(404) 874-8536 johnballew@gmail.com

Gratefulness as a spiritual path

Truly, it’s hard to build a spiritual path around being pissed off.

A lot of us have tried.  Marginalized folk who sometimes feel pushed outside of society can find feelings of alienation, anger or hurt are frequently close at hand.  Life can certainly be mean, but if we are going to be real we must admit that it is more than that.  Choosing to acknowledge both our anger and our joy can cause us to feel a little like a juggler sometimes, but it frees us to practice gratefulness for life itself even when we experience pain within that life.  For that reason, a spirituality of gratefulness is a particularly subversive act for queer people.

I would like to call attention to what I believe are six keys to developing gratefulness as a spiritual path.

Some of us come to a new sense of gratefulness after having a peak experience:  a birth or a death among friends or family, a turning point in our personal growth, the realization of a goal we’ve long held. Other times the catalyst is commonplace: the full moon on a clear night, an orgasm with a lover, a piece of music.  Something pops; suddenly, we’re awake!  Our hearts are delighted.  Our need to express our gratitude feels almost physical.  What a surprise!

Being open to surprise is perhaps the first key to walking the path of thankfulness.  Some undeserved and unexpected surprise happens and we experience connection with the essential abundance and sustenance of the Universe.  We are startled into wakefulness.  This is much different from being given something we are “owed.”  Walking through life feeling a sense of personal entitlement leaves us bitter when we are disappointed.  Walking through life understanding that there are good things all around us – just because that’s the way life is – opens us up.

Gratitude for the gift of life is a powerful act for a people whose lives are often undervalued by others.  It is an act of self-validation and an affirmation of our connection with our Source.

All spiritual paths support a thankful, grateful approach to life.  Wiccan rituals often include expressions of gratitude for light, for harvest, for the season – for all living things.  Buddhism teaches awareness of change and impermanence in life and calls for gratitude for each instant of existence.  Jewish and Christian liturgies often include the affirmation, “Thanks be to God.”  In her book Remember My Soul, Lori Palatnik quotes the Jewish prayer known as the Modeh Ani:  “I am grateful to God, for giving me another day, and another opportunity use it wisely.”

A second key to the path of gratitude is the invitation to slow down and pay attention.  Some traditions talk about this as contemplation.  It is the advice all of us have heard:  Count your blessings.  Contemplating the blessings of life can seem deceptively simple.  It is actually a deep form of prayer, especially if it forms the foundation of our spirituality.  We acknowledge the goodness of the Universe, express our thankfulness for gifts such as good health, loved ones, nature and all good things.  When we practice gratitude, we remind ourselves of our connection with all that is.

Contact with the natural world is a third key to this spiritual journey.  Nature inspires gratefulness because we know it is the province of something beyond ourselves, whether that nature is a majestic and distant or everyday and close at hand.  This spring there has been a blue jay nesting under our carport roof.  Whenever Jennings or I need to drive or do garden chores, we can’t help but take note of this dedicated little bird sitting and warming her eggs.  I delight in the way she looks alert and proud and still, all at once.  I feel just a bit like an expectant father!

Contact with art does something similar for us.  It takes us beyond ordinary consciousness; it startles and moves us. Artists provide us with ways of seeing our reality that are fresh and new and bring deeper understanding, or that bring beauty to our lives in ways that remind us of life’s sacredness.

Cultivating a grateful heart helps us become more open to loving relationships because we are freer to delight in others and to be ourselves.  We learn to celebrate life’s little joys:  a garden growing, the joy of dancing, a well-cooked meal shared with a friend.  When we reflect on these everyday gifts we increase our capacity for happiness.  We also become more resistant to depression because we are less prone to isolation and helplessness.

We can also cultivate gratefulness by sharing our appreciation with others, a fourth key to the path of gratefulness.  Allow yourself to express thankfulness for the friendliness of the woman ringing up our groceries or the hard work of the letter carrier that brings us our mail and all of those who make a contribution to our lives.  We are quick to complain about the expressway drivers who are rude to us.  Why are we slow to appreciate the everyday kindness that is also around us?

Walking the path of gratefulness allows us to experience joy in simply being.  We can savor a breath and notice how breathing changes our awareness.  Instead of old strategies for coping with stress – strategies that cause us to shut down, dissociate, grow smaller – we learn to flow with life.  We gain access to more of who we are and what we feel.  We can experience each breath as the gift that it is and allow ourselves to be thankful.

When we literally and figuratively stop holding our breath, we relax more deeply into the mystery of life and walk this ecstatic path, feeling everything in its time and place.  Conscious breathing is an important fifth key to the path of the spiritual gratefulness.

A client of mine once defined ecstasy as “feeling everything.”  I think that’s a pretty good definition.  Ecstasy does not require feeling happy all the time.  It is possible to feel “ecstatic sadness” at times.  There is a Buddhist saying that we don’t fully grasp a happiness until we find the kernel of sadness within it.  Closer to home, I am mindful of a character in Steel Magnolias who remarks, “Laughter though tears is my favorite emotion.”  Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions without shame or judgment is a sixth key to our path.

And so I share my gratefulness with you.  I am grateful for a body that breathes and lives and loves, whatever that body’s age, shape or condition.  I am grateful for the gift of this day and for life, however long or short it may be.  I am grateful for the natural world, full of wonder and beauty.  And I am especially for the gift of community that provides company on life’s journey.

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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