Several years ago my friend and I were trying out a new counseling device I had purchased. The device was a sensor you attach to your finger and connect to a computer to measure your heart rate. The goal was to practice methods of decreasing your heart rate to find the most effective ways for you to reduce levels of anxiety or promote feelings of calm.
My friend and I were both right in the middle of very stressful periods of our lives, and try as we may, we could not lower our heart rate. Her husband tried the sensor, and within seconds his heart rate lowered. We were in awe of him and wanted to smack him at the same time.
My friend was an active yogi. I was a regular meditator and nothing was working. We tried affirmations, deep breaths, mantras, and our heart level stayed the same. Finally she grabbed the sensor and said, “Let me try one more thing.” She attached it to her finger and closed her eyes, and I watched the screen carefully as her heart rate went down, down, down.
“How did you do that?!?” I asked once she opened her eyes. “I thought about everything good in my life, everything I have to be grateful for. I pictured every person, every thing, every place, every experience that I love, and I finally felt calm.” That was the first time in my life I saw actual scientific evidence of the power of gratitude.
Although I had never consciously acknowledged its power, instinctively I had known it for a long time. Years before I actually saw the evidence, I had felt it in my spirit. While trying to lift myself out of a terrible depression, I decided to write a list of 100 reasons to live. My only stipulation was that it could not include specific people or objects. It had to be small moments of time or simple joys of life.
My list included things like uncontrollable laughter, warm water, the ever-changing sky, freshly washed sheets, a full tank of gas, the wind blowing the branches of a willow tree, and someone’s face lighting up when they see me. I added a little each day until two or three months later my list was complete. The process of creating that list and being more attentive to things that bring me joy was a profoundly healing experience. Until my depression ended, I frequently dove back into that list to remember that the small joys of life really are worth the struggle.
Since then I’ve made gratitude a regular part of my life. For years I’ve written in a gratitude journal once a week, but recently I felt I needed something more. So each night before I go to bed, I walk up and down my street for about 10 minutes on what I call a gratitude walk. I simply shift through my day and pull out all the little nuggets of joy, of peace, of love. “Thank you God for this moment. Thank you God for that moment.” It’s as if I’m sending up little love letters to God. As I pace up and down the street, I feel the richness of each of these moments. What a great way to fall asleep, full of gratitude for that day.
I admit there are times when I’ve had a rough day and it’s hard to actually feel the gratitude. At times I know I am speaking empty words or just going through the motions, but I do it anyway. Often when I feel disconnected from gratitude, I will remember a small moment of the day, sometimes just a tiny mercy, and find myself smiling or laughing. Those are the times I realize that gratitude is not just a feeling, but a spiritual practice, a place we come back to time and time again to regain its power.
Tomorrow as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, I pray you will take the time to be aware of and appreciate all the simple joys and blessings in your life. Then I hope you will do the same thing the next day. And the next day. And the next day. There is power in the love letters we send up to God. There is power in gratitude.