Recently, I was out hiking with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. We were in “his” mountains, the Appalachian range, of which there remained very few trails, valleys or mountainsides he had not scaled, hiked or skied. However, all of that changed as a series of life disasters — divorce, surgery and heart issues stole his lust for life and left him with a general apathy towards everything. He had been, as U2’s Bono so succinctly puts it, “stuck in a moment,” and he couldn’t get out of it.
So, how did you get better?” I asked. He came to a dead stop on the trail. First he smiled, paused, and then said, “giving thanks.” The irony was that “thanks be to God” had been his very own mantra he had repeated, out loud to others, throughout his life. And yet, in this crucial period of crisis, his mantra seemed to fail him. Perhaps the mantra had not quite fully penetrated his heart, as busy as he was making his way in the world.
His intuitive therapist then put him on a daily regimen of “giving thanks.” Over time, his mantra turned into a practice, as it sank from his head to his heart, it became an act of rebellion against fear, doubt and anxiety. He began his day giving thanks for everything, in defiance of his reality, he gave thanks for his life, his suffering, his relationships, his lack of relationships, the emptiness as well as the fullness, the pain as well as the joy, he just began giving thanks all day long for everything, even the disaster, and he gradually got better. Some of his physical issues remained, but gradually improved to a point he could tolerate, in other words, he could get out in his mountains again.
Gratitude as a practice, it changes your heart and your heart changes you.
How does it work? It’s a mystery. Try it sometime, just for a day, and see how it alters your perspective, observe how it makes you feel.
When I was growing up, we sang an old hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one…count your many blessings see what God has done.” I remember thinking about this on so many nights when I had trouble falling asleep. I would count my blessings, literally, and I was always surprised at the many positive things in my life, throughout the entirety of my life. I would always think of the kindness of various people, provision when I thought there would be none, love in the oddest of places, and from that came peace and from peace came rest. Now, I try and practice gratitude throughout the day, particularly when things are rough. It becomes my daily act of rebellion against all the chaos that seems to rule the world. Gratitude may not change the landscape of the reality around me, but it does change my ability to deal with it, my ability to have internal peace when it seems that only chaos exists.
Peace, peace be still, he spoke into the chaos. A presence, not just a phrase. It seems to me that Jesus, Divine presence in human form, knew this was an act of rebellion, stating something completely counter to physical reality around him, and he practiced it constantly.
Deena Metzger, poet, author and spiritual leader, writes about the importance of focusing on the sweetness in the nature of living things as a way to spiritual renewal. She also says its important not to cultivate gloom. We do this by speaking peace defiantly into a world of chaos.
Many people have said to me that they find it impossible to focus on anything for longer than a minute or two, that their minds race forward and they feel they can’t control the race. These people also tell me that they find it hard to focus on anything good when so much in the world is bad. I try and remind them that faith is a practice, it doesn’t come instantaneously, and that much of our faith is about the focus on the goodness of God penetrating doubt, fear and anxiety. I encourage them that it is something we were intended to do, this ritual of spirit, and it is not that hard once you get going, in fact, it takes on a life of its own.
These realms of fear, anxiety and doubt do exist and the power in these realms is very real. We can spend our entire lives being driven by these forces, trying to numb them, outrun them or feeling crushed by them. However, there is a higher order that is capable of speaking peace and calm into this disordered realm where compulsions drive human behavior. We find this order in the rebellious act of being in a state of gratitude.
Doubt, fear and anxiety drive us to create things that give us security, and this is not inherently bad, it’s actually a good thing to create shelter, a savings account, good living conditions for everyone, etc. However, we tend to make these things an end goal rather than a means to an end, and when we do that, we invest our hopes and dreams in the pursuit of things. This means that our energy goes towards the pursuit of things we think will deliver peace, joy, love and happiness. We generally end up unfulfilled when we achieve these end goals (or invest everything and don’t achieve them) and realize the pursuit did not bring us what we thought was promised. Sort of like a dog chasing its tail, an endless loop that only results in more of the same.
Giving thanks, the practice of gratitude, is a way through, a way to break the cycle. It calms the chaos within and settles us into pursuits that bring real peace and joy, where the spirit within has a stronger sway in our day to day world. Through this practice of giving thanks, we connect with the Great Spirit, God, who gives us peace, who sustains our hearts with joy and calmness and breath. Eventually, we begin to make better decisions about how we invest our time and energy, we begin to trust our instincts as they are guided by the greater Good. That constant pumping you hear in your heart is not just the beating out of a biological function, it is actually the life force of the universe filling you with light each moment, your heart, the center of your being.
Today, try a little rebellious exercise, open your heart to the possibility of gratitude, open your heart to God, to newness, to thanks; even, and especially, in the midst of disaster. I know it’s counter intuitive, give thanks as a rebellious act, what do you have to lose but fear itself? Give thanks, simply, for life in the midst, go stare at a dogwood blossom for a few minutes, noticing every color of light springing forth, count the times you discover a new freckle on your partner’s face, look deeply into a child’s eyes, drink from a natural spring, get lost driving nowhere, go stare at a river, sit in silence with some relaxing music playing and recite a three word mantra, turning it into a practice, here is one….
Peace be still.
You can do it, give yourself permission to try.