Living with Mental Illness – Gratitude


One practice that has helped me get out from under the “black cloud of gloom” — i.e. from under the spell of depression and anxiety, is the practice of gratitude.

What is the practice of gratitude?

Gratitude

First, let’s identify the problem:

We are humans, with minds.  Our minds are great at building things, making art, having conversations, and solving problems.  The problem is that our minds are always creating new things to build, new ideas to realize through art, and new conversations to have.  In short, our minds are always creating problems to solve.  They helped us evolve and achieve dominance, but they are mostly designed for the purpose of survival.

And, survival is great.  But, survival is a self-perpetuating cycle: those who survive by being the best at surviving create survivors who survive by being the best at surviving.  Now, there’s a loop!

To get out of the cycle of survival and achieve a fulfilling life, to free ourselves from constant suffering, we have to help our minds think less of creating and solving problems.  That does not mean that we have to stop creating and solving mind-problems.  It just means that we have to stop creating our own idea that our lives have an infinitely large number of problems with them, and that by that reason our lives are not good enough.

If our lives are not good enough, then we are always striving, always desiring, always yearning for the next thing that will make our lives good enough.

Here’s a hint: no matter how much striving we do, how much we accomplish, or how much we improve our lives and happiness, we will never feel that our lives are good enough.  And that will cause us endless suffering.

So, for a moment, let’s break out of that cycle.  Stop, breathe in, breathe out, and take a step back.  Look at your life, and look at the moment, and realize how good your life is at the moment.  Practice gratitude.  Even if your life really sucks and is terrible every waking (and sleeping) moment, you can practice gratitude.

Practicing gratitude

My coworkers joke about my use of “thanks” and “I appreciate that” and  “best regards” that pepper my emails.  I also make it a point to respond with one-liners such as “Thank you!” after someone confirms that they completed a task or project I delegated to them.  I do not use these as niceties.  I truly am grateful, and it helps me lead a happier life.

The thing about gratitude is that your life does not have to be great.  You don’t have to have great things to be grateful for.  You don’t have to have an awesome job, a great skill, adequate money, the best possessions (or any!), good health, or an awesome spouse.  Gratitude isn’t really a recount of the things in your life that are great.  You cannot really say “I am grateful for…” and list the things our society values (money, power, a great career, a hot love life, a clique of friends, talent and skills, infectious humor, etc.)–without running out of things quickly.  And with so little to be grateful for, things get disappointing pretty quickly.  (I’m not rich; I don’t hold much power; I don’t have a clique of friends; my humor is really dry; I am not a master artisan.)

Luckily, that’s not how gratitude works.

Gratitude starts with the here and now, the moment.  First step: breathe.  Breathe in, breathe out, feel air going in and out of your body.  If you can breathe, that’s good.  Even if it hurts to breathe.  You’re alive, and you can breathe, and sense something, whether it is seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, or thinking.  Those are all senses, and if you can use at least one of them, you can find gratitude in being able to experience the world.

Next step, examine your body.  Do you have shoes on?  That’s great.  Be thankful for your shoes.  If your shoes hurt you because they are worn and old, be thankful that you know the cause of your pain.  Maybe you will take them off, or maybe you can use the shoes to walk and help you find a new pair that won’t cause you pain.

Examine your surroundings.  Does the air smell bad?  That’s good that your body is alert enough to tell you that something is bad for you.  See if you can find some fresher air.  If you can find something fresher, that is something to be grateful for.

If you are worried about work, that is perfectly fine.  Work can really stink.  But there is clearly something other than money keeping you there.  Working just for money is in essence slavery.  Some part of you can put up with the process of the work.  Find that part of your job and dig deep into it.  Get interested in that part of your job and find the joy that is associated with being interested.  It doesn’t have to be pleasant for you to feel interested, and being interested can bring joy.  Being interested in something and feeling joy can be things to be grateful for.

But what if the people in your life are terrible to you?  You can find gratitude in being able to acknowledge who is toxic in your life.  Many people have a hard time determining who is toxic to them and who is not, believe it or not.  If they are toxic, distance yourself from them.  If they are not toxic, be grateful they are in your life.  Your relationships with others will never be perfect, and will never be completely under your control.  But you can control most of which people are in your life, and that is something to be grateful for.

What I am grateful for

This is mostly theoretical at the moment, so here are some practical examples from my life:

  • I am grateful that I have a job that I can go to every day, and receive a warm morning welcome.
  • I am grateful that my significant other has bought for me a growing collection of “crazy socks” over the years that have interesting themes and patterns.
  • I am grateful to be able to return to the school at which I taught and see my former students perform.
  • I am grateful that my cat doesn’t get sick often.  I am grateful that my cat who passed due to illness still bugged me most mornings for food despite her growing illness.
  • I am grateful that I get to eat hot cereal each morning.
  • I am grateful that I have a toothbrush to brush my teeth.
  • I am grateful that I have a great sense of smell.
  • I am grateful that I am educated.
  • I am grateful for having a clear mind at times.
  • I am grateful that I can understand what it means to love.

It’s the normal things

It’s the normal things that really have the biggest impact on our lives.  When we take away all of the things we think we want and think we need–the things that we think we lack–we realize that our lives are not really lacking for much.  We are much more fulfilled by appreciating what we have than by satisfying all our wants or needs.  And spoiler: we already have almost everything we ever wanted.  Everything else that we attain is another reason to be grateful.

Think of it this way: as children we always wanted to be successful, happy adults.  And as adults, we don’t want to deal with the harsh realities of being an adult, and we want to go back to being children.  As children, we already have everything we need to feel grateful; we just don’t know that until we are adults.  And, as adults, we know the abilities and freedoms children lack: even as adults we already have everything we need to feel grateful.

We don’t have to have everything we want and need.  We just have to acknowledge that we have everything we need to feel grateful.  And that sense of gratitude, that distancing ourselves from our wants and needs, even temporarily, is so much more fulfilling than spending our entire lives aching for more, more, more.

What do you think?  Yes, life sucks sometimes.  But life has a bedrock of so much to be grateful for, that we can endure the suffering while finding fulfillment in the ground beneath our feet (metaphorically).

How have you experienced and practiced gratitude?  How do you think you could bring more gratitude into your life?

Best,

Dan

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