Gratitude during the holidays – and beyond

(Editor’s note: The following is a condensed excerpt from Carolyn Hobbs’ latest book, Free Yourself, Ten Life-Changing Powers of a Wise Heart. The excerpt comes from Chapter 7, “Your Grateful Heart: The Power of Appreciation.” This is the second book for Hobbs, a licensed marriage and family therapist living in Durango. Her book is available at Maria’s Bookshop.)

I feel steeped in gratitude this hot July morning. The inner peace abounding in my soul feels untouchable, as if I could never be ruffled by anything ever again. Why? Because yesterday a herd of elk – mommas, babies and young males with fuzzy antlers – stampeded past me so close, I felt the ground shake. This moment will live in my heart forever.

Yesterday, Sunday, we woke up at six to hike above 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains before the afternoon thunderstorms arrived. For four hours, my heart felt drenched in the beauty of this summer’s wildflowers: Columbine, Perry’s primrose, purple fringe, and meadows of tiny bluebells and Indian paintbrush. When my friend and I sat down to eat our sandwiches, we spotted 25 female elk grazing below with their frisky babies in the meadow. But this is not why I feel steeped in gratitude.

After lunch, as we stood to leave, we were blessed with elk close up. I looked over my shoulder, to spot a large brown female elk running full speed toward me. I looked directly into her eyes, and she into mine. She leapt to her right mid-air with the grace of a swan, leading her herd away from us by 8 or 10 feet.

My friend and I squatted behind a short ponderosa pine, jaws agape. Two hundred huge thousand-pound elk, dark brown fur flying, breezed past us as one body, like a flock of birds. They looked straight ahead, dutifully running toward the ancient yet familiar call of their leader, a six-point male. Baby elk, barely 3 feet tall baring the round spots of youth on their backs, pushed their long, gangly legs to stay by mother’s side, despite how hard they were panting. Though it only lasted a few minutes, this precious gift from nature felt like a timeless eternity. My friend and I felt altered for hours after. Even as I write this two days later, it brings tears to my eyes.

I love glimpsing wildlife while roaming in nature. It feeds my soul like nothing else.

In such moments, gratitude arises spontaneously. It is easy, natural to feel grateful for the things we love. We find ourselves brimming with gratitude when we fall in love (every time), hold our newborn, make a new friend or win the lottery. Those recovering from surgery, heart attack or a cancer scare feel grateful just to be alive.

In other words, gratitude comes easily when we get what we want.

But what about the rest of the time? Is it possible to stretch our notion of gratitude?

Too often, we muster a pittance of gratitude after the fact, when it is too late. We finally locate gratitude for a good lover or spouse after they leave. When it is too late, we finally see past our anger and complaining to recognize all the good things they brought to our lives. Even with our children, we can stay so lost in the daily hassles and pressures of parenting, rarely touching gratitude for the whole precious experience until long after they have left home.

We repeatedly take our health for granted – until after we lose it. Then suddenly we are flooded with gratitude, teary eyed for the good health we had. I am in this predicament. One week ago I hiked for hours, blessed with elk sightings. Today, I write with a knee injury, barely able to walk. Gratitude was not my first reaction to being injured at the peak of hiking season. That is much longer than the four-letter word(s) I found myself mumbling under my breath, through gritted teeth.

Whenever illness, injury, pain or conflict enters our world, gratitude is not our first reaction. (Nor our second or third, for that matter.) Our egos stay lost in the “story” of what happened, who is to blame and why this can’t possibly happen right now – all forms of resisting the truth. But when I remember gratitude, I feel lighter and more peaceful. I stop feeling like I’m swallowing bad medicine.

Trust replaces mistrust. Acceptance replaces resistance. Humility replaces pride.

With my knee injury, as soon as I let go of how I thought this week should go, I surrendered. I sank down into receiving some much-needed rest (the “gift” of this injury). I revisited patience, letting my knee’s wisdom guide my choices.

Gratitude is rarely used and even more misunderstood. We fear that if we feel grateful for being sick, we will never get well. That is, we live under a mistaken assumption that gratitude is synonymous with bringing more of what we don’t want.

But right now, try stepping into a whole new brand of gratitude: Gratitude for what is, exactly as it is. Try feeling gratitude for every life experience, the good and the bad. Try saying “yes” to the things you like and those you don’t like.

Say “yes” to the tense neck, the conflict with your spouse or friend, even money worries. Wonder to yourself, “What lesson might this experience be here to teach me?” Keep extending gratitude to those unwelcome visitors you try to avoid: loneliness, despair, fear, sadness and regret.

If you find yourself plodding through a painful breakup, try being a loving friend to your heart by saying five things you are grateful for. Drop the storyline in your mind, and notice how gratitude feels in your belly and your heart.

For example, my therapist friend Brad felt resentful when his weekly client quit on him – until Brad saw how hurt his client felt when Brad canceled his appointment to go skiing. Brad learned the importance of consistency – a lesson he never forgot.

My friend Anna stormed into her first appointment with her new cardiologist, angrily declaring, “I refuse to take any steroid drugs! I’ll lower my cholesterol naturally or not at all.” Once the cardiologist told my 47-year-old friend that her plaque was in the worst place possible and could lead to a massive stroke in a few months, she leapt into gratitude – for her doctor finding the problem and being able to help.

My client Larry complained that his wife was too sensitive, too caretaking – until he was in a car wreck and suffered a back injury. Unable to drive himself, he needed his wife to drive him to physical therapy for four months. “I tell her how grateful I am every day,” he told me, “that she’s so generous with her time.”

Gratitude holds secret powers – powers we were taught little about. Gratitude can turn your bad mood good (on a dime). It can change a bad day into a good one. It has the power to wake you from playing victim or complaining about your relationship to creating the relationship your heart longs for, without changing partners.

How? By embracing life. Gratitude trusts life, trusts this moment, just as it is. It does not need this moment, or any other moment, to be any different, easier or better. Yes, a grateful heart embraces all of life, including illness, pain, loss, even death. It welcomes good and bad equally, without judgment. Gratitude trusts that – even though you went to great lengths to avoid your current experience – you are having the experience you need to be having to learn the lessons you need to learn now. n

Carolyn Hobbs