Cultivation is a form of practice and harnesses the energy of purposefulness. We can cultivate most anything in our lives, depending on how we offer our attention and focus our intentions.
All praise the times in life when it is easy to feel grateful and we can readily access and embrace the great fullness of life. These times deliver delight directly into our days. And yet we all have plentiful occasions when being grateful is not easy and the path to a more grateful outlook is not so obvious or clear. Sometimes not at all.
For those of us interested in developing a more unconditional capacity for living more of our moments gratefully – and the aliveness and wholeheartedness this can bring to us and the world — Br. David Steindl-Rast lays out a pleasingly simple and yet surprisingly rich prescription for how to practice Grateful Living: Stop.Look.Go. Harkening back to times as children when we stood at a curb and had the voice of a caring adult in our ears, many of us know this maxim by heart. It speaks to mobilizing our awareness, opening all of our senses, paying close attention, taking in what is all around us, and only then acting purposefully.
Following this common rule of thumb has likely saved our lives many times over when setting out to cross a busy street. This kind of practice may also “save” our lives as adults in a different way — by supporting us to become more awake, aware, and alert, thereby helping us to shape a life more and more in line with our longings, values, and highest good.
When we set out to cross the road, live more gratefully, or transform our lives in most any way, we cultivate qualities of attention and intention that serve our aspirations. This is one way to define a “practice.” With Br. David’s Stop.Look.Go approach to the practice of Grateful Living, we can be said to be cultivating three qualities essential to a grateful life:
Stop. Stopping cultivates presence.
Look. Looking cultivates perspective.
Go. Going cultivates possibility.
Cultivation is a form of practice and harnesses the energy of purposefulness. We can cultivate most anything in our lives, depending on how we offer our attention and focus our intentions. In cultivating, we: Tend. Nurture. Develop. Enrich. Encourage. Nourish. Cherish. Refine. Further. Bolster. Just as we can cultivate beautiful flowers or a bountiful vegetable harvest with how and how often we direct our attention to their vitality, so too can we cultivate qualities in our lives that we desire and that will serve us. What we nourish with our attention can nourish us in turn.
Mindfulness practices help us cultivate awareness. Yoga practice helps us cultivate flexibility and well-being. Br. David says that when we intentionally stop, look, and go, we can bring gratefulness to our lives through enhancing our capacity for “Presence. Perspective. Possibility.”
Let’s explore these essential building blocks of a life lived in gratefulness and great fullness.
Step One – Stop. Cultivate Presence
“Being present means…not only being present to another human being, but present to the water we drink, and to the flowers we see, and to everything that comes our way – every thing, every person, every animal, every plant, every situation in life, open for encounter.“ ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast
It can easily be said that no single thing has greater impact on our quality of life than our capacity to be present, moment-to-moment as life unfolds. Everything that matters hinges on this capacity that opens the door to most all meaningful experience and that can make all of our experiences meaningful. Presence allows us to be available to all that life offers us. And yet there is almost nothing more challenging in our daily lives than bringing ourselves into unencumbered presence for all of the moments and circumstances that life delivers. If it was easy, we would all be perpetually present with aplomb.
Presence opens us to vulnerability. The vulnerability of presence brings everything with it – messy and magical, tumultuous and tender, serious and sacred.
There are many reasons why the exquisite practice of simply being present can be challenging. For those of us who live in cultures where our attention is an incessantly sought-after “commodity” and where the experience of insatiability fuels our economic engines, it is often hard to truly feel that this moment and our individual experience is enough. Many of us have habits of mind that keep us distracted from the richness of the moment-at-hand, and pull us toward the well-worn pathways of “more is better.” We readily perseverate about the past or worry about the future. And the simple spaciousness of presence can be disarming and unfamiliar in its quiet, its patience, its grace, its invitations.
Presence opens us to vulnerability. The vulnerability of presence brings everything with it — messy and magical, tumultuous and tender, serious and sacred. But meeting the moment with presence is surely where the great fullness of life can unfold. Simply being available to “what is so” for us in any given moment opens us to truths and emotions that impact us. It opens our eyes and our hearts to life. Being fully present to the moment can make way for deeper experiences of belonging as well as feelings of isolation. Beauty and heartbreak. It can cause us to feel both more satiated and more filled with longing. A full-bodied, full-hearted presence — by itself — can usher in awareness of the preciousness of life as well as the certainty of death. Presence is the holding space for paradox and the birthplace of poignancy. It is a gateway to perspective and possibility. Presence attunes us to what is true and lays the foundation for our capacity to be grateful.
The more fully present we are to the moment and circumstances at hand, the more likely we are to be incessantly surprised.
Being present, we are less beleaguered by expectations and assumptions that pre-program what we are likely to experience as “same old, same old.” This opens us to what Br. David has said is one of the most important aspects of our capacity to live gratefully: surprise. The more fully present we are to the moment and circumstances at hand, the more likely we are to be incessantly surprised. How can we possibly take things for granted when there is a felt preciousness and ever-newness to what we are experiencing? Not taking our lives for granted, we can better behold and hold what unfolds with appreciation, graciousness, and even delight. The rawness of a real and unencumbered presence opens us to gratefulness. It is also the doorway to authenticity, wonder, awe, intimacy, creativity, revelation, insight, and growth.
Making a commitment to become more present, available, awake, and aware sends vital messages to our cells, our minds, our hearts, and those around us that we value and want to savor the life we have. As we slow down enough to better notice the nuances of our lives, we open to deeper experiences and a more expansive sense of time. This is the master-key to gratefulness and not taking the gifts of our lives for granted.
