Fifteen years after the fact, I am still in deep gratitude to the driver who crashed into me in a hit and run accident on Ash Wednesday in Oakland, CA.
I was in a cross walk going to work and from out of nowhere a blue car slammed into me and my boyfriend, turned on a dime and peeled away. We were left on the blacktop, the sensation of a blow torch burning my leg. Sirens wailed in the distance and soon we were whisked to the hospital.
I was puked into a new reality.
In the moment, I was not grateful—but shortly after leaving the hospital, and despite the long road to recovery I realized my life would change for the better and I found gratitude for that man in the blue Camaro.
The accident helped me do what I couldn’t—break up the relationship that both my boyfriend and I knew wasn’t healthy for either of us. It set me on a healing journey that transformed my life and has led me to where I am now.
At the time I had been practicing yoga twice a week, but after that blow I turned to yoga as a life path and it helped me heal on all levels—physically, mentally and emotionally.
If we live long enough, we will inevitably experience difficult times—loved ones will die, we may suffer major injuries, lose our job, get divorced, have our house burn down—the list is long.
In those most challenging times it is difficult to even think of gratitude or the lessons we are being given, and yet it is in these times that our character is built and our inner strength developed.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that when I have an active gratitude practice I feel more alive, more alert and more positive.
I feel happier. When I turn off the gratitude channel, I can spiral down the dark tunnel into the gates of my own inner hell because I forget. In those moments, I am not actively helping myself.
I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned over the years of practicing gratitude, not only in the difficult times, but in the good ones too.
Here are some of the powers of a gratitude practice:
1) Healing: Practicing gratitude has the power to heal on multiple levels. In challenging times we can ask the question again and again, “What am I learning from this hard time? How might it change my life for the better?” If we stay with the practice of gratitude through hard times we can heal our hearts.
On a physical level, there are studies that have shown people who practice gratitude sleep better, have more energy, have lower levels of stress hormones in their body and are in overall better physical health. (Dr. Robert Emmons PhD Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier)
2) Mindfulness: When we practice gratitude we are inevitably more mindful. We pay attention to what makes us happy. We focus on the abundance in our lives even in the smallest ways—appreciating the blooming tulips, taking time to look at budding leaves on the dogwood in spring, really tasting the hot fresh cappuccino in your hand.
In difficult times, we learn to be mindful of the lessons the hard time has brought us. All of these moments make up our lives and we integrate them and appreciate them.
3) Self-discovery: As we become more mindful, we discover things about ourselves. We discover what makes us happy, what brings us joy and contentment. We stop looking outside of ourselves for our happiness and rather find out what in our world, that is already there, brings us joy. When life is difficult, we discover the ways in which we are resilient and how we can impact our own resilience and grow our inner strength.
4) Connected: We often feel more connected with a gratitude practice— more connected to other people as we find gratitude for them, more connected to nature and all that it offers us, more connected to communities we are a part of. The practice itself creates deep connection to ourselves and to all that we come in contact with throughout our days, which in turn makes us feel a part of this Universe.
5) Slow Down: To feel gratitude we must pause, slow down, take a breath and reflect on what we are grateful for now. The answer to “what brings you joy now?” is different in every moment, every day and every phase of life. We must slow down to listen for the answer.
6) Positive Mood Change: This practice gives us the opportunity to change our moods consciously. I have noticed when I’m in a heavy hearted mood and if I really focus on finding what I was grateful for in the moment, I feel a physical, emotional and mental shift within me. My body feels lighter, my heart area relaxes and my mind stops spiraling towards negativity. I literally feel lighter when focusing on gratitude.
7) Resilience: When we’re grateful for our lives are, we become more flexible and resilient. We are present with what IS happening and grateful for it rather than holding onto our expectations of life.
8) Presence: Practicing gratitude brings us right into the present moment. It helps us be here now enjoying the little things. We don’t MISS the magic of the moment because we are present to it. Then we are living as fully as possible. We are content because we’re not seeking something in the future nor longing for the past.
So how do we cultivate more gratitude? What techniques do we use? Here are a few ideas:
1) Set up a gratitude altar. Spend time at the altar daily and contemplate what you’re grateful for that day.
2) Keep a gratitude journal, jotting down daily entries.
3) Consider your food and find the gratitude in having food, those who labored to bring it to your table, and how fortunate you are to have a meal in front of you.
4) Make a list of topics to explore in relationship to gratitude.
5) Find a community of people who want to practice gratitude and connect with them, share with each other how you cultivate gratitude.
6) Consider each day as an opportunity to live life to the fullest. How can you be of service in the world?
As the gratitude specialist Dr. Emmons says, “Gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted. In effect, gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.”
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Apprentice Editor: Kimby Maxson/ Editor: Catherine Monkman