Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice

As I lay on the massage table under the palm leaf ceiling, the curandero walked around me saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you” in between phrases spoken in Spanish and other languages I didn’t recognize. He sometimes moved part of my body in what felt like a mix between a chiropractic adjustment and an assisted stretch, sometimes sang what sounded like a child’s lullaby. Mostly he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” throughout my healing session.


Miraculously, the next morning I woke up pain-free for the first time in five years. I was deeply relieved and grateful to be free of the chronic low back pain that had affected my daily life for so long. I hoped the healing would last.


Later that day, after teaching a yoga session on the retreat I was leading, I slipped and fell flat on my back on hard concrete in the pouring rain. My first thought was, “Oh, great, just when I finally felt better.” I wanted to cry.


The curandero’s words came to mind and immediately countered my fear of back pain returning. I repeated “Thank you, thank you, thank you” in my mind. I stood up and slowly walked upstairs to my hotel room to rest, and simply reflected on giving thanks. I felt sincerely grateful for all of the beautiful moments I was experiencing that week, including the moment when I woke up pain free. My logic: if the curandero’s main prayer was “thank you,” and it seemed to work a miracle, I could continue to pray in this way and hope to stay pain-free.


When I got up to join the retreat group for dinner, my back was totally fine and the healing of low back pain seemed to be intact. Thank goodness! You can bet I was grateful for the healing power of giving thanks!



Expressing Gratitude: A Life-Enriching Practice

I was familiar with gratitude as a psychological tool and as a spiritual practice. In fact, the counselors I had worked with over the years recommended keeping a gratitude journal, which I did. Growing up in a metaphysical religion, I felt closest to the Divine when I was feeling grateful for all the blessings in my life, which I attributed to God’s benevolence and care.


I later learned a new form of affirmative prayer which included Gratitude and Thanksgiving as one of the five key steps. The teaching emphasized that it was important to not only give thanks, but to energetically and emotionally feel gratitude for the good result being visualized.


“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”

― Meister Eckhart


Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice:

Reverence and Faith

Sages and teachers throughout the ages and across cultures have included expressing gratitude as a spiritual practice. People practicing earth-based wisdom traditions often give thanks with offerings to nature. The Four Directions or Seven Directions Prayer, an invocation made by many North American indigenous peoples from Iroquois to Mayan, typically includes giving thanks in each verse.


In this beautiful rendition attributed to Seneca Elder, Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, giving thanks is an essential step in opening sacred space:

"To the East, to the new day… Thank you for the moving airs, for the awakening of life.


"To the South, sacred fire of creativity… Thank you for the teachings of … those things that carry joy and communion.


"To the West, to the Dark Waters of Looking Within… Thank you for those things that teach compassion and nourish understanding.


"To the North, the wisdom place… Thank you for the gifts of lodge and sustenance.

I pray to live upon this gracious earth with remembrance of gratitude and with respect.

Gratitude, as an act of sincere appreciation, makes one aware of the good in life, and promises to bring more good. This is reflected in the popular saying, “Where your attention goes, energy flows.” Whether taught through the lens of indigenous wisdom, Law of Attraction or Yoga philosophy, the teaching emphasizes that when we focus on the good, we will likely see more good coming into our lives. In this way, expressing gratitude can be an act of faith.


Appreciation=increased returns

One way to express gratitude is appreciation, seeing and voicing thanks for the good aspects of something or someone. Another definition of appreciation is an increase in value–which again suggests that expressing gratitude for something good in life effectively brings more good!


Mindfulness

Gratitude offers an inspired approach to mindfulness. When you cultivate mindful awareness of your present moment, you can actively appreciate your ordinary daily experience. Washing dishes can be an act of appreciation and mindfulness when you give thanks for the warm water, the food you enjoyed, the beautiful pottery, or the person by your side.

Going for a walk can become a mindfulness and gratitude practice as you say “Thank you” with each step and give thanks for the weather, your able body, the scenery or community surrounding you.


Gratitude elevates every-day existence just as mindfulness does. You become aware of the beauty in the ordinary and the goodness of the present moment. You notice the good in things both small and big, and giving thanks increases this awareness. We learn in mindfulness practice that, rather than being caught up in thoughts or worries, present-moment awareness helps us savor and appreciate the precious singular and daily experiences that make up a lifetime.


Modern Psychology and Neuroscience Weigh in on the Benefits of Gratitude:

Gratitude Feels Good

Gratitude has its own intrinsic reward–it simply feels good to be grateful. Gratitude empowers you and gives a positive boost to your energy.


Expressing gratitude is not just an action, but also creates other positive emotions that benefit mental health and emotional wellness. People who practice giving thanks regularly feel more content, fulfilled, and balanced in life. Gratitude creates further expressions of kindness, compassion, and lovingness, helping us relate to others in more positive ways.

