The Power of Gratitude:
a Revolutionary Path to Happiness and Transformation

September 14, 2013



“Thank you” is a good habit we learn, but it can become rote and meaningless if we aren’t aware of the sentiment behind it. But gratitude has the ability to change our world. It’s like water dripping on stone, its power is in its steadiness, its simplicity, its gentleness, its reaching out and connecting nature.

And it is not so easy to develop this habit of gratitude. So we need to ask: not only what is the potential here and how do we develop it, but first: what is in our way?

Evolutionary Step

Why is it hard to develop the habit of gratitude? This requires a huge shift of focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. Sometimes we are heavily invested in what’s wrong: we identify with our wounds. And also our basic fears. Our biological evolution gives much more emphasis on paying attention to what is potentially threatening than to what is right. So we are actively engaging in our evolution when we have the safety and ability to choose to focus on what’s good, beneficial and beautiful in the moment.

Psychologist Robert Emmons says: “It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to return the goodness that we have been given. In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human.” So what we are doing, developing the art of mindfulness, of gratitude, is becoming fully human.

The sociologist Georg Simmel calls gratitude, “the moral memory of mankind.”


So we are learning not to turn away but to pay attention to these limiting thoughts and feelings, to listen deeply and engage in dialogue with them. We need to practice active acceptance of what is present; to learn how to accept and embrace what’s happening in our bodies and our minds.  This is mindfulness. Acceptance of life as it is, is a key factor in happiness.  Letting go of expectations, of how we think the world needs to be in order for us to be happy.

We start with ourselves, practicing self-compassion—being supportive and kind to ourselves, especially in the face of stress and failure. Scientific studies support us in this effort, finding that self-kindness, self-compassion is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, describes this: “… a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.”

Instead of passivity, acceptance is fully engaging with reality as it is rather than trying to make our story about what should be happening fit the circumstance. And it is an effective way to change both ourselves and the situation. Both Hawaiian shamans and the Buddha teach that the most effective way to change is to become friends with the way things are; from that point we can help direct the flow of energy where we prefer. In contrast, resistance only creates barriers to change and transformation.

Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Gratefulness is the gallantry of a heart ready to rise to the opportunity a given moment offers.” So gratitude is the prayer that comes from opening to what is.  The verb “to appreciate” means to increase in value. We don’t have to do anything but learn to appreciate what we have, and our lives increase in value.

Let’s do a short meditation practice: Think of a beloved, someone who has supported you in the past or is supporting you now. it can be a friend or partner, a benefactor, an ancestor, an animal or yourself. See this being in front of you, saying, “I appreciate you, I value you, I love you.” Breathe into this message, let it fill your cells.

Within acceptance is the realization that we are fragile, vulnerable, and dependent. Realizing that we need our world and one another, literally, to survive. Giving up the illusion of control, of separation: This is tough stuff, as we are deeply mired in the need to feel autonomous, independent, invulnerable to sickness, violence, whatever threatens our safety.

A few months ago I created a practice for myself, a contemplation called What I Can’t Live Without. I was curious to separate what I assume I need every day, all the comforts and luxuries I enjoy, from what I actually need to survive.
Here’s what I came up with:

Practice: What Can’t I live Without?

Air and the ability to breathe

Water and the ability to drink

Food and the ability to digest

The ability to love.

There is a lot of dependence here, a lot of needing to receive. Clearly, I need to develop the ability to be dependent, to accept and receive help and support from others, as part of cultivating gratitude. This helps us not be so afraid of illness and old age, when we become more dependent on others.

Natalie Goldberg says, “Can we walk that thin line between constant change and continuation? And in the middle of this flux, feel gratitude but not hold on? Gratitude greases the joints to let us go, and at the same time to stop and realize we received something. Gratitude is the most developed and mature of human emotions.”

Acceptance and Gratitude for our Difficulties

Can we be grateful for our difficulties, our challenges? The Buddha was quite radical in recommending that we learn not to turn away from suffering, that suffering is actually the key to our happiness. Huh?

Conflicts are the logical outcome of our dualistic world, containing a mix of self-interest and interdependence. Once we recognize this, we can see that conflicts are nothing to feel shocked or offended by. Rather, we can begin to turn into them, realizing that wherever we get hooked is the edge of our ability to be free, so those are the richest spots for us to examine.

The Buddha’s insight that we live both in a day-to-day world of duality and also in an interdependent fabric of life is a key to our accepting and letting go of suffering. He also tells us that not nourishing the insight of our interbeing nature is the source of all our suffering. So that is the very real practice we are doing here today: taking the time to come home to the moment, seeing the beauty and the pain, accepting and transforming.

The question for me comes up: If this world of duality can so easily lead us astray, what is its value? Recently there was an article in the New York Times by Pico Iyer titled The Value of Suffering. This is a basic question that most humans ask.

Thay says he wouldn’t want to live in a world without suffering, because then there would be no compassion. This tells me we need to value and to welcome whatever will open our hearts. Does this mean that we need suffering to connect us? That we need the journey of separation and re-connection so we can experience our humanness, our compassion and understanding?

We are healing beings, healing is our path; we are here to experience both incompleteness and completeness. Suffering and happiness are the pathways to tenderness, to an opening heart. Intimate relationships are all about coming close, allowing our wounds as well as our innate beauty to be exposed to the air and light of another’s presence.

Only from being present to all of it can we embody our full potential and understand that underneath it all is love. In this way we can understand when Thay tells us that happiness is made of non-happiness elements, that suffering is made of non-suffering elements.

