Practices of Gratitude – The Upward Spiral

It starts out broadly, but gradually moves inward towards an accelerating whirlpool before disappearing into oblivion. No, it’s not my career as a writer I was thinking of, it’s a centipede circling the drain of my laundry tub.

Sometimes our lives feel like they’re on this kind of downward spiral. It can happen when we’re depressed, when our health is in decline, or even when a series of events accumulate that give us that sense of free falling downward. It’s the momentum carrying us that often feels so terrible. Probably most of us are familiar with the downward spiral.

But let me introduce you to an upward spiral – a practice of gratitude that moves the momentum in the other direction.

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It begins with paying attention. Just notice something that you might feel thankful for right now. It doesn’t have to be a big thing or a profound thing, let something come to mind and see if focusing on it allows you to feel some sense of gratitude.

Ok. Got it?

The thing that came to my mind is a toilet brush.

I’m thankful for toilet brushes. I wish the little people in my house would use them, but that’s a different blog post isn’t it? They are a handy device, and when used properly they save us from offensive smells, odours, accumulations…hopefully you don’t get the picture. But stay with me here – don’t check Facebook just yet – it’ll still be there when you’re done this in a minute.

My next movement in the spiral is to let my attention go to various associated things with my first object of gratitude. Toilets – anybody grateful for those? Next: municipal plumbing and waste management. Have you ever seen pictures of places where sewage is a river that runs through the neighbourhood? Which brings to mind clean water – what a feat of engineering that we can treat raw sewage and safely re-introduce it into the water supply where it eventually will end up back in our homes as tap water. Alright, I’m done being gross, so at this point you might want to grab a scrap of paper and start making a list. For one thing, your mind might run wild with other things to be thankful for, which is great, but we want to be able to come back to your list and sit with some of them and give them enough attention that you can actually experience gratitude.

Sometimes the act of writing or seeing things on paper helps people keep moving in a kind of upward spiral of things to appreciate and recognize as gifts. You might even wish to draw a spiral or a ladder and put items on each rung.

If I kept going on my own example of an upward spiral I might reflect while I do pay taxes, I also feel some gratefulness for technical expertise of the staff at the water treatment facility. Also, for the environmental laws which guide their functioning, and for the city hall managers that ensure this function is carried out effectively. Just because I pay for it doesn’t automatically negate the goodness of its role in my life.

When was the last time you felt thankful for your municipal government and the people who work there? Yeah me neither. How about that garbage collector who picks up your trash each week, even when it’s filled with unmentionable grossness but he or she shows up whether it’s snowing or 90 degrees outside? Yes it’s their job, but that doesn’t change benefit it brings to our lives that people carry out these duties consistently and effectively.

Moving up farther my spiral takes me to gratitude over things like people who work hard and with integrity so that our society can function as well as it does. And what about policy wonks and expert consultants who help think through these challenges so that water and streets are relatively clean? I know it might be hard for some of you to feel gratitude about city hall or higher levels of government. I certainly didn’t start out writing this with the plan of going there with my thankfulness. I didn’t want to cheat the process I’m trying to demonstrate, so I just let my mind do it’s thing and you got watch (read). But this is no joke – there can be real authentic gratitude for something like city workers if we allow our attention and imagination to linger in the realm of how our lives are better because of what these folks do for us. And the upward spiral not only lifts our spirits as we recognize how surrounded by gifts we are, but it seems to move us in the direction of recognizing more and more things to be thankful for.

Some of you will notice that cynical thoughts interrupt this process. You’ll find yourself noticing exceptions or entertaining the “yeah but” that will attempt to disqualify your gratitude. My mind leapt to all the times when government hasn’t worked well for me. This kind of thinking is fine and has it’s place. Don’t fight it or get upset with yourself for having these thoughts. Let’s just gently move our attention back to upward spiral of connected things we might be thankful for.

After finding new gratitude in my attention for various kinds of governments, my mind continues upward to broader themes. Like this: I’m thankful for the self-sacrifice that thousands of public servants in my city and country have made over the past 150 years. Their legacy has made where I live a great place. There is a lot good that I have inherited from ordinary people who lived their lives caring for the world. Of course there are flaws. Of course I would have done things differently. Of course there were lots of people who have squandered the public purse and taken advantage of the bureaucracy to benefit only themselves. But as we aim to cultivate gratitude, there’s no need for a comprehensive or even balanced view of reality. There’s plenty of time for that later. Right now, as we develop our practice of gratitude we can deliberately enter the space of noticing and highlighting the good gifts of life. It’s no different than the process of willingly suspending disbelief when we watch a play or movie. We allow a certain unreality, as a way of being drawn into a story that can move us emotionally, or teach us, or inspire us.

Sometimes things at the top of the spiral give new cause for celebration to things at the bottom of the spiral. A humorous albeit red-neck example of this came to light in the country song popular a few years ago which had chorus that went like this:

Rain makes corn.

Corn makes whiskey.

Whiskey makes my baby,

Feel a little frisky. 

Rain – it’s a good thing!

Perhaps the language is not quite what you or I might use, but the upward spiral of gratitude is there, and in this case he takes something unwanted and by moving up the spiral finds it to be a “good thing” (or “thang” as he actually sings it).

So the first thing that comes to mind in your particular spiral doesn’t have to be easily identifiable as worthy of thanksgiving. But play a little game of grown-up connect the dots (whiskey might help) and see where it takes you.

Here’s mine:

Tonight my neck hurts and I’m tired.

The mild pain and fatigue are because I’ve been looking at a computer screen for too long today.

I’ve been looking at a computer screen so much because inspiration is flowing and I’m getting some writing done.

When I write I get to share my work with amazing people like you who read and respond and tell me stories of how my hard work makes a difference in your life.

This pain and fatigue I feel – I might want to consider doing something a little different with the ergonomics of my workspace – but what it also means is that I’ve had time to experience the amazing gift of creating things like this and sharing them with the world. I don’t appreciate the neck pain itself, but I can appreciate what it means or something else good that it points to. 

All right, now before you’re off to the races with this, I need to caution you. This technique is not something you should use to try to turn every negative experience into a positive. If you’re in a downward spiral this practice might help, but maybe the best you can do today is just trying to hold on to something or someone – anything – that will keep you out of the drain. Suffering is real. Trying to convince ourselves of optimistic propaganda we don’t actually believe not only doesn’t help, but it certainly doesn’t produce authentic gratitude. Don’t try to force the spiral and don’t try to force yourself to be thankful. Invite yourself into it, but no pushing or shoving! Maybe you’ll have a certain heartfelt experience of things in your world as a gift, but maybe you won’t. Be patient with yourself on this.

Just like a good mechanic can listen to the sounds your car makes and tell you what’s wrong with it, or like my friend Donnie who can taste your soup and tell you what you need to add to it, it takes a developed sense to recognize all these gifts that surround us…which is why we call it a practice of gratitude.

Which of course, turns out to be another thing to grateful for…


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