A couple of years ago, a communication coach at my desk job suggested starting a gratitude practice. I’ve heard of the concept before, and even after Kathleen the coach explained her own and her family’s gratitude practice to me, it seemed a bit out there. First of all, not like I am ungrateful or anything, am I? I know I am lucky and all that. What difference cataloguing the body parts that work and such in a journal would make?
Still, Kathleen was a truly gifted coach and a loveliest person, so even though I dismissed the idea as a suggestion to not follow, it got put aside in a not too far away corner of my brain. This post is about what happened when the time came to bring it back up and put it to work.
Earlier this year, I was studying yamas and niyamas, the external and internal “restraints” that we may choose to practice, the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. Not to get right, not to follow blindly or else… To practice. Meaning, some days it will go well, some days it may not, and we can learn something from it.
One of the niyamas is santosha, which can be translated as “contentment”, or “satisfaction”, or “inner peace”. My teacher Janet suggested daily gratitude for a week as a way to practice santosha. Here we are again. Fine. I retrieved Kathleen’s method of writing down at least five things I was grateful for, every day.
Another niyama is tapas. This is trickier to translate. The word literally has to do with heat, as in sacrificial heat. I’ve also heard it translated as “discipline” or “commitment” or “consistency”. The meaning that makes sense to me is that tapas is a quality of, once committed, practicing in a dedicated way whether you want to or not. Some days that will be easy; some days you may have to work against the grain of excuses and inconveniences. This figurative friction creates figurative heat that … burns something??
After a week of gratitude journaling I decided to commit to the practice for at least 40 days. Tapas: write down at least 5 things I was grateful for, every day, no matter what.
It was interesting to observe that even such a simple practice can be difficult to maintain. Sometimes I would space out and forget about it until later in the day. Some days there was no end to my gratitude, and some darker days pointing out five things was an effort. Friction. Heat. Burning … what?
It is a simple practice. Most of the days I was grateful for my health, coffee, and yoga to begin with. Health, coffee, yoga: something transient, something bewilderingly external, and something that is more reliably available. A clear benefit from this practice was that it provided amusement.
Then there was more. As I started putting on paper the gratitude I felt for my friends who love and support me and for the strangers who are kind to me, whether or not I felt I deserved that, I started experiencing my life as being more full of love and kindness. Just from giving that more attention day in and day out. When I see love and support in my life, not only does it feel nice, but it enables me to act with more strength and courage.
And there was more. Anybody indulges in negative self talk now and then? I accuse myself of being a weirdo and a loner with poor social skills and all sorts of resulting misfortunes. Turns out, yes, sure, I may be that, and… I am grateful that this helps me think independently, be self-sufficient, and not worry much about what others think about me.
There was more still. It’s about what I don’t have and wish I did. Safe warm home growing up. Familial relationships. Close loving relationships. As I kept noting what I was grateful for and writing that down, I saw a change in my response to being reminded of what I don’t have. Rather than feeling deprived and envious, now I am sometimes able to feel glad those places exists and grateful to benefit from their existence.
So, this is what happened. I picked up a simple, seemingly pointless practice of writing down at least 5 things I was grateful for, framed it as santosha (contentment), and as tapas (discipline, consistency), and it burned nice big holes in resentment, self loathing, and longing for what I don’t have. I am more free now. Just like yoga is supposed to work. Pick a practice. Be consistent. Let it set you free.