I am grateful to Pema Chodron for explaining this seeming conundrum succinctly: “Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. In the process of discovering bodhicitta (the awakened heart) the journey goes down, not up.

It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhicitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.”

Daily Practice: when someone pushes a button in you: give them the benefit of the doubt. You don’t know what challenges they may be facing. Open your heart and cheer them on instead of tripping them up.

This is a radical turning of our minds, from disharmony to harmony, from being chained to being free. We have a choice: we can consciously choose to turn our focus from what is missing to what is present. Thay says there are always enough conditions for happiness. This is not about denying or turning away from: it is coming fully present, acknowledging the course of our thoughts, and choosing to move them to a more nourishing, helpful, effective focus.

Expressing Gratitude: Generosity

Generosity is the natural expression of a grateful heart. As Thay tells us, the best way to express our generosity is by being present for someone.  French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Blessing as an Antidote to Jealousy: One of the qualities we develop as bodhisattvas, ones committed to awakening, is mudita, defined as sympathetic joy. This is the delight we feel at the success of others.  It is so powerful because it directly contradicts the belief that the joys of life are limited, and that you and I are separate. If you believe this way, you will be endlessly subject to to jealousy. We need to see that jealousy is a symptom of a misperception, believing both that happiness is limited and that it comes from outside ourselves.

Hawaiian shamans share with us their most powerful tool for manifesting: called blessing. Aloha = “the joyful sharing of life energy in the present.” This aloha puts you in tune with the collective energy, and from there it is much easier to effect change. However, you have to do it consistently if you want change.

Bless everything that represents what you want. Our Huna teacher says, if you want to be thin, bless telephone poles. Blessing means to acknowledge a positive quality with the intention of increasing it. It works because: 1) it turns your mind to positivity, to what is right; 2) it moves your energy outward, connecting you consciously with the world; 3) bless for the benefit of others bypasses any fears about what you want for yourself. Focusing on blessing others inevitably brings that same increase of the positive into your life. In a moment I’ll give an example of how neuroscience proves this true and effective.

Twyla Tharp on generosity: “If you are generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky. It’s like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.

Summer camp which added a jar for putting in notes of gratitude:  “The camp seemed to take on a different feel. Campers and counselors seemed more conscious of doing things for each other. The process of saying thank you appeared to be generating acts of kindness and consideration. Several times during the day, there was a line at the jar as kids waited to write their note. Expressing gratitude created a shift in how the camp operated.”
Mechanisms of Gratitude:

Just do it: develop habit of consciously turning it around, from focus on lack to focus on appreciation.

Turn it outward: Huna blessing technique.

2. There is a group called the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, studying science of gratitude. One study found that writing in a gratitude journal once a week for 10 weeks increased happiness by 25%.

3. Neuroscience has proven that serotonin (the happiness hormone/neurotransmitter) is activated in your body when you do something nice for someone. AND serotonin is released in the body of the person for whom you did the kind act. AND (!!!) it’s released in the body of someone who happens to watch you do the kind act.

“Gratitude and service are the two best paths to joy. I mean, I’m not stupid – if you want loving feelings, do loving things. Period.” Anne Lamott

Bearing Witness to Love

When we are fully present, gratitude is the natural expression of our hearts recognizing that we have enough. That instead of passivity and indifference, we engage in a fierce acceptance of what is. Only by immersing ourselves in life as it is can we learn to not pull away from suffering, can we learn to love what is most difficult and unacceptable. And this acceptance is the path to transforming ourselves and our world.

Gratitude is showing up, noticing and acknowledging. This is bearing witness, bringing our full presence to the uniqueness of the moment, being willing to admit to the glory of life in all its joys and challenges, that all of it, no matter how violent or unjust, has the potential for healing. That our meanness and confusion are worthy of love, just as are the beauty and kindness we express. Cultivating the ability to be grateful helps us cross the shore of separateness, of that desperate feeling of needing to divorce ourselves from the darkness, the part of us that makes us sad and confused. This is equanimity, making room in our hearts for all of us, not just the parts we approve of.

Aimless Love  Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,

I fell for a seamstress

still at her machine in the tailor’s window,

and later for a bowl of broth,

steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,

without recompense, without gifts,

or unkind words, without suspicion,

or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,

the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –

the love of the miniature orange tree,

the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,

the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –

just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest

on a low branch overhanging the water

and for the dead mouse,

still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up

in a field on its tripod,

ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail

to a pile of leaves in the woods,

I found myself standing at the bathroom sink

gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,

so at home in its pale green soap dish.

I could feel myself falling again

as I felt its turning in my wet hands

and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

Going Forth

We can see how a smile, how giving up your seat on the bus, letting someone step in line in front of you, is a radical act. How it opens our hearts, how good it makes us feel to connect through kindness. to have something to contribute. And how it changes the fabric of our society.

We learn to do this by following the bodhisattva path: beginning with awareness of where we are in our hearts and minds; acknowledging and accepting; consciously turning from lack to abundance and in that way cultivating gratitude; then allowing it to flow from us in generosity and kindness. Taking action to relieve suffering is the response of a generous heart.

So we might want to adopt one practice of gratitude, of generosity that we do every day for a while.  And as a student of life, you might want to record your feelings, to notice the effects of this practice on your general attitude and spirit.

Natalie Goldberg says, “There are many ways to meditate. Whatever opens us, softens the heart, makes us alive to this human world and helps us to bear it is our path.” So make the practice of gratitude your meditation, and you will know the love of connection. The love that can be found in our darkest moments, smiling at us with comfort and courage, helping us to soften our hearts to all our sadness and imperfections, and opening us to the unique beauty of being fully awake in this moment, in this now.