Truthfully, it can be said that we are always practicing something. Most often, we are practicing what is habitual, familiar, and likely unconscious.
All the great wisdom traditions teach us that life is precious; that what is happening right now IS life, not some future destination, time, or state of mind. “Carpe Diem,” they say, implying that we must take none of this moment, and its opportunities, for granted. But as we all know, this is easier said than done, especially when our lives deliver us genuine challenges to living out this simple and profound philosophy. Fortunately, wisdom traditions, including gratefulness, offer a wide range of practices so that we can guide ourselves in becoming more fully awake and present — an opportunity available to all of us at every moment, no matter the conditions of our lives.
A “practice” is anything we do that seeks to build musculature or mastery through repetition. Practices offer us a pathway for sustained, incremental growth, and a mode of learning that can result in a “felt sense” regarding the progression of whatever we are trying to develop. Whether it’s the ability to stretch more deeply in a yoga posture, to remind ourselves to breathe rather than react in conversations, or to bring greater mindfulness into our day-to-day activities, practices can support us to move forward in our commitments and intentions.
Seeing habits of mind as routinized practices acknowledges that awareness has the capacity to interrupt and redirect our patterns.
Truthfully, it can be said that we are always practicing something. Most often, we are practicing what is habitual, familiar, and likely unconscious. Habits of mind can be as much a practice as our daily routines. It can actually help to think of common attitudes such as resentment, fear, and projection as practices in which we engage as automatically as we make our tea or coffee in the morning. Seeing habits of mind as routinized practices acknowledges that awareness has the capacity to interrupt and redirect our patterns. If we can know and name — in the moment — that we are practicing resentment, it means we have the ability to replace that practice with something more in line with what we want to embody. To do this, we begin by paying attention.
When we recognize all the ways we are already practicing our various approaches to life, “practice” starts to feel less conceptual and becomes more accessible, reminding us that practicing is necessary to become adept at most anything, whether good for us, or bad. Proficiency arises from a regular commitment to any simple and familiar practice, and serves as a building block to all that follows. For example, even accomplished musicians practice the basic scales. No scales, no Beethoven. Same with athletes: no jogging, no marathons. Spiritual teachers: no regular contemplation, no wisdom.
Underlying all of this proficiency is repetition and commitment, but also a certain elegant simplicity. The form an effective practice takes is rarely complicated, but the real work remains in grappling with the mind and persisting until something shifts and the heart knows it. Placing these ideas about opportunity and practice within the context of our day-to-day lives, it is helpful to think about how they can support us in living gratefully.
“We cannot be grateful for all that a given moment brings us; yet, in any given moment, we can be grateful for something. The gift within the gift of any given moment is opportunity.” — Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast says, “We cannot be grateful for all that a given moment brings us; yet, in any given moment, we can be grateful for something. The gift within the gift of any given moment is opportunity…Our troubles create a great deal of noise. In the midst of that din it is not easy to hear the soft voice of opportunity. We need trained ears. This is why we need to train our ears long before trouble breaks in on us.”
Grateful Living, like mindfulness or yoga, is an awareness practice and a way of training, deepening, and directing our attention. The point is not to become an expert in Grateful Living — never wavering from a grateful outlook — but to recognize that gratefulness can offer us a “touchstone” for life (especially in difficult times) where we can return our awareness again and again in order to shift or expand our perspective. Like other forms of practice, Grateful Living makes us more resilient and flexible, and also offers a way to frame and learn from everything that unfolds in our lives. Through practicing over time, we gradually become more and more able to recognize the opportunity in every moment. Practice helps us to deliver on presence, and being present leads to so much else that is beneficial.
Recognizing that we are always practicing something, we begin to develop the capacity to become more aware of opportunities, and to shift our awareness toward that which serves us, others, and the world.
Every day — even the hard days, or maybe especially the hard days — offers us a chance to hone our skills through repetition and small steps. With a commitment to Grateful Living, we can adopt practices that are widely used, like writing in a gratitude journal to start or end our day, watching A Grateful Day, or reading articles, poetry, or quotes that reconnect us with a grateful orientation. Like its close cousins, yoga and mindfulness, gratefulness is grounded in helping us to:
- “stop” – to breathe and awaken to the present moment,
- “look” – to become aware and alert, attuning to life through our senses and to the gifts we are able to notice within and around ourselves, gaining perspective and the ability to see opportunity, and then…
- “go” – to take action in our lives that reflects this grateful awareness and great fullness of heart
Grateful Living often becomes a chosen practice once we recognize that we may not have full agency over all that happens in our lives, but see that we have choices about how to direct our attention and actions. Understanding that we are always practicing something, we begin to develop the capacity to become more awake to opportunities available to us, and to shift our awareness toward that which is in service of grateful perspective and action. Working with our attention, we can gradually guide our hearts, minds, and bodies in such a way that we more readily and steadily connect with gratefulness for the phenomenal gift of life — so precious, so temporary, and so worthy of our care and humble celebration.