraid to get personal and stop talking about meaningless bullshit on Facebook or in politics. Get real with people and share yourself, and encourage them to do the same.
Be in someone else's world for a change - you've already been in yours long enough.
This opens the door to getting over yourself and seeing how many wonderful things and people there are around you, how valuable it is to have authentic connections with others and ultimately, gratitude for being alive.
#2: Do Creative Stuff
Growing up as a kid I was blessed with a supportive mom who allowed me to explore a variety of creative outlets - drawing, painting, playing the piano, writing and later dancing. I firmly believe that every human being has a creative power that they can contribute to the Universe ("One Song") and it is one of the measures of being happy in life to find that expression.
But if you look in today's world, we are growing less and less creative by the masses even though it seems our society is exploding with creativity. Is it really? I was talking with my good friend, Elijah, that when we were kids most of the games we played were outside and had to use our imagination - I remember playing with dinosaurs and coming up with all kinds of insane stories and games with my friends back in elementary school.
These days, kids consume someone else's creativity - someone else's ideas, rather than using their own imagination. A select few are the generators of ideas, they go to market, and the masses gobble them up and talk about them until the next big thing comes along. Sounds cynical, but just take a look around.
Before the internet, before modern civilization - being creative was something that everyone experienced in some form or another. Everyone had a chance to contribute their own creative force to the symphony. If you look at any ancient society, from tribal dances to cave drawings, warpaint, making pots, pelts - everyone found their niche in the song and had a chance at expression.
Having this outlet for expression in your life is so important because of several reasons.
The first is that creative force is generally a "higher vibration" than a consuming one. If you believe in chakras, the lower chakras have more to do with security, sexuality and ego, while the higher ones control expression, divinity and thought. We always have life force being expressed through somewhere, and most of society is concerned with energies concerning the lower points more than they are with the latter.
And that's not wrong, but there is a genuine sense of aliveness, again, the higher up the chain you go. I know that when I'm in my element playing music, or writing, or thinking of new ideas - there's just something so invigorating about it compared to the day to day consumption that goes on. Consumption of media, food, other people's ideas, trends, games, etc. etc.
Being creative also puts you in tune with yourself and gives you confidence and self-worth.
You are either created by the world or you are contributing to creation - there is no middle ground. In today's world, we are bombarded by capitalism and unless you are willing to explore what you have to offer, what you like to do, what you are curious about - then capitalism will create your life and your identity for you, and this will leave you with no authorship over your life and very little self-knowledge and self actualization which are other keys to happiness.
Finally being creative gets you in tune with gratitude for life because you get to contribute to others' lives.
Creating and sharing go hand in hand, and we are always creating. This doesn't mean your life is horrible if you can't paint or that you need to be devoting 30 minutes a day to some creative pursuit when you get home - some people's creative force is great at organization, while others is at inspiring people. All of these go hand in hand, and part of creating and sharing yourself with others is what we discussed in #1: investing yourself.
Being creative is not about being an artist - it is about engaging life and sometimes being uncomfortable. In what sense?
In the sense that you are willing to let go of the comfort of being a passive consumer and actually pursue something that is truly important to you and checking it out. You do not have to worry about where your creative talents are - that's already pre-programmed. You just have to get up and act on what you know deep down inside you want, you've been curious about but your reasonable mind has told you that it can't be done, that it's a stupid idea or that there's no time/money/possibility there.
So, go treat yourself to a nice notebook that makes you want to write stuff down in it and start listening to your creative brain. It will give you a window into a much more fulfilling life and that will only increase your gratitude in the long run, as well as your confidence and self-worth.
#3: Go Outside
This one is obvious and you've probably seen it a million times in a million other places. It's true though. Nature's absolute magnificence will humble you, connect you to the bigger picture and slow you down - which is the perfect foundation for being more grateful for the miracle that is your life.
Personally I've tried to adopt this in a variety of ways - sometimes I like to ride my bike, and many others I just enjoy sitting in the jacuzzi staring at the night sky and wondering about how infinite space is. In either case, taking time to see the big picture is something super important in today's world.
In my previous post I talked about how all the hustle and bustle of the holidays can easily get us into shortage thinking and frantic running around - this is why taking the time to see the bigger picture is important. We live in a world of increasing micro-transactions and that makes our left, analytical brains go on over-drive.