Cultivate a Positive Outlook on Life

Psychologists and neuroscientists confirm that daily gratitude contributes to feelings of general well-being and helps sustain a positive outlook on life. A 2015 study by university researchers found that people who kept a daily journal of things for which they were grateful reported feeling more optimistic than others, and were also more physically active and healthy than those who wrote about negative experiences (Neurohealth Associates). They also found that:

  • Gratitude and positive outlook improves sleep,

  • Gratitude reduces anxiety and depression,

  • The habit of giving thanks correlates to lower inflammation, and

  • Higher levels of gratitude reduces the risk of heart failure.

Enjoy Better Relationships

Giving thanks results in positive interactions and behaviors–for yourself and others. Imagine if, when the next conflict arises between you and a loved one, you were able to pause and access a feeling of appreciation or gratitude for the loved one and for the opportunity to grow. Gratitude expressed brings out the best expression of ourselves and others!


A person who appreciates others more often has more harmonious and joyful relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.


Gratitude Fosters Resilience

People who appreciate the good in life tend to cope better when inevitable challenges arise. Gratitude increases resilience when facing uncertainty or fearful situations.


Adolescents, particularly girls, have been shown to be “psychologically protected” from bullying and have lower suicide risk due to a grateful mindset (Rey et al).


Gratitude Leads to Positive Expectations and Empowering Outcomes Follow

Appreciation and gratitude create positive emotions and expectations, which lead to empowered actions and decision making. When people express gratitude, they tend to be more proactive, which leads to more empowering outcomes.


The practice of gratitude creates a positive feedback loop which sets the stage for more growth and opportunity in one’s life. (Much like the practice of positive affirmations, which was covered in my previous article, “The Art and Science of Affirmations.”)


Our Brain Benefits from Giving Thanks

In addition to our emotions benefiting from gratitude, studies show that our brain also gets activated in healthy ways, even “rewiring” the neural network to promote greater levels of happiness. Our brains grow with gratitude: one study correlated increase gray matter volume with proneness to gratitude. Another study found that people who express gratitude release oxytocin, the hormone which plays a key role in social bonds.


A study at UCLA revealed that feelings of gratitude activate areas of the brain associated with moral and social cognition, empathy and value judgment (Fox et al). Charged with gratitude, the brain helps us have positive feelings and less stress in our interactions with others.


Who doesn’t want more pleasure in life? Give thanks! Gratitude increases dopamine, the hormone associated with pleasure.


How to Make Gratitude a Daily Spiritual Practice

  1. Wake up Grateful: When we first wake up, our subconscious mind is receptive to positive conditioning, a perfect time to practice gratitude. Give thanks for a new day, a good night’s sleep, your comfortable bed, your home, the cup of tea or coffee that awaits you, and the day ahead.

  2. Gratitude in advance: In addition to giving thanks for each day, give gratitude in advance for things which you desire or plan to experience.

  3. Mindfulness and Gratitude: Let your appreciative mindset keep you in the practice of present-moment awareness, or living in the moment. An “attitude of gratitude” helps you elevate ordinary experience into something pleasurable and cultivates a sense of wonder, a beautiful spiritual quality. Admire a blooming flower, appreciate the “magic” of a butterfly or sunset, feel grateful for your free-flowing breath or strength as you exercise, and appreciate the fact that you can easily turn on a faucet and enjoy a hot shower! With mindfulness, you take nothing for granted, and feel gratitude for everything.

  4. Keep a Gratitude Journal: in the evening or right before bed, take a few minutes to write down three or more things you are grateful for, as an overview of your day.

  5. Express your appreciation to others whenever possible: tell the people close to you specifically what you appreciate about them and give thanks when others enrich your life, in small every-day acts and in the big things, too. Besides thanking others, share your appreciation and positivity in general. Telling others what you are grateful for in your life models this practice and makes everyone feel better.

  6. Let gratitude reframe negative experiences: when you can, express gratitude for a challenge and look for the good in difficulties. You may need to feel and express other emotions that don’t always feel good before you can glean the positive; gratitude for your own resilience and growth may be enough.

  7. Say Thank You at the beginning and/or end of your spiritual practices: elevate your prayers, affirmations, meditation, yoga practice to conscious sincerity with feelings and the expression of gratitude.


Are you ready to increase your baseline for a more enjoyable, pleasurable, and healthy life and mindset? Find ways to add gratitude practices to your days.


This article was originally published by LA Yoga on September 14, 2022.

https://layoga.com/practice/spirituality/the-power-of-gratitude-as-a-spiritual-practice/



References


Field, Jana (2021). Gratitude: A Daily Spiritual Practice.

https://www.journeytreehealing.com/post/gratitude-a-daily-spiritual-practice


Fox et al (2015). Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Front. Psychol., Sec. Emotion Science

https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491


Lalgudi, Sujatha (2020). Gratitude Journal: Invest few minutes a day to develop thankfulness, mindfulness and positivity.


Neurohealth Associates (2020). Neuroscience Reveals: Gratitude Literally Rewires Your Brain to be Happier.

https://nhahealth.com/neuroscience-reveals-gratitude-literally-rewires-your-brain-to-be-happier/


Rey et al (2019). Being Bullied at School: Gratitude as Potential Protective Factor for Suicide Risk in Adolescent. Sec. Educational Psychology.

https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00662