Step Two – Look. Cultivate Perspective
“The tiniest change in perspective can transform a life.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
Looking, we open our eyes. Looking on purpose, we open our eyes wider, bringing more into our field of awareness. Looking with perspective, we change what we see.
Presence alone begins to deliver on perspective as we access deeper reservoirs of awareness. Perspective is not something we are born with — we acquire it through experience and intention. Babies do not necessarily have perspective but they do have an abundance of raw emotion. They behold everything from a place of sheer, in-the-moment presence. With no context, history, or expectation, their perception revolves completely around “this is all there is.” For adults, this same perception is often accompanied by the felt sense that “this is all there ever will be,” which is very often a source of suffering. Perspective helps us to see, know, and remember the larger context in which our lives are unfolding.
Perspective allows us to be fully present to an experience we are having and to simultaneously hold a “witness” awareness.
In seeking perspective, we act with very clear intention to garner more inputs in how we are experiencing life. We seek perspective when we want to expand our viewpoint and re-frame how we perceive our existing circumstances. Perspective arises from what we choose to look at, how we choose to see it, and the place in ourselves and in our lives from which we do the looking. We have influence over all of these. We can gain perspective by both moving in closer to things and putting distance between ourselves and what we behold or experience. This sense of separation or communion allows us to immediately see differently whatever is before us.
Perspective allows us to be fully present to an experience we are having and to simultaneously hold a “witness” awareness. It lets us “place ourselves” in the shoes of another or in a future moment in time, or it lets us see something as if from “10,000 feet.” It is as though we can have a direct experience and also be gaining insight about that experience at the same time. In this way, we are not just at the effect of our lives, but we can effect them. In the language of developmental psychology, this important capacity is called “perspective-taking,” and it is what allows us to experience compassion, empathy, and a more inclusive field of consideration…for ourselves and for others. It is a key building block in our capacity for connection, intimacy, and living gratefully.
Our work is to continually set and reset the aperture on the lens through which we are looking at our lives, inviting the perspective that best allows gratefulness to serve the moments and circumstances in which we find ourselves.
We have all had the experience of gaining or losing perspective in the blink of an eye. There are experiences and encounters that can broaden our perspective and those that constrict it, attitudes that open us up to opportunity and those that close the doors, questions we ask ourselves that expand our consideration and those that limit it. Our work is to continually set and reset the aperture on the lens through which we are looking at our lives, inviting the perspective that best allows gratefulness to serve the moments and circumstances in which we find ourselves.
One of the most important reasons to practice cultivating perspective is that it can help wake us up – and keep us awake — to the blessings, privileges, and gifts of our lives every day, without needing “wake-up-call” experiences to accomplish this. “It was a wake-up-call” happenings are often those wherein we lose — or almost lose (if we are lucky) — something we deeply value but often take for granted: health, physical ability, marriage, home, money, community, friends, family, work, etc. We all know these profoundly difficult occasions without even naming them, but we also know it best not to need them in order to be/stay awake to what we truly treasure. Better to remember to treasure it all now.
In Grateful Living practice, when we do not feel easy access to a grateful perspective, we can redirect our attention with any one of a vast number of prompts, short practices, questions, and reminders. We can purposefully shift our trains of thought to look at our circumstances in ways that better serve us, others in our lives, and the world. Cultivating a more grateful perspective can make all the difference.
Br. David advises us to look for opportunities. The opportunities we are asked to notice are shaped by our perspective. We can ask ourselves at any moment:
“What perspective would support me to feel grateful right now?” or “What perspective helps open a sense of opportunity for me?”
The awareness of perspective and identification of opportunities opens us to possibility.
Step Three – Go. Cultivate Possibility
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.“ ~ Shunryu Suzuki
When we are present to life — with perspective — and aware of the opportunities within and around us, then we are internally called to act. Then it is time to go. Time to cross the street. Time to generate a new or renewed experience. Time to cultivate possibility.
Possibilities are generated and created. And forging new possibilities can transform our lives and our world.
It could be said that opportunities are to be seen and seized. Opportunities point us to possibility. Possibilities are generated and created. And forging new possibilities can transform our lives and our world.
With perspective and a sense of possibility, our experiences of scarcity can shift to sufficiency, and we realize that we do not need more, different, or better in order to lead our lives fully, gratefully, and generously. This shift makes more of life available to us. We become more resilient and aware of the vast resources and limitless possibilities life is offering us in every moment. As an extension of perspective, we literally see differently, opening to a world of greater possibility. Seeing what is possible compels us to create and act in ways that reinforce having a world for which we, and others, can feel truly grateful. The magic lives in the fact that the more that we act on behalf of that intention, the more grateful we all can become.
Gratefulness wants to be shared. It recognizes our interconnectedness and wants to make a better life possible for others.
For Br. David — and all of us —the “Go” step in Stop.Look.Go is vital. The practice of Grateful Living does not stop and simply settle its bones when we once again look around and feel grateful for what we have — for our personal experiences of gratitude. Gratefulness wants to be shared. It recognizes our interconnectedness and wants to make a better life possible for others. Blessed with presence and perspective, gratefulness wants to move, cast its ripple, have its impact. Grateful Living is active. It beckons us to step into our lives and into the world to play, participate, and protect, and to cultivate the glorious possibilities that live on the other side of the busy street that is life.