Sitting down and just observing nature in a quiet spot is a luxury in such a hectic environment - and truly important for building more gratitude.
When you are sitting and just enjoying nature - there is no such thing as "not enough time" or "not enough money" or all of these "not enoughs" that we constantly have nagging us on a day to day basis in the city. It's just quiet and it just is.
There is a filling nature to nature. You feel full of experience - nothing is lacking, and the natural expression of something full is to overflow and give, which is why gratitude and generosity are so intertwined.
Nature also has incredible harmony, mathematics, symmetry, purpose, alignment, balance - all of these things when you take time to observe them remind you that you are part of a greater system with an intelligent design behind it and whatever type of God you believe in, that sense of belonging also helps you to be grateful for life, because in our day to day lives it's easy to get lost in survival mode, blaming the system, thinking life has no purpose and is totally random and so on.
Nature will give you the bigger picture, and that bigger picture is gratitude.
#4: Talk to Plants
Maybe it's because I'm lazy and afraid of taking care of a dog right now, but I bought a bunch of plants for my house to help filter the air because I read about a few easy to take care of types like Aloe, Jasmine, etc. that fit the bill.
But in the process of taking care of them I started to express my gratitude to them for doing what they do, calling them beautiful and treating them with love and kindness. They are living beings after all.
And I realized that plants are an excellent way to build more gratitude in your life because they are...easy to talk to! They don't talk back, they don't judge you and they are super approachable. They don't complain, and they give themselves fully to the relationship. They are just awesome.
All joking aside, I'm very grateful to my plants because I realized that you can have a connection with something I did not consider a possibility for in the past. Plants were just a "thing" to me, not a living being that I could express my gratitude to - and expression is the key to solidifying anything in your life. Plants are beautiful, simple and they can build your nurturing side as well.
One day I would love to have a garden, but we'll keep it at Aloe Vera and Jasmine for now :).
I grew up Romanian Orthodox, was an altar boy for several years and for 12 years of my life I went to Catholic education in school. Praying was a habit that was definitely in my life, but for the most part I treated it like a chore.
It wasn't until later in my life that I learned how to pray and why we pray.
Praying has a religious connotation to it, but in reality it is much older than religion. To pray is our ability to commune with the Greater Consciousness, to tune in, express ourselves authentically, listen and - most importantly - express gratitude.
Like many people, I used to pray to get something. Or when I needed something. We see God as this infinite piggy bank or genie's lamp that we can tap into, but that is just the influence of capitalism on something much more divine and deeply rooted in our psyche.
Praying is connecting to something higher and through this experience you are allowing your infinite, creative mind to download from the Source. You get in tune with humility, because acknowledging that there is a bigger thing than you out there is the first step in being humble.
And finally, you can express gratitude for your life and what you've been given, send love to those in your life or not in your life and overall just get over yourself and the problems that are shifting your view of the world that your life is anything but a miracle.
#6: Acknowledge Others
Gratitude has to be expressed for it to be alive in your life, and one of the best ways to do that is to make a habit of acknowledging people around you.
First you have to confront the reality we live in that resists this simple, yet beautiful practice.
In general we like to enlarge our dramas and minimize our successes. We write off times when we are vulnerable and don't talk about them, quickly skirting away back to comfortable, meaningless discussion about something other than ourselves. When it comes to acknowledging others, or worse, ourselves - we put our acknowledgement through so many screens that it never makes it's way out of our mouths.
"This isn't that important."
"They don't care."
"Why should I tell them x,y,z."
Just like with generosity, we make requirements on who should get our acknowledgement and who shouldn't. One of the most transformative practices I have learned is to acknowledge those in my life that have hurt me or otherwise created something unpleasant for me. Why? In this way, I can help to re-create that area of my life into one of power rather than leaving it at the point it was before, draining my power.
It costs you nothing to acknowledge another, and in doing so you gain presence to how grateful you are for that relationship.
As a dance teacher, I have a lot of relationships to manage over the course of the year. Each comes with their specific challenges, goals, outcomes, doing, doing, doing. In the process, it is easy to get caught up in the doing and creating that you forget to just be grateful that person is in your life. This is why I've made a habit of writing each of my students a personalized thank you note at the end of the year - to express my gratitude and to remind myself who that person is in my life.
