Gratitude and Well-Being

I’ve been listening recently to podcasts by Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale who teaches courses on well-being. Some of the things she says are in harmony with what we have been reflecting on in recent weeks. Two essential ingredient in physical, mental, and spiritual health are sufficient sleep and exercise. In addition, mindfulness or soulfulness, gratitude, and compassion are necessary qualities. These go against some of the cultural presuppositions which stress self-preoccupation, busyness, and distraction.

In a somewhat similar vein, Richard Rohr stresses contemplative time and space as crucial to enter liminal or transitional space where transformation can occur. We must step back from the culture that envelopes us so that we can see clearly and differently. There is, as Buddha recognized, an inevitable degree of suffering in every human life. Wayne Muller uses the analogy of suffering as a wind that blows through every life, in some case gently and in others fiercely. One of Rohr’s key insights is that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted.. In other words, we must tune in to our own sorrows, without either drowning in them of inflicting them on others. Part of this process is allowing ourselves to recognize and even feel them, and then to name them. It can also be valuable to entrust these feelings to an intelligently caring other, as a gift rather than an attack. That person may also help us to name and understand them. So too can stories and other art forms.

Jane and I have used the language that differentiates response from reaction. Reaction is the immediate unconsidered action provoked from without. This reaction can be to run from a difficult experience into the distraction of busyness, entertainment, overwork, or addiction. Or it can be a dumping of that feeling on others who become the targets of our hurt turned to fear turned to anger. This attack involves the inflicting of pain on others rather than recognizing it in ourselves. The alternative, that of response, is to allow ourselves to experience the distressing feeling consciously, to name it, as we said, to listen to what it may teach us, and then to decide whether and how to express it.

The above is in fact a form of practice of mindfulness as it is often called. I prefer the term soufulness. This term occurred to me after a week at Plum Village in France, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery. While I recognize that it could be in part a misinterpretation, it did strike me that the term mindfulness might convey something that can seem overly intellectual and abstract. I use the term soulfulness to indicate an experience of the whole person that involves, beyond more surface emotions, the deepest feelings that are rooted profoundly within us.

The simplest and perhaps most common practice is to sit quietly and attend to one’s breathing: the inhale, the point of pause or turnaround point, and the exhale. As I have often said, it is really instructive that in Hebrew (ruah) , Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus) , and probably a large number of languages, the words, breath, wind, and spirit, are the same. This association of breath, wind, and spirit, comes most obviously from the observation that if we are alive, we are breathing, we have the breath of life in us; and if we cease breathing, we die. In this sense, breath is what makes us alive. Breathing also involves breathing in, a pause or turnaround point, and breathing out. Breathing out is like blowing, like a breeze or wind. But we may also live and breathe by fear or hope, blow winds of greed or compassion. Any such qualities, singly or in combination, can be the spirit that shapes our lives.

A next essential component is gratitude, which is the opposite of resentment. One recommended practice is every day, preferably early on, to jot down one or two things that we are grateful for. It might be useful to even to do so, whether we can presently feel them or not. It can certainly include the people in our life who care about us and about whom we care, or our present level of health, if it is reasonably good. It can also be very simple things. Many, many years ago, in what turned out to be the final year of his life, my younger brother would remark that he felt grateful if he got through a day without too much discomfort. I also remember seeing a television interview in which the interview asked the person to whom he was speaking if she minded growing older. Her reply, with a sparkle of humour, was that she preferred it to the alternative.

Her response indicates that the underlying gratitude, that informs all other forms, is a gratefulness for the gift of life. In a similar way, the experience of joy is at root the experience that it is good to be alive. In more detail, it is a recognition that the life we have received is a gift, a living gift, to accept gratefully, to cultivate and make to grow, to share both intimately and in wider circles, and to immerse itself in a life-giving direction for one another and our world. Implicit in this thought is the recognition that the undercurrent of gratitude that informs our life, and to the extend that it does so, flows into compassion, certainly for ourselves, but also into compassion for others and into striving, according to our gifts, for a more just society.

May all of your experience your lives in a way that instils in you a joyful gratitude that flows into compassion towards yourself and radiating outwards to others.

Norman King, February 14, 2021