Making gratitude a habit

On Thanksgiving my friends and I sat around a table crowded with glasses of wine. Green bean casserole, cheesy potatoes made with four sticks of butter, our host Maggie’s first homemade turkey (which she nailed!), and sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows filled our plates.

We went around the table and said three things we were grateful for. Ground rules were: 1.) no family; 2.) no friends; and 3.) no health.

Some of us mentioned our creativity and talents, others mentioned successful top surgery and time spent living in New York City. I thought about what I wanted to say as I waited for my turn. I believe I said I was grateful for my job, my church, and my writing—nothing super-deep, but I appreciated holding this time together with some dear friends.

How often do we reflect on the events of our days, the good and the bad, and name what we’re thankful for?

On my bus ride home that evening, I thought about how practicing gratitude and thankfulness is par for the course during this time of year, but I wondered how often we really thought about it during our lives the other 360-odd days. How often do we reflect on the events of our days, the good and the bad, and name what we’re thankful for? How do we move past the things that hurt us?

Sometimes I feel that as each day passes, its moments are added to a pile of moments that continue to grow taller and taller, until it towers above me, dark and menacing. It’s a pile of accomplishments, regrets, things done and left undone.

As my stomach digested all the stuffing I ate, I thought back to the week before, when I sat on the edge of my bed for fifteen minutes to attempt my first Examen prayer. I positioned myself in an upright posture of attentiveness, but not rigidity, with feet flat on the floor and breathing freely. I prayed a simple prayer, and then was silent.

The Examen is an ancient meditation in the Christian tradition, described by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. It focuses on reflection, gratitude, and discernment of the Spirit’s presence in our daily lives. I learned about this practice from Aaron Niequist, who led a series on topics of meditation, silence, and gratitude for Trinity Grace Church Tribeca.

I’m coming to believe that taking time for reflection and thanksgiving is essential for an intentional, grounded life.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to take you through the steps of this practice. No matter what your religion, creed, or belief, the Examen provides an example of a way to practice mindfulness, gratitude, and presence in our daily lives. I’m coming to believe that taking time for reflection and thanksgiving is essential for an intentional, grounded life.

First—once you’re settled into a quiet place, you invite the Holy Spirit to guide you during this moment you’ve carved out of your day. You focus on your breath, breathing in and out. You might pray something like:

Dear Lord,
Help me to see the truth of my life through your eyes.
Please reveal to me what is possible to reveal.

Next, you review the past twenty-four hours with thanksgiving. You reflect on what you are thankful for and savor them. It’s not about “counting your blessings” and ranking them, but being mindful of the aspects of your day that were a blessing to you and living in that blessing for a moment.

As I reflected on my day during my maiden voyage Examen, I felt broad gratitude for some of the people in my life and then I narrowed in on specific experiences. I thought about my unexpectedly quiet commute to work and a nice thing somebody said to me. I remembered a moment during a happy hour gathering at my job where I laughed a full, probably-too-high-pitched laugh. Thinking back on it made me smile.

Nothing is too small or too silly to be worthy of gratitude. God exists without context; God is all context. So, go ahead and be grateful for the sound of crunching snow beneath your feet, or for meeting a cutie puppy on the street and petting her. Allow yourself to delight in these gifts you have been given.

God exists without context; God is all context.

After you go through these moments of thanks, the practice asks you to sift through the last twenty-fours again—this time meditating on feelings that surfaced throughout the day. These are feelings beyond gratefulness like sadness, excitement, or even shame. Name positive and negative emotions alike.

I remembered the night before when I was falling asleep, feeling anxious about what I needed to accomplish the next day. I recalled feeling annoyed when my partner interrupted me while I was talking, and disappointment with how I handled a disagreement with a friend. I thought back to the moment of laughter during work and named the emotion of joy.

Again, no feeling is too minor to mention; all emotions are human and valid. Do not judge yourself for how you’ve experienced the past day.

Choose one or two feelings that came up during your reflection and now meditate on them. You can choose one negative feeling and one positive feeling that arose, and “hold” one in each hand to reflect on at once. In the quiet, talk to God about these feelings. Next, listen to God’s response.

Think of these feelings like offerings. Think of each hand holding the positive and negative in alignment, acknowledging the power and importance of each emotion. Meditating on either one can provide an opportunity to reflect and learn. Let yourself be surprised.

If you chose excitement, what about your experience made you feel excited? Is there something about the inspiration of that feeling that may indicate a path you should pursue? If you chose shame, how can you help yourself ease that feeling before it forces you to unhealthy behavior? Is there a practice you need to put in place, or a way of thinking you need to unlearn, to address the source of your shame?

I learned that the joy I receive is a gift I deserve.

I chose to hold both anxiety and joy during my Examen. I talked to God about how each feeling arose and listened to hear what she had to say about them. It was silent for a while. I waited, and then felt anxiety creeping into my practice as I wondered why my mind was a blank slate. Looking back, it’s funny how quick I was to feel anxious when I didn’t get the experience I expected.

Eventually, my meditation brought to my mind a connection between the anxiety I held in one hand and the joy I held in the other. By holding these two things together, I realized that by leaving my anxious thoughts unchecked, I was preventing myself from experiencing joy. I often undermined the joy in my life when I worried about what might happen, or about what “should” happen. (The anxiety that creeped up during my meditation was a prime example!)

The final step of the Examen, after you’ve finished listening and meditation on your chosen feelings, is to look forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day and God’s mercies are new each morning. Ask yourself what you learned today. Were you surprised by anything? Did something come into clearer focus for you?

I learned that the joy I receive is a gift I deserve. My practice that day helped me to discover some of the ways that I get in the way of my own happiness and peace. In the same way that our wrongdoing can teach us how to be a more compassionate and loving human, taking full advantage of our positive experiences can go just as far to making us better versions of ourselves.

And with that, we end the Examen by asking God for the grace to move forward tomorrow.

Dear God,
Thank you for meeting me where I am,
And for helping me to see outside of the limited truth that my ego wants to see.
Please give me the grace to move on with a new day tomorrow,
And help me to use what I’ve learned to improve my life and the lives of others.

(Or something like that 😉)

Learn more about the Examen on Aaron’s website: click here.

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