Nothing can be erased once it has happened, but we are creating constantly and you can create a layer of gratitude over any layer of hurt or suffering or dissatisfaction in your life and with anyone - just by practicing acknowledgement of others.
A final thing about acknowledgement is this: learn to be expressive with your words. Gratitude is not an area to be stingy with language. "I'm thankful" and being short with your acknowledgements or expression is really cutting yourself short in fully being present to what you are grateful for.
You don't need to suddenly start writing poetry, but forget how you will look if finding words is harder for you and just push yourself to explore that feeling for a little while longer - words are our gateway into an experience and the more detailed you train your brain to express, the more impact it will make on you and those around you. Be specific and be bold with your language.
#7: Make Gratitude Lists
Writing is a powerful tool for training the brain and making lists of the people you are thankful for and why will guaranteed help you build a habit of gratitude and change your world view.
It takes time, but it is so important.
We get so caught up with everything that happens that most of the time our brains just access short-term information and data about the people in our lives. Whatever happened recently is what reality is. We literally lose touch with the real important moments because they are usually few and far between thousands and thousands of meaningless ones.
When I made my list for Thanksgiving of the people I was thankful to have in my life, I had forgotten how many relationships I've had for so many years. Friends for a decade or more - and so many of them still in my life. These are things that you forget on a day to day basis because our brain is just not equipped to remember information that way, and that's why making a habit of getting present to those things occasionally will transform your relationships with gratitude.
As with acknowledgement, be generous and specific with your language. Expressing gratitude is usually uncomfortable at first, so do not let yourself cop out of it with a quick, short statement. Be vulnerable, be uncomfortable and be authentic about what that person really means to you and why.
#8: Do Something for Someone
Random acts of kindness are what this world needs more of - and it can help to spread gratitude to someone desperately in need of it.
The reality is that sometimes we just get stuck in all of our self-defeating mechanisms and we need help to get out. Doing something kind for someone can be that extra boost they needed that day and it is impossible to measure how that will impact the world eventually just by sheer transfer of energy.
I remember my post about going to Ikea and how within minutes of helping someone, I too received help and it honestly made my day. Little acts of kindness go a long way, and when you do something for someone else you leave all the crap that's in your reality alone and become present to all the love and gratitude that is waiting for you outside of that stuff.
The practice of re-framing first starts with observation. You have to build the habit of observing your behavior and monitoring your state of being. The better you get at detecting when you are emotionally off, the better you can be at re-framing.
What is re-framing? Ultimately everything that we experience as a problem is somehow languaged in our minds. Your flat tire isn't "stupid", it's just flat. You could also re-frame the situation into how grateful you are for having had a tire take you so long to all the places that were important to you, when many parts of the world don't have that luxury.
Re-framing is taking a different point of view, a different language to a situation and allowing that in over the original problem.
With gratitude, you have to develop a sharp sense of when you are in survival mode - constantly looking to cut corners, shortage-minded, conserving yourself, not being vulnerable or generous and so on. In those situations, you need to stop, breathe and look at what you can be grateful for in the situation.
Find the one thing, even though there are many - and even if there is just one tiny thing, let that become what you focus on and re-write over that situation or person rather than the myriads of other negative thoughts that are readily there.
Out of all the habits, this is the most difficult.
It's the most difficult because re-framing something means you must be willing to let go of your feelings about the situation or person, willing to let go that that's how reality is and there's just no way around it.
The greatest irony is we all carry bags of bricks, but rarely do we want to actually let them go - but making a habit out of re-framing situations with gratitude will prevent them from setting deep roots in your mind, which are much harder to get rid of.
The mind is a garden, and we must be a vigilant gardener monitoring what grows in it dutifully.
I hope you've enjoyed my list, I've enjoyed writing it - it's gotten me more present to these things in my life and as always when I write it's a great reminder.
In the end all roads lead to Rome - we all want love and fulfillment in our lives and how we get there is a matter of each person - but gratitude is one of the pillars of creating more of that in our lives for sure.
Whatever works for you, I hope this has helped to spark some creativity and, most importantly, action in your life to help you build more gratitude because, for me, it has totally changed mine.