An excerpt from the forthcoming book Spiritual Practices to Deepen Your Creative Life
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” ― Meister Eckhart
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” — Willie Nelson
These quotes are bookends to a discovery that can change our lives. By practicing gratitude, we can literally change the neural pathways of our brains. Studies show that if we write down three things we feel grateful for, it not only lifts our spirits but impacts how others relate to us. Interestingly enough, research found that this practice works well for 21 days, then it is best to take a break.
When I was going through intense grief, I wrote down three blessings each night. These might be clean sheets, a call from a friend, a good meal, a beautiful sunset, a cool breeze. I listed my blessings in a datebook faithfully, despite any resistance. After several months, I flipped back through them and realized that it had not been all bleak, there was light in the darkness. This gave me a shift in perspective and the strength to keep moving.
Gratitude comes effortlessly when things are going well, but when things are difficult, when we feel disheartened, when we are struggling with failure, grief, loneliness, illness, or when we face injustice or extreme poverty, it is hard to conjure up gratitude. Nevertheless, if we stick to the simplicity of a few practices, gratitude can change our lives.
One practice is to always add a blessing or to say thanks whenever something happens that is positive, whether it is a beautiful sunset or money to pay the bills. After expressing my thanks, I add, “more please.” Asking to receive more good after expressing thanks is visionary, openhearted and receptive. This gives our gratitude energy to expand, to offer up a “yes.”
Another gratitude practice is to say, “Thank you for the good I know is coming to me.” This affirms that good is coming and makes us more open to greater possibilities.
A much more difficult practice is to express gratitude when we are in crisis. To admit that we don’t understand, we don’t like it, and we wish it wasn’t happening but to express gratitude comes out of a firm and well-established practice. Maybe it is gratitude for our life, for those who reach out to us, for the beauty of the natural world, for good memories, or for the possibility of change. After losing my son, I knew that there was a gift somewhere but I had no clue what it might be. Years later I realized that the gift was my determination to make meaning out of my grief and to support others experiencing grief. This enabled me to lead writing workshops in spaces where participants suffer from physical and emotional pain.
When we raise our vibration, we attract the energy of what we desire.
Gratitude sets us up for more abundance. Another powerful practice is tithing where you are spiritually fed. By spiritually fed, I don’t mean only a religious organization. It can be where you hear lectures, look at art, feel inspired. Through giving 10 percent from your resources, you acknowledge that your spirit has been nourished. This is alongside giving to charity. I give to organizations that work with the homeless, for example, and it is also essential that I tithe to book festivals, bookstores, reading series, libraries and theaters, as well as to my spiritual home.
Tithing your time and talent to support, encourage and bless others is also a powerful act of gratitude that attracts more abundance, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and connection with others. This might be sharing advice to an emerging artist, volunteering at a book festival table, offering a free workshop, responding to emails, and showing up at gallery openings.
How can we shift the default in our brains from negative to positive? By finding the blessing in the hardship, by knowing the blessing is there even when we can’t see it. Begin your meditation or prayer practice with words of gratitude. End your mindful walk or your creative work with a moment of gratitude.