I have taught many meditation techniques in my 30-plus years as a clinical psychologist, reiki healer, and yoga teacher.
Unlike many spiritual teachers, however, I didn’t include a gratitude practice in my curriculum. That is, until I discovered a secret that changed my way of practicing gratitude.
Many research studies show that feeling grateful and giving thanks can have a lasting impact on mental health and even physical well-being. Personally, I feel grateful every day, and I experience gratitude as a close companion to forgiveness and what I call the “Loveforce,” the energy of pure, awakened awareness and the ultimate goal of meditation.
So, why did I resist a daily gratitude practice for me and my students?
What I discovered is that most gratitude practices seem to have it backward. These practices invite you to start by making a list of the things for which you are grateful and then, every day, to go over the list in order to feel gratitude. Maybe you are even instructed to change the list around every so often to spice things up.
However, the thing about reciting any list, even a list of the most wonderful things, is that with repetition it can become rote and boring. Worse yet, if we find ourselves not feeling grateful when ticking items off our list, we could guiltily worry that we are secretly ungrateful. This is why I stopped doing gratitude practices many years ago and didn’t teach them to my students.
Then, one day while I was sitting in my backyard with my cat and watching a red dragonfly in flight, I felt overwhelming gratitude for all I was experiencing in that moment.
That’s when I discovered this simple secret:
A true gratitude practice is not about mental repetition of a list. It is about feeling grateful in the present moment.
Gratitude is a feeling—not a mental thought or image. While thoughts and memories might trigger feelings of gratitude, it is the feelings, not the items on the list, that comprise gratefulness. Instead of starting with some thing or some mental image for which we are—or feel we should be—grateful, why not just sit quietly and simply invite the feeling of gratitude to arise in our awareness? Believe it or not, the feeling of gratitude is already there within your heart. Everyone knows and can recognize the feeling.
So, my secret to a true, heartfelt gratitude practice is to start by experiencing the feeling of gratitude, not by making a list. Maybe that sounds a little abstract, like I’m telling you to feel grateful about nothing. You might wonder: How can I feel gratitude without feeling grateful for or about something?
How about you try it for yourself? Take a quiet moment, maybe this moment right now, and invite the feeling of gratitude to well up from inside your being. Instead of focusing on all the things for which you are grateful (or think you should be), just focus on the feeling of gratefulness in your heart.
What does gratitude feel like?
It’s a sort of soft, sweet, delicious feeling, isn’t it? It borders on joy and has the flavor of love, doesn’t it? Why not just sit and feel it instead of thinking about it?
In meditation, we know the value of direct experience in the present moment versus remembering past and projecting into future. A direct “here and now” experience of love takes us a lot closer to bliss than longing for it or remembering yesterday’s love.
If you find you need to think about something for which you have sincere, heartfelt gratitude to jump-start the feeling, that’s okay. But instead of going directly into your mental list from there, take some time to feel into the experience. Once you feel gratitude, images of those things for which you are truly grateful will naturally float up into your awareness. In other words, you don’t need a prepared list. You just need to start with the feeling and then let in whatever images and memories arise. Or, maybe you just delight in the feeling without any memories or thoughts at all.
When gratitude is felt as pure, untethered joy and peace, it becomes a deep, transformative, meditative experience. Now that I’ve found this heartfelt way of experiencing gratitude as a meditation that doesn’t focus on a list, I do the practice every day and recommend it to my clients and students as well.
By starting with feeling gratitude itself, the entire practice becomes more spontaneous, natural, and authentic. It becomes a living, present-moment experience, not a mental recollection or tribute to the past.
It becomes less about the things we have, and more about the loving awareness inside of us that is grateful. In transforming our practice with this little secret, gratitude is no longer a platitude but a sincere experience rooted in love and our inner aliveness.