Revisiting Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

gratitude-book-coverStill very depressed by the election, and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I dug out Oliver Sacks’ gorgeous little book, Gratitude. It’s composed of four lovely short essays, one written just before his 80th birthday and the other three following his terminal diagnosis a short time later. Each of them explores the richness and complexity of being human and convey Sacks’ gratitude for the privilege and gift of life. I thought I’d read one a day leading up to Thanksgiving, but just as I am unable to limit myself to one piece of See’s chocolate if I am given a box, I was not able to ration Sacks’ essays either. I read them all at one sitting—greedily and contentedly. And then I meandered through them again to savor his writing, which is both simple and elegant, and to revisit certain passages that had especially touched me.

Along with my wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll share a few favorite Sacks’ quotes here, some from this book and some from other sources.

And, in case you’re looking for a gift for yourself or a special friend or family member—one that might help put the world in perspective—you can’t go wrong with Gratitude.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future; the freedom to get beyond ourselves…in states of mind that allow us to rise above our immediate surroundings and see the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

What Comes Next? YOLK Welcomes 2016

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as you can.” (John Wesley) 

Attribution: Donna CameronOne of the big lessons of kindness I talked about last week was that kindness isn’t something that I can adopt for a single year and then move on. I’ve come to the conclusion that my #1 job is kindness. That’s what I’m here for. I may not be very good at it yet, but I want kindness to be my lifetime pursuit, and one about which I can say on my very last day, “Yes, I lived a kind life.”

So, no, dear husband, rest assured 2016 will not be “a year of living bitchy,” nor—to your great disappointment—will it be “a year of learning to dust and vacuum” (after all these years, it’s time to let that one go, Sweetie).

I want kindness to remain central to my life and I will continue to practice it and follow the path on which it leads me. I want to continue to write about kindness. I am one of those people who, like Joan Didion, write to find out what they are thinking.

So, I plan to keep the blog going, but I will certainly be less obsessive about posting every week at exactly the same time. I have truly enjoyed blogging, and the knowledge I’ve gained and the remarkable people I’ve connected with have exceeded any expectations I had a year ago. I will continue to write when I have something to say or share. I will also continue to compile the quotes and other resources that I’ve been collecting on the Resources page.

Since writing has always been a central passion in my life, I also plan to write about plenty of other things in 2016 and beyond.

A few people have very kindly asked me if I might turn these musings into a book, and that is something I would certainly love to do. I don’t know how to go about it…but I’m eager to learn. At this point I’ve written more than 62,000 words about kindness (can you say verbose?), so I hope there is something to work with here. I’d also like to speak about kindness and hope to make some opportunities to spread the word in an inspiring and enjoyable way.

The beginning of 2016 marks another big change in my life, as—after more than 30 years—I am stepping down from working day-to-day in association and non-profit management and opening myself to what comes next. I’m not calling it retirement—I still plan to consult with non-profits—but there are a boatload of other things I’m eager to try, as well. I may tell you about them here as I discover and explore what’s around the corner and waiting in the wings.

Even though I’m not going anywhere and I plan to continue blogging, I do want to take a moment to thank all of you who have been reading YOLK—whether you started with me way back in January of 2015 or you just came aboard this month. I can’t begin to tell you how I have appreciated your kind and thought-provoking comments and your encouragement. You often inspired me to think more critically or dive deeper into ideas. Some of you are my dear friends, and some have become friends—even though we’ve never actually ”met”—that’s one of many really cool things about blogging and the blogging community. Thank you all for your kindness.

For any of you who may have joined our kindness community later in the year, I invite you to read earlier posts. They are launched from this home page.

A closing thought about kindness for 2015: we always have the choice to interrupt the cycle of unkindness by letting it stop with us, and we have the choice to deliberately extend kindness wherever we can. Sometimes it’s hard, and we won’t always make the right choice. But if we do our best and keep our intention in front of us, we can—little-by-little—change the world. And that’s pretty awesome.

