The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

Gratitude

First presented to friends and family on New Year's Eve, 2022

When I was young, people would often tell me how lucky I was. I agreed with them, but wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do about it. I was a pretty happy little guy, but I was never sure if that was enough. I remember sometimes asking the adults around me what I was supposed to do about my luckiness and fortunate upbringing, but I don’t remember any particularly helpful suggestions — other than to be grateful, and don’t worry. These things both made sense, so I latched onto them. In fact, gratitude seemed to be a serious buzz-word — pulled out in all kinds of circumstances. For a while, I didn’t really know what it was supposed to mean, or maybe just didn’t connect the state with the word. I gradually started to get the hang of it, though.

My siblings seemed to be pretty grateful for their upbringing, but also just a tiny bit miffed about some parts of it. I could understand this, and was even just a tiny bit miffed myself from time to time. I gradually realized, though, that I was incredibly lucky. And I was grateful about it. Also, I also realized that the little things I could get miffed about, were quite insignificant, when looking at the whole picture. And I also realized that, just because they were insignificant, didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to get seriously worked up and wigged out over them. Not just possible, but easy!

Once I realized that these types of thing were A) insignificant, when looked at in relation to the whole picture and B) still entirely possible (even easy) to get wigged out about, it seemed only logical to figure out a way to maintain an even and optimistic keel.

Gratitude is an interesting item. I discovered that sometimes it floats down on me, or wells up inside me unbidden, in response to some circumstances, known or unknown to me, and that there are also a lot of things I can do in order to rig the scales in favour of being joyful and grateful. Given the many benefits of being filled with gratitude, this seems to fall squarely into the category of skilful means.

Some techniques I’ve found effective and useful are as follows:

  • Not to waste energy worrying about things I can’t change.
  • Not to waste energy worrying about things I’m not going to bother to change
  • Make sure to notice, and acknowledge, the good things that happen to me at least as much as the bad ones.
  • Keep noticing the good things that keep happening to me, ie: waking up in the morning, definitely a good thing; having a beautiful meal to eat when I’m hungry (also a good thing), being able to walk, run, and take care of myself. All very good things, which we get reminded of as soon as we become injured. Once you start noticing them, these things are all solid, easy wins on the gratitude score-sheet.

Another thing I’ve found helpful is to create gratitude check-points. These are a series of recurring points during my day — things that happen every day — where I’ve developed the habit of pausing and being grateful for my good fortune. Having these check-points tied to a specific daily action is helpful because once the habit is established, I automatically remind myself of it when that action comes around. Some good triggers I've found are:

  • Before I get out of bed in the morning
  • Right before I jump into the ocean or a cold shower
  • Before I take my first sip of morning tea or Yerba Mate
  • Whenever I open whatever book I’m reading and have the privilege  of taking the time to read it
  • Before my first bite of each meal
  • When I settle into bed at night

Each of these is a clean point that usually happens one or more times each day.

Another easy gratitude win I’ve found, is simply avoiding complaining. It can be fun to complain from time to time, or gripe about lousy things that have happened to me, but I find it rarely improves the situation, often makes it worse (or at least seem worse) and is almost always a nuisance to listen to.

There are many other things that can lead to — or assist with — feeling grateful. Some of which are in our control and many of which aren’t.

And some that don’t necessarily register as being within our control but actually are, at least to some extent. Things like being in good health, well enough rested, and in harmonious relation to those around you. Also being in a tidy and supportive physical environment. Or spending my time doing things I find enjoyable and meaningful. These are things that can seem out of my control and like they’ve been given to me or denied to me, but in fact there is much I can do to stack the deck in favour there also.

Taking responsibility for my situation is another thing that can help lead to gratitude. Then the equation becomes simple:

Am I happy with my situation? 
            ↓
       Yes       No
        ↓        ↓
      Good      Can I change it?
                ↓               ↓
                No             Yes  
                ↓               ↓
               Good. Cheer up   Am going to *bother* to change it? 
                                ↓                        ↓
                                No                      Yes
                                ↓                        ↓ 
                               Good                     Good! 

I’ve also had excellent results from the following gratitude exercise — developed and refined during a time when I was experiencing an extended bout of houselessness.

  1. Find a spot where you can lay flat on your back, arms outstretched, palms up, undisturbed. Natural surroundings are ideal, bonus points for sunshine
  2. Remove as much of your clothing as possible. For best results, and the genuine just-me-and-the-universe experience, full nudity is ideal. However, depending on your surroundings, social demographic, and local customs this may not be advisable.
  3. Settle in, close your eyes, and focus on your surroundings, present moment, physical form and breathing.
  4. Start bringing up, visually, in your minds eye, a series of all the things you can think of that you’re grateful for. Perhaps starting with things that are relatively small and concrete, and even mundane. Anything goes — the fact that I’m warm enough, that the sun is shining, that I’ve got clean air to breath, enough food to eat, good health etc. — and gradually getting larger and or grand. As each of these items comes onto my eyes closed visual field, I acknowledge it and say a silent “thanks”.

This process goes on happily — accompanied by more and more profound feelings of gratitude — until the natural action cycle concludes, other humans come across you and wonder if you’re alright, or the process gets brought to an abrupt halt by industrious biting ants taking advantage of your open-to-the-universe condition.


FINAL BONUS EXERCISE:

Not for the faint of heart. Highly effective, but may incur unexpected side-effects such as impoverished living circumstances, decline in competitive success, and or extreme poverty:

Realize the following items:

  1. happiness comes from the inside and is mostly unrelated to money, success, or fame
  2. that it’s more important to get along with those around me than it is to get what I want, or what your “fair share” would be
  3. in most cases winning, dividing up, and getting my fair share are entirely optional
  4. the nicer I am to the universe, the nicer it tends to be to me
  5. relinquish all ambitions for glory, success, fairness, and simply grin back at the universe while receiving whatever it sends my way.