This year, many of us will gather around that proverbially provisioned Thanksgiving table, the steam from the sweet potatoes casting a dreamy haze upon our soon satiated lot. The plentiful food and drink, the company of family and friends, the warmth of hearth and home, all will, at least in theory, evoke feelings of gratitude.
The holiday is not named “Thanksfeeling”, however, but “Thanksgiving”. The name assumes a certain facility with gratitude, an ability not only to count our blessings, but to articulate them, too.
Giving thanks, however, is more acquired skill than innate ability. Gratitude takes practice.
The benefits of gratitude practice extend far beyond the fourth Thursday in November. The more frequently we give thanks, the more we sensitize ourselves to life’s abundant blessings. When we practice gratitude, we see with grateful eyes.
By giving thanks, we feel with a grateful heart.
To create a personal and sustainable gratitude practice, we begin with the template “Thank you for life” and ask: How would we, in our own style, with our own backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, and preferences, honestly and authentically speak these words?
To answer this question, we divide “Thank you for life” into three components: 1) Thank, 2) you, and 3) for life. We then tweak each of these components to suit our individual circumstance and style:
How To Create Your Own Gratitude Practice
In our own words, the first component, “Thank,” may stay the same. On the other hand, we may feel more natural turning “Thank” into “I want to thank,” “I give thanks,” “Thank you so much,” or “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul.”
Maybe we want to spice up “Thank” with a favorite colloquialism or two. I might not greet the dawn with a howl of “This is the fuckin’ bomb!” but if this colorful exclamation floats your one-of-a-kind boat, if this feels to you like an honest, authentic expression of gratitude, fuckin’ bombs away.
After we’ve put our stamp on “Thank,” we turn to the second component, “you.” Here, we need to decide: Who is this “you”? What deity, power, person, place, or thing so magnanimously granted us another day on this third rock from the sun?
For some, the answer is God. The “you” is Adonai, Allah, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Waheguru, or any other moniker for the All Knowing and All Powerful. However, if a deified “you” alienates more than inspires, the “you” could be Mother Earth, Nature, the Universe, or – and I’m definitely not kidding about this – the Force.
Whatever mechanism we believe fills us with vitality, whatever power keeps us breathing through the night, allowing us to sidestep all manner of statistically plausible alternatives, that’s the “you” we now turn to in thanks.
We could also amend these names with all manner of affectionate adjectives. “God” could become “Loving God.” “Creator” could become “Compassionate Creator.” Sprinkle to taste, if we like, with an “O” or “My,” as in “O Compassionate Creator” or “My Loving God,” and there you go—we have the beneficiary of our thanks, designated and detailed.
Having personalized the “Thank” and “you,” we turn, finally, to the third component of our gratitude practice template: “for life.” To personalize “for life,” we continue to employ all manner of euphemisms, adjectives, and imagery.
If life, in all its unfathomable complexity, strikes us as strange and amazing, we can give thanks “for this strange and amazing life.” If we don’t imagine life as a thing, but as a force or energy, we can give thanks “for this life force” or “for the energy that courses through my being.”
When life feels like a roller-coaster ride, full of precarious highs and terrifying lows, there’s NO need to mince words. Just put it all out on the table: “I give thanks to you, Mysterious Source of Life, for this intense, terrifying, thrilling, sometimes really hard, sometimes really good, roller-coaster ride of a life.”
Though we should steer clear of unequivocally negative descriptions (“Thank you, Jesus, for yet another day of misery” kind of misses the point). Neither must we paint with sanguine brushstrokes. The practice of gratitude provides a floor for free expression. We can pay homage to life’s bittersweet complexity, giving thanks for the ups, the downs, and everything in between.
Pseudo-liturgical prose is likely not our strong suit. No matter. Just wing it for a while. Play with the words. For all three components of gratitude, for the “Thank,” the “you,” and the “for life,” jot down lists of potential phrases.
Chew on each option, speaking the phrases out loud, listening for their resonance, and noticing if, after spoken, the words sink with a thud or float toward the sky. With a bit of trial and error, each of us has the capacity to develop a palatable yet personally inspiring language for gratitude. A trope that, when recited, will focus our minds and soften our hearts.
As we train in gratitude practice, I recommend making a commitment to give thanks at least ONCE a day. We start by giving thanks, each day, for life in general, not life wedded to any specific circumstance or detail, just simple, unadulterated life.
Eventually, though, we may choose to expand the scope of our missives. After whispering “You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gift of my life, and I will always be thankful,” we might decide to tack on a second phrase, such as “You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gift of my family, and I will always be thankful.”
If so moved, we may even turn our one-liner of a gratitude practice into an evolving soliloquy of thanks. What began as “You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gift of my life, and I will always be thankful” might morph into:
You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gift of my life, and I will always be thankful. You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gifts of my husband, Theo, and my three beautiful children, Olivia, Clementine, and Theo Jr., and I will always be thankful.
You are amazing, Universe—you gave me the gifts of my home, the money in our bank, a job that doesn’t suck as much as my last job, the writings of Toni Morrison, the movies of Judd Apatow, the incredible stick work of hockey superstar Alexander Ovechkin, and that bakery over on Seventh Street that makes those insanely delicious blueberry muffins that I know I shouldn’t eat but I just don’t care because if you didn’t want me to eat them, dear Universe, you shouldn’t have made them so damn irresistible, and I will always be thankful.
Nothing need remain out of bounds. We can allow our practice of gratitude to ebb and flow, to lengthen and contract, to shift from the undeniably profound to the ostensibly trivial to the undeniably profound once more.
Each morning, we simply turn the ignition with our opening declaration of thanks, and then we see where the gratitude leads.