Gratitude is a sticky subject, actually. A lot of people, including me, grew up associating gratitude with oppression. Gratitude can be a tool for manipulation and guilt. For instance, when Nelly Bly went undercover to report on the mistreatment of mentally ill women in the late 1880s, she repeatedly described pointed comments by abusive nurses that charity cases such as herself should be grateful for what they were given, even if it was moth-eaten clothes, hard beds, and spoiled food. But deep gratitude that’s grounded in the gifts we’re receiving and can give to the world is empowering.

Gratitude in Thought

Our Circumstances

When we think of gratitude, we usually think of being grateful for the basic things in life. If we have a home, a job, good health, and people who support us, we can find solace in these things. We have to be careful, though, because gratitude without heart is a waste of energy. If we hate our job but we feel trapped in it because of the economy then expressing gratitude for it may actually instill an underlying sense of guilt for hating it so much. We can’t let gratitude undermine anger, fear, or grief rooted in reality. We don’t have to love everything in our lives all the time.

Sincere gratitude in our circumstances involves recognizing what we truly value and has meaning for us. We know what we’re supposed to be grateful for, but when it isn’t in line with what we know to be really important to us then the guilt lingers underneath the surface. For instance, with relatives, friends, and co-workers losing their jobs right and left, we know we’re supposed to be grateful if we have one, even if we hate it. However, if we also believe that we deserve to do work we enjoy, where we give all we have to give and our efforts are appreciated, then the gratitude we force ourselves to feel violates our values and leaves us with a sickening feeling of being even more trapped.

When circumstances match our values then we can feel a sincere gratitude for them. If we believe family should support whoever we are, no matter how weird sometimes, and our family does, we can be grateful for that. If we believe real friends tell us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear and ours do, though it hurts us sometimes, we can be genuinely grateful for having them. If, on the other hand, we believe clients should treat us with respect even though they’re paying us, and we get stuck with a high-paying client who’s disrespectful but we can’t drop them because we need the money, then we don’t have to feel grateful to have them. We just have to do our job for them civilly until we can get rid of them.

My friend Seth Mullins recently wrote a post about gratitude on his blog, Spirituality with an Edge. He warns against giving into the desire to justify our negativity. I don’t believe that what I’ve written above contradicts that because acknowledging crappy circumstances and justifying negativity are separate experiences. If we can let disappointment and anger through and validate them in relation to our circumstances, we can (with great effort, mind you) let go of them and prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of negativity. Seth also reminds us that we can feel gratitude any time, anywhere. Moments in the day free from other thoughts (for instance, when exercising, doing housework, waiting for an appointment to begin) are great opportunities for a mini gratitude meditation.

Our Gifts

Meaningful and sincere reasons for gratitude that I think are overlooked lie in our gifts. We all have things to give to the world, yet we’re not taught to be grateful for them. Our family and social environment often makes us all too aware of what we lack in ourselves and overlook what we have. Expressing gratitude for them is not only reasonable but also gives us a confidence boost, which motivates us to give even more.

Here are the sort of gifts I’m thinking of:

  • Our creativity
  • Our skills
  • Our talents
  • Our strengths
  • Our knowledge
  • Personality traits that give something to others
  • Small acts of kindness we do
  • Anything we do to lift others up

Gratitude in Action

Gratitude that’s only thought, however, doesn’t go very deep. To really live a life of gratitude, we have to use and give the gifts that we profess gratitude for. If someone lets me retreat into their cottage on the mountaintop in order to create my magnum opus and I profess gratitude for their kindness, but then I bum around, squandering my time and energy on everything but my creative work, I’m not showing my friend real gratitude. The disrespect in that is no different from the disrespect we show ourselves (and Spirit, if you believe in a higher power) when we leave our gifts hidden or untapped.

Here’s something to try. Make a list of your gifts. It can be anything from personality traits to knowledge to talents. Here’s a partial list of mine:

  • Writing
  • Digital art
  • Listening to people
  • Teaching people
  • Understanding Tarot
  • Understanding dreams
  • Understanding abuse
  • Understanding disempowerment

Without guilt, self-blame, or disappointment, reflect on those gifts that you give and those that you don’t. For the ones you give, meditate on how what you do demonstrates deep gratitude for them. I think you’ll find it’s a powerful feeling.

For those you don’t give, meditate on how that expresses lack of gratitude for them (without guilt or self-blame, though). Ask yourself why you’re not giving that gift like you could. Be careful of jumping to the conclusion that your circumstances prevent you from giving one of your gifts. Sometimes our situation indeed interferes, but we need to ask ourselves if there’s really no way around it. Once we understand what lies behind our hesitation in giving a gift, we can work on giving it. When we give all of our gifts, gratitude is reflected in everything we do.

I see deep gratitude as a spiritual practice. When we recognize that it’s reflected in what we think and do, we can build a daily spiritual practice through appreciating our gifts and giving them to the best of our ability. So I guess deep gratitude is another tool we can use to bring out our full potential. When we fulfill our individual destiny, we also fulfill the destiny of humankind.