Not a day passes without whispering the words “thank you” at least a dozen times. Gratitude erupts spontaneously when I look at my two sons playing together, when my sweet husband walks into the room to take a quick break from work, when we all walk out into the yard and pass by the glorious array of flowers in full summer bloom. Gratitude bubbles up when I put my baby boy to sleep and I gaze on his pure divine face. When I drive by the Colorado pastures and plains with the jagged Rockies in the distance and the late afternoon sun filtering the willows in sage light, I say thank you. The words are an expression of the tingling in my body that signals the arrival of gratitude. The words are an acknowledgement of the beauty and gifts that surround me.
Sometimes gratitude arrives unbidden in moments of grace. Other times, gratitude is a conscious choice that we actively practice, noticing in a moment a habitual tendency to focus on what isn’t working and instead choose to focus on what is working. However its expressed, when we touch that place of gratitude we feel better. I recently took a yoga class that ended with the teacher saying, “Focus in this moment on your gratitude for being alive. Gratitude is the highest expression of life, the emotion with the highest frequency.” I agree. There are times when I’m stuck on the underside of life and with the conscious choice to notice and express gratitude, my mood shifts immediately.
Gratitude is a common exercise I prescribe for clients in the midst of the transitions I most commonly work with: marriage and motherhood. When the anxiety arrives, it’s frightfully easy to project the anxiety onto your fiance or onto the experience of new motherhood. With a slight shift of perspective and a decision to focus on gratitude, the anxiety can soften into the emotions underneath, the core feelings of transition like grief, uncertainty, loss, fear, loneliness, and restlessness. Gratitude is a powerful tool for calling back a projection and nourishing ourselves.
I relied heavily on gratitude to get me through the challenges of pregnancy, labor, and the early months of motherhood. When Everest was five months old I wrote:
It’s Saturday, so I had a few free minutes today while Daev and Everest were out walking – the first I’ve had all week! I had to consciously will myself away from checking email or doing the dishes or making a phone call so I could sit outside in the sun and just breathe. Drop into myself. See what comes. It felt almost scary to drop in for the fear that nothing would be there. What happens to my self all week long while I’m attending to Everest? What happens if I slow down or come to a full stop and I find myself peering over the edge of an abyss, staring into nothingness? But I closed my eyes anyway, knowing, trusting, that my selfhood cannot be erased by five months of motherhood.
And then I felt something warm welling up inside. And immediately the word came to meet the feeling: gratitude. Gratitude began to permeate my being. How deeply grateful I am for this life, for my magnificent husband, for my beautiful light of a son. The wellspring of blessings swam through my veins, as warm and golden as the sun on my face, melting me, restoring me, nourishing me.
As I go through my week I think about the ways that I find nourishment, and I hope that on the weekends, while Daev is home, I can have an hour or two to restore my soul. The ways are plentiful: a hot bath, time to write, stretching and breathing by candlelight, dancing to my favorite music, thinking about a dream I had the night before. But I never realized that the experience of recognizing gratitude is nourishing. Those few moments were like drops of gems nourishing my soul in a deeply satisfying way.
Motherhood is truly the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, bar none. There are moments in almost every day when I’m not sure how I’ll find the energy to care for my son. There have been numerous times when I’ve felt so physically and mentally drained that I’ve feared I might faint. Everest wakes up at least ten times each night, and by the sixth or seventh time Daev and I are so exhausted we can barely feel our legs when we get out of bed. I long for five or six hours of uninterrupted sleep. I long for an hour or two in the day when I’m “off the clock”.
But I know that these things will come. I know that this high-need time is finite. And what gets me through is Everest’s smile, his laugh, his emerging curiosity, his delectable chubby legs, his clear blue eyes. What gets me through is seeing Daev light up at the sight of his son each night when he comes home from work. What gets me through is keeping gratitude forefront in my consciousness, remembering to remember how blessed we are to be caring for this miracle, this little piece of heaven come direct from God.
At 4am, rocking my son to sleep in the big yellow chair, I stare out the bay windows at the trees silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky, and the first feeling is total and utter depletion, the longing to climb back into bed, and a fervent prayer to God to help my son sleep deeply. But on the heels of this desperation, when I surrender to the exhaustion and really see what surrounds me – the beauty of the bare-limbed trees, the weight of Everest’s head sinking incrementally more heavily into the crook of my arm, his angel-light skin, his full red lips – gratitude again arrives. This is not to gloss over the exhaustion, both mental and physical. I hate it. I really, truly hate feeling this tired. But after I’m done hating it, the resentment moves over and makes room for something more gentle, more accepting of what is.
There are also times, however, when our unacknowledged feelings eclipse our ability to access a genuine expression of gratitude. It’s in these moments that our emotions are asking us to attend to them before the gratitude can naturally emerge: grief that needs to be released, fear that needs to be acknowledged, uncertainty or restlessness that needs to be held, loneliness that needs to be friended. This is where a psychological or spiritual practice come into play. When I’m working with a client, I’m helping them sink into the deeper layer of feelings so they can open their heart and access love and gratitude once again. We can’t force ourselves to feel authentic gratitude any more than we can force ourselves to experience authentic self-worth by repeating affirmations a hundred times a day. Once the false beliefs that protect us from the core feelings are revealed, gratitude naturally arrives on the petals of an open heart.