Helping individuals cultivate gratefulness to change their relationship to physical pain from one of emotional suffering to acceptance has been the heart of my work.
My work with chronic pain patients has been, for me, a constant lesson in the power of gratefulness. Helping individuals cultivate gratefulness to change their relationship to physical pain from one of emotional suffering to acceptance has been the heart of my work. At times, in truth, it has not been easy. Why, I am often asked, should a person with years of debilitating pain find anything to be grateful for? And how can gratitude be an effective tool for pain relief?
Yet, the very simplicity of gratefulness is the key to unlocking one’s heart from the cells of depression, anger, loss, and fear. In sharing a new perspective on gratefulness with my patients, I begin by asking them what might they be grateful for in the very room in which we sit? Amazingly – or perhaps, sadly – this request is often met with confused silence. The art, the windows, the chairs, the thermostat – even the TV on one wall – go unnoticed as if pain had made them invisible. I remember having a gentleman tell me that there was nothing at all to be grateful for in the room. So I stood up and flicked on the light switch. He literally jumped out of his chair. It was as if the light bulb of gratefulness had turned on his heart and mind.
Gratefulness will not make pain go away but it will help loosen the bonds of suffering.
How easy is it to allow ourselves to be grateful? I tell my patients about how I was at a busy airport and ordered a hamburger from a busy lunch counter. I found a seat and grabbed a few moments to eat before heading off to board my gate. But as I passed by the lunch counter on my way out, I stopped and caught the eye of the cook in the back kitchen. I called out, “Thanks for the burger, it was great!” In that moment that airport cook became a chef and she smiled broadly and thanked me back. What did this cost me? Ten seconds of my time? Ten years later I still tell this story.
My gratefulness groups end with the showing of Brother Steindl-Rast’s “A Good Day”.
I ask my patients to pay attention and listen closely. Some of them cry. Some of them tell me how beautiful it is. And when it is over and I ask them again what they are grateful for, no one is at a loss for words.
Gratefulness will not make pain go away but it will help loosen the bonds of suffering. It helps to refocus us on what we have rather than what we have lost. It brings us into communion with acceptance and with allowing and these, in turn, open our spirits to greater flexibility and resilience.
In my groups I rarely say what I am grateful for but if you were to ask me today, I would answer: “I am grateful for gratefulness itself.”
Bruce F. Singer is a psychologist, mindfulness meditation teacher, musician, and writer. He was the founding Director of the Chronic Pain and Recovery Center at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan CT. His guided meditations are available on YouTube and a digital CD of meditative music, “Heartful: Music for Julie,” is available at brucefsinger.bandcamp.com.