Sure I’m Grateful, But…

Sure I’m Grateful, But…

by Susan Downing

What are you grateful for? Think about it: are you grateful to have someone or something, maybe a circumstance or event, in your life?   Really, take a moment right now to consider this.  And when you’ve come up with at least one instance in your life where you feel gratitude, then keep reading.

Seriously.  Don’t read on until you’ve tried this!

Now let me ask you this.  When you were reflecting on this question and thought to yourself, for example, “I’m grateful that I have a job,” did you feel only your sense of gratitude, or did you feel something creep in afterwards, a “but”, as in, “I’m grateful that I have a job, but the commute is long”?  Or, “I am grateful to be able to spend time with my family, but I wish I could see them more often.”

If you sit down and make a list of things or people you’re grateful for, don’t be surprised if a “but” comes up more often than not.  I went through this process recently and was horrified at how many “buts” popped up. If I had a scale and piled up all my “gratefuls” on one side and the “buts” on the other, the “gratefuls” would tip the scales, but the “buts” are still there.  And the insidious thing about the “buts” is that they have the last word.  I’m grateful for the nice weather, but soon it will be freezing.  I love the fresh farm tomatoes, but I get really hot in the sun when I’m picking them.  And on and on.

Here’s the problem with this pattern.  When we’re focusing on how grateful we are for someone or something, we’re feeling really happy and satisfied and contented.  But when the “buts” push their way in, suddenly we shift to feeling unhappy and dissatisfied and discontented.  And since the “buts” have the last word, they tend to dominate our thinking, and the dissatisfaction they drag in with them drags us down.   All this in spite of the fact that we truly are grateful for many things in our lives,

Fortunately, we can learn to shift this pattern.  Allowing the “buts” to have the last word is no more than a habit we’ve developed, so with practice we can change that habit.  Our task is to learn how to give the “gratefuls” the last word so that happiness and contentedness become our habitual state of mind.  And then to practice that consistently.  This practice is simple, and although it’s not necessarily easy, you’ll experience the benefits both immediately, in the form of greater happiness and contentedness, and long term, as the “buts” begin to fade.

So, here’s how to do it:

1)   To start with, pick a time each day when you’ll spend a few minutes doing this practice.  It can be any time you will have a few minutes to yourself to sit quietly without being interrupted. Turn off the TV, the music, your cell phone…

2)   Close your eyes, take several deep breaths in and out and allow your body to relax, especially your shoulders.  It’s okay to slump back in your chair or lie down.

3)   Silently ask yourself, “Who or what am I grateful for?”  Don’t concentrate on trying to figure something out. Just ask yourself and see what answer comes to you.

4)   When an object of gratitude comes to mind, reflect on it.  Think about why you feel grateful or happy thanks to this person or thing or circumstance.

5)   If you begin to feel happy, or begin to smile or feel a warm sensation in your heart, then just rest in that happiness and allow yourself to continue reflecting on what about this person or situation leaves you feeling grateful and happy. Stay focused on it for another minute or two, then end your practice period.  That’s it.  That’s the basic practice.

Now, if a “but” creeps in at any point during your reflection, the first thing to do is to note that it is there.  It’s not always easy to recognize a “but”.  You may not even notice it right away.  You may notice it only when you find yourself thinking a whole string of negative thoughts about the person you identified as an object of gratitude!  You might sense a “but” or even a “No!”.  Or the “but” might take a physical form. Maybe you’ll feel discomfort in the pit of your stomach, or a pang in your heart, or sadness, or anger, or your breathing will quicken, or your muscles will tighten, or you many begin to feel antsy, as if you just can’t sit still.  All of these counts as “buts”. All of them show that you are resisting your grateful feelings on some level.

When you realize that a “but” has crept in, your task is to shift your attention immediately away from it.  This does not mean that you think, “You stupid ‘but’!  Get out of here!  How could I be thinking this way about this wonderful person?” and so on.  No.  That’s the equivalent of inviting the “but” in for tea and a chat.  No.  Just calmly but firmly turn your attention away from the “but” and back to the “grateful.”  Here are two ways to do this:

1)  The first way to redirect your mind is to remind yourself that you are grateful for your object of gratitude and reflect again on the reasons for your gratitude. Instead of being carried away by the arguments that the “but” presents, you focus your attention on these reasons for gratitude.

You may find that the “but” doesn’t go quietly, but instead keeps butting back in.  Don’t worry. That’s natural.  You’ve built up this habit of thought over many years, so the “buts” won’t give up in three minutes.  Keep at it and don’t be discouraged.

But what if that doesn’t work?  What if, despite your best efforts, you consistently find you’re unable to end your practice session on a grateful, happy, contented note?  If that’s the case, the second way to move your mind away from the “but” is to use a mantra or prayer:

2)  Begin your practice as above, by calling to mind an object of gratitude.  When a “but” comes in, and you’re unable to shift your mind away from it, recite a mantra or prayer for a short while (30 seconds or a minute or two) and then try again to shift your mind.  Repeat this as needed until you’re able to focus on the object of gratitude once again.

The key here is to distract your mind from thinking about the “but” so that you can feel grateful and happy and content again and end on that note.

Once you are able to stay focused on your object of gratitude for several minutes or more, by which time you will probably be experiencing some warm, happy feelings.  End your practice period while you are still feeling this way.

But what if you find you can’t end on a happy note, even if you’re using a prayer or mantra to help?  Then shift to an object of gratitude that doesn’t bring up a “but”. When you do this practice, you’ll find that different objects come with stronger or weaker or no “buts”.  And although practicing on the ones with the strongest “buts” will really benefit you down the line (and I’ll write about that in my next post,) when you’re starting out, it is a wonderful idea to focus on those that are “but-free”.

You’ll know when you find one of these, because you’ll be able to just sit there and feel really happy and content.  And that is the point of this practice – to allow feelings of happiness and contentedness to bubble up by focusing on feeling grateful!  So, don’t ever chide yourself for having a hard time finding an easy object of gratitude.  Just do the exercise until you find one. Be grateful that you’ve done so, and stay with it.  Enjoy it!

Do this practice at least once a day, and even more if you feel like it.  You can do it anywhere, any time.

By engaging in this practice, we gradually create a new habit of mind. As we get better and better at letting the “gratefuls” have the last word, we find that although the “buts” still show up, we find it easier to redirect our attention to the “gratefuls” and to keep our focus on them.  Over time, we notice that the “buts” begin not to shout quite as much.  Then, we notice that they still come around, but leave without a fight.  Then, finally, they seem to lose interest in showing up at all, because we’re too busy being happy to pay them any mind. In other words, thanks to this practice, we move from “Sure I’m grateful, but…” to “I’m grateful,” to “I sure am grateful!”

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