Is Gratitude the Ultimate Spiritual Practice?

[caption id=”attachment_1229” align=”alignleft” width=”900”]hands in prayer Courtesy of Michael Heuss/Unsplash[/caption]

The last time I prayed really hard - the kind of praying where you squeeze your eyes shut and clasp your white-knuckled hands together - was 20 years ago. I was in the late stages of my first pregnancy. There had been premature pains, and I was hooked up to a machine in the hospital. A nurse moved an ultrasound wand over my protruding stomach, stared at a video monitor and tried to detect a heartbeat. There wasn’t one. Several minutes passed. Round and round the nurse went with her wand, rubbing my belly as if it were an oil lamp and trying to coax the magic genie that was my baby to appear. Her brow furrowed slightly, and she left the room to get a doctor. My husband stood beside the bed, and we looked at each other wordlessly -  our eyes brimming with tears and our hearts bursting with panic. When the doctor took over and there still wasn’t a heartbeat, that’s when I began my earnest silent praying -  my bargaining, begging and beseeching.  It was a spare-tire supplication and a last resort. I didn’t even believe in the kind of prayer that leads to a benevolent deity intervening personally on your behalf to save your precious baby but lets millions die of starvation. And yet, this didn’t stop me from crying out to God and the universe (I’m not exactly sure whom) for mercy in my hour of need.

After searching in vain for several more heart-stopping minutes, the doctor cocked his head, picked up the cord to the ultrasound machine and dangled it in front of our eyes. It hadn’t been plugged in. Our baby was alive not because of divine intervention, but because of human stupidity. Surely, this was one of those instances that Mark Twain referred to when he said that, “under the circumstances, swearing seems more apt than prayer.”

Still, some might call this a miracle. We called her Ruby.

Prayer was deeply ingrained in me, mostly the rote kind. It began as a toddler with the rush of words spilled out before every single meal in my family home: “Godblessthisfoodanddrinkforjesussakeamen.” In grade school I could recite the Lord’s Prayer frontward and backward. At bedtime, there was the macabre, though strangely comforting, “Now I lay me down to sleep” recitation. Ugly monsters lying in wait under my bed frightened me far more than the idea of my ethereal soul being whisked up toward my bedroom ceiling in a heavenly vapour.

As a teen, my prayers were always of the selfish variety. Instead of asking God for world peace, I’d ask him to make the boy next door like me, or to make sure my parents didn’t catch me smoking.

But when my faith in God faltered, my prayers fell off, too. I would still bow my head if the occasion called for it, but I didn’t believe anyone was really listening. In fact, I became uncomfortable with the whole notion of prayer - what I viewed as studied longwinded expositions from the public pulpit and pious petitions in private. Yes, I’m judgy about prayer athough I’m certain that if I got cancer tomorrow, I’d be among the more than 85 percent of people (atheists and agnostics included) who pray when confronting a major illness. When all hope seems lost, praying can feel productive.

According to Angus Reid, half of Canadians pray on a regular basis. When we do, we’re either asking for something like spoiled kids in Toys R Us or being grateful for something like well brought up children who remember their pleases and thank yous. The former may be the most instinctive, but surely, it’s the latter that needs to be cultivated.

Prayer is getting a hip rebranding these days by way of meditation and mantras. But meditation is all about emptying your mind instead of filling it with hopeful longings. And the elegant string of rosewood and turquoise mala prayer beads that I purchased earlier this year hangs limp on my bedpost, doing decorative duty rather than serving any sort of spiritual purpose. They just don’t feel right in my hands because I can’t shake the feeling that I’m co-opting another culture’s sacred tradition as my own.

Nonetheless, I’m inspired by the words of the writer Alice Walker: “Thank you is the best prayer anyone could say.” And so, in place of the awkward prayer, I try to say thanks just a little more.

Giddy with resolve, I commission an artist friend to create a hefty, handmade $80 gratitude journal. It’s gorgeous but unwieldy, so I barely use it. Instead, I download the free, user-friendly Happy Tapper Gratitude app, (“Change your thoughts, change your life”), which I use several times a week. It takes me less than a minute to enter a bunch of things that I’m thankful for. Most are banal (“the breeze coming in through my bedroom window”), but some are extraordinary (“dozens of fireflies lit up the trail on my walk tonight”).

Over the past year, I’ve logged hundreds of grateful notations. I wish I could say that this habit has made me a paragon of loving-kindness, but I still elbow my husband whenever he snores and harangue my kids for leaving their shoes scattered in the front hall. It has taught me to pay more attention, though, to the many small, finer moments that life offers on a daily basis. I found that even on my bad days, there was still always plenty to be grateful for.

