Eleven years ago, I began creating a monthly gratitude painting. My topics included words, yoga, pumpkins and the spectacular trees our neighbors planted on our shared property line. The beauty of these paintings was not in the execution. It was the fact that I thought about the concept all month long, thus rewiring my brain to make me a more grateful person. Whatever I was experiencing, I would wonder, is this it? Is this the subject of my next painting? When I actually did the artwork, I had an embodied experience of gratitude for all the hours the painting took. That embodiment enabled even deeper rewiring.
It was an excellent practice, but it got lost in the general shuffle of life — until now. I am resurrecting this practice, starting with socks.
I live in Vermont. Of course I am grateful for socks. I love polka dot socks, and socks with hearts and stars. I have been gifted Jane Austen socks, octopus socks, protest socks, and socks that say, “This grandma’s seen some shit” (true). I have a special affection for the gift socks, which arouse feelings of gratitude for the giver. I love the texture of fuzzy socks. Sometimes I wear my Hindu goddess Lakshmi socks to church. I also adore my lotus blossom socks, perfect for meditation time.
Socks keep me warm, offer protection from blisters, and provide the opportunity to wear something bright, colorful and silly even if the rest of my outfit is sober. Socks are a wonderful invention. If I have cold feet while lying under the covers, I can get up and put on socks. Problem solved. I like to go barefoot too, but socks are never far away.
I wonder what my December painting will focus on.
You may think this is a trivial use of the sublime grace which is gratitude. A few years back a friend questioned all the causal gratitudes she saw popping up on Facebook. “Isn’t that a little shallow?” she wondered. I say, no. If we see with grateful eyes and heart, everything is miraculous — pillows, toothbrushes, pizzas, hot water, cat food, snow shovels. In terms of happiness practices, it isn’t the object of gratitude that matters — it is how we practice that gratitude.
In an online course with Doctor Rick Hanson on rewiring the brain, he stressed that our brains quickly register negative experiences but that it takes much longer for positive experiences to become part of our brain’s topography. He said, the vast majority of our positive practices (gratitude, compassion, etc.) make no difference at all for building long-term positive wiring in our brains. All those wonderful lists people make, essentially, do very little good in making us more positive people. Instead, we need to really feel it, to be with it, to sit with it, think about the details — really register what this gratitude means deep within our being. That way, the gratitude can extend beyond the moment, and help make us better people.
Besides painting, I have also often written gratitude lists. After Hanson’s class, I stopped dashing off a list of 5 things for which I am grateful and now choose only three, writing a free-form paragraph for each. Maybe even putting my hand on my heart, trying to feel it. Trying to fully absorb the gratitude, and become a more grateful person.
Despite abundant hardship and pain in all our lives, I believe we can also find abundant items for our gratitude lists, paintings, poems, candlelight toasts -or however else we choose to express it. We need only pay attention, devote some of our brain space, and perhaps shift our perspectives. Gratitude is a choice.
Dr. Maria Sirois — who is a masterful storyteller/teacher — taught this truth memorably one evening during a residency for the Certificate in Positive Psychology program sponsored by the Wholebeing Institute. We students were gathered at Kripalu, a yoga and meditation retreat in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. Maria started her presentation by complaining about how little sleep she gets a Kripalu, how the food makes her fart a lot, etc. etc. It was quite entertaining. Then, when Maria had us all in the palm sof her hand, she shifted gears to talk about everything makes Kripalu so special, and for which she is grateful. That was nearly a decade ago, and I still remember it vividly.
Speaking of bodily functions, another friend who worked at a local hospital recalls learning that intestinal bowel obstruction is a very common reason patients get admitted for care. After considering how dreadfully uncomfortable it must be to be unable to poop, my friend began a regular gratitude practice for being able to successfully go to the bathroom. She says out loud, “I’m happy, happy, happy.”
On a more elevated level, Thich Nhat Hanh has written about the breath, suggesting we should always be grateful for breathing as opposed to only being grateful when breathing has been hard due to illness. Or being grateful that we don’t have a toothache. Etc.
My body is broken in various ways, but I still have so many working parts for which to be grateful. I imagine the same is true for most of you.
From our bodies to our sock drawer, most of the time most of us have quite a bit to be grateful for. And, taking the time to express that gratitude can literally rewire our brains and make us happier. It’s free. It’s a miracle. It’s pretty frickin awesome.