For as long as I can remember, November is a special month for me. Why? Well, autumn is in full swing and the holiday season is just around the corner! November is also a special month for me since it’s a time which inspires gratitude. During this month many of us take time from our busy lives to reflect on what, and whom, we are grateful.
The dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful”. We recognize that in our lives there are things for which we are grateful, regardless of our life's’ circumstance. If we look hard enough, we will find something, at least that's what I’ve been told. A platitude to be sure, although in this platitude we find wisdom. Namely, if my perspective and goal is to find something for which to be thankful, I will find it. The opposite is true; the more I focus my perspective on the negatives in life the greater the belief that my life is completely negative.
Simply being thankful, or grateful, for the sake of being grateful, is not always altruistic. Can our sense of gratitude also be self-serving? Might it be a mask for our own narcissistic consumerism? Think of what you are grateful for, noting how many items are materialistic goods versus people or talents. A review of social media postings on gratitude overemphasize goods, money, prestige, etc. Isn’t it possible that our gratitude could reinforce our desire for what we think brings happiness? Have you noticed the irony, that the very next day (or even that same evening) after we celebrate being thankful, we celebrate shopping, materialism, greed, and rudeness! Gratitude alone, as the end goal, leads to self-centeredness.
Am I saying we shouldn’t be grateful? Not at all! Gratitude, when mixed with mindfulness and a healthy intention, leads us to a sense of inner peace. If my intention is to be grateful because it looks good, is what everyone else is doing on social media, it will show people all that I have, etc, then I become self-centered. Yet, if my intention is to be grateful for the sake of being thankful with a readiness to show appreciation, then I will find my inner peace and happiness. Why? Because being grateful is not the end goal, rather, gratitude is the beginning of the process of giving back.
The dictionary further defines gratitude as a “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. The key of this definition is the phrase “...and to return kindness”. The intention and end goal is no longer self, but the action of giving back to others that which we have received. As we think of others and their needs our gratitude shifts from what we have to what we can give to others.
Mindfulness is commonly defined as “a means of paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” The practice of mindfulness coupled with an attitude of gratitude focus us on the present with an appreciation for what we have now, rather than wanting more and more. Maintaining a focus on an appreciation in the present moment protects us from the evils of greed which will turn us away from our inner peace. Gratitude for what we have at this moment, mixed with a desire to return kindness to others, is a healthy sense of gratitude creating in us a deeper sense of self and peace.
True gratitude practiced mindfully reveals a connectedness. Being thankful connects us to those who have given us the reason to be thankful while at the same time inspiring us to be gift-givers. In this sense our well-being and the well-being of others are connected. We begin to understand more fully how social connections impact us. Spreading gratitude to others creates gratitude in the other. The cycle is repeated when that person in turn spreads their newfound gratitude on to others. Gratitude, as with hate, spreads rapidly throughout societies. If we examine that first Thanksgiving in colonial America we discover that the gratitude and thankfulness celebrated was not in the food shared, but in the connectedness of the people present.
Therefore, our challenge is to mindfully reflect on what it is that makes us grateful. In so doing let us not fail to recognize the people outside of ourselves. Acknowledging gratitude for our material goods and the gifts that we have is not sufficient. We need to also acknowledge gratitude for the people whom we know, and those unknown to us, who enable us to have and to be who we are at this the present moment.
During this holiday season, as you gather with family and friends, acknowledge, in gratitude, those family members who have made it possible for you to be the person you are. For better or for worse we are the products of our history embedded within a society and a family who have made possible our lifestyle. By reflecting in this way we remain outside of ourselves while embracing our connectedness. When our thankfulness becomes compassion and compassion leads to action, then true gratitude is realized.
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