Being more appreciative doesn’t mean that we no longer feel despair at times. But it can be an antidote to suffering. A regular intentional practice has been proven to make us happier, and it’s a whole lot easier to make changes - in one’s own life or in the world -  when you’re feeling up instead of down. Because it forces us to look for the good where we can find it, gratitude may just be the ultimate spiritual practice.

What’s more, the results of more than 40 research studies show it improves every area of life, decreasing envy and materialism, facilitating sounder sleep, deepening friendships, improving productivity and even making one like their spouse more (leading to fewer elbow jabs in bed). In fact, the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal can boost our long-term wellbeing by 10 percent, which is the same impact as doubling our income.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I extend my gratitude practice with a 21-day “Timmies Challenge,” setting a goal to thank someone every day for three weeks with a Tim Horton’s gift card and a note detailing what I appreciate about them. It turns into an almost selfish exercise because I get a feel-good boost with every card I give away. Just as with the gratitude journal, it’s surprisingly easy to find someone to thank, whether it’s my neighbours across the street for maintaining a beautiful garden, my daughter’s boyfriend for raking the leaves, the friends who had us over for drinks, the woman who grooms our dog or the art teacher who encourages my daughter’s creative pursuits. One morning, I’m stumped about whom to thank until I hear the garbage truck beeping on the street outside. I run out in my robe to catch it, handing out cards to two surprised city workers, whom I never once acknowledged in the decades they’ve picked up my trash.

Of course, finding things to be grateful for is easy when you have enough money to pay the bills, and friends and family who make your life meaningful. But is it possible to feel gratitude when you are down and out? To be thankful despite desperate circumstances?

For 30 years, I’ve driven by a Salvation Army shelter for transient men in downtown Hamilton, close to where I live. My heart always tugs a little when I see the ragged crew milling around outside. After all, my own estranged alcoholic father spent time here in the months before he died 30 years ago. On an early December morning, instead of driving by as I normally do, I get out of my car to talk to a few of these men. I tell them that I’m doing research on gratitude, offer up a Tim Horton’s card in exchange for a few minutes of their time and discover that most of them are eager to share their stories.

Steve, 61, who developed an addiction to opioids after experiencing severe back pain, says that he had to leave his apartment a few weeks ago because it was infested with bedbugs. He’s “grateful to be here instead of on the street” -   so grateful, in fact, that when he gets his monthly $740 disability cheque, he brings $20 to 541 Eatery & Exchange. It’s a unique local restaurant and charity, where patrons can purchase buttons - as a donation - that are used, in turn, by people who don’t have the money to order food from the menu. “I try to pay it forward whenever I can,” says Steve.

Craig, 42, has been at the Salvation Army for two months. His mental health issues are obvious in the frantic way he constantly looks over his shoulder and mutters so fast that I can barely catch his words.  When I ask him if there’s anything he’s thankful for, he answers bluntly, “not at the moment.” But then, he reconsiders: “Actually, I’m thankful for the hot lunch I had today. They serve it to you here on a tray along with a salad and a bun -  it’s like being in a restaurant.”

George, a 59 year-old former factory worker, says that he’s “thankful just to be alive and to have a place to be out of the cold.” Anthony, 55, is grateful to finally be on a short list for affordable housing. “You don’t realize how much you miss having your own place until you don’t have it,” he says. Matthew, who looks at least a couple of decades older than his 46 years, freely admits to being a crystal meth addict. And with only a couple of teeth left in his mouth, he’s difficult to understand, but I do get that he’s thankful for “coffee and tobacco.” When I thank him for his time, he sings an entire rendition of  “Puff the Magic Dragon” to me with all of the enthusiasm of a school boy. I stand there awkwardly until he’s finished. It’s a surreal moment on a street that isn’t so very far from my own, yet seems worlds apart.

My father’s life was a world apart from my own, too. I never knew him; he left when I was three and, by all accounts, went on to live a hardscrabble life. He was a wayward son in his strict, religious family, and I’m sure that a lot of prayers were said for him. (As a kid, I even prayed that I would meet him one day.) But I’m not sure that they did him any good. I see my father’s face in the men outside of the Salvation Army, and I imagine that he was as weathered and worn as these guys, holding on to some bit of hope that his luck would turn.

Often, our prayers go unanswered, no matter how tightly we shut our eyes. But if we dig deep enough, there’s usually some small scrap of gratitude that we can offer even in the most difficult situations. The men outside of the Salvation Army shelter showed me that.