Finally, because I like symmetry, it feels most fitting to end this year of living kindly with the same Neil Gaiman quote I used to open the year. I hope you like it as much as I do, and I hope it will inspire you to make 2016 your year of living exactly the life you most want to live. My blessings and grateful thanks to you all. 

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.” (Neil Gaiman)

Big (But Quiet) Kindness Lessons

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” (Rumi)

ttribution: Donna CameronI have encountered so many lessons during this year of living kindly. So many that I can’t name them all. And even if I try, I couldn’t do it in one blog post. So I thought I’d divide them into two posts and call one “Small Kindness Lessons” and the other “Big Kindness Lessons.” However, the more I thought about it, I see that there are no small kindness lessons, just as there are no small kindnesses.

We never know how far our kindness will reverberate. Will the smile we extended to the bus driver cause him to greet each passenger with a kind word, and will each of those people, in turn, extend a kindness that they otherwise might not have, and will one of those kindnesses—or a further kindness—mend a heart, lift someone from despair, or even save a life?

No, there are no small kindnesses. And likewise, the lessons of kindness may seem small, but they could extend far beyond our imagining.

That being said, as I think about this year of lessons in kindness, I see that some of them were quiet ahas, and others were cacophonous eurekas! Today, I’ll share what for me were some of the quiet ahas, though they are by no means small. Next time, it will be the thunderous eurekas. Where applicable, I’ll provide links to the post where I explored the idea.

Being kind and being nice are not the same thing. They’re not.  link

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  link⇒

Curiosity can lead us to kindness. If we look for what’s behind unkindness, we will often reach a place of understanding.  link⇒

Kindness is an evolution, not a sudden transformation. Like most of the best things in life, developing a life of kindness is a gradual process. Kindness is a path that is its own destination.  link⇒

Being able to accept kindness is as important as being able to extend kindness.  link⇒

Kindness begins with me. A life of kindness begins with self-kindness. If I don’t think I’m worthy of my own kindness, how can I be consistently kind to others?  link⇒

Sometimes the kind thing to do is nothing.  link⇒

There’s no such thing as selective kindness. The person who is kind to you but unkind to the waiter is not a kind person.  link⇒

Kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand.  link⇒

I can take kindness seriously without taking myself too seriously.

Like all things that we want to become good at, kindness takes practice.  link⇒

We teach kindness by modeling it, not by lecturing about it.

The kinder we are, the more kindness we experience.

Kind people are not without occasional bouts of pettiness, envy, anger or impatience, but they are able to rise above their impulses and express kindness. link⇒

If I am unable to see a way to express kindness I need to look more closely or broaden my field of vision.

All of these little ahas comprise a recipe for a kind life. None are terribly difficult, though practice is essential. If we can keep them in our hearts and in our awareness, we can not only enjoy a feast of compassion and connection, we can change the world.

These are just some of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seem to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)

Kindness and Generosity – Offering Our Unique Gifts

“Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”  (Gautama Buddha)

Flowering Cherry and Moss 2A few posts ago, I wrote about the connection between kindness and a sense of abundance.  The logical next step when one’s view of the world is of abundance rather than scarcity is to express that abundance through generosity.

I have been blessed to be the recipient of so much generosity throughout my life—from my friends, my professional colleagues, my family, and even strangers.  Their generosity is expressed through the wisdom they so willingly share, through their time, their thoughtful actions, and their kind words.

When we think of generosity, our first thoughts are likely of material gifts or donations of cash, and, of course, these are elemental expressions of generosity, but they aren’t our only gifts.

The Three T’s

There’s an adage in the non-profit world that board members need to be willing to give the three T’s: Time, Talent, and Treasure.  Treasure is usually interpreted in monetary terms—especially for charitable and philanthropic non-profits.  If board members won’t donate to the cause, it’s hard to convince others to do so.  Hence, grant applications will often ask if 100 percent of the board has made a donation to the organization.  Boards with “high-rollers” can usually easily answer yes, but if members of the board are part of the constituency the organization serves, there may be some who have little to spare in the treasure department.  That’s why applications don’t ask how much board members have donated, only if they have.  A $10 donation from someone who may have to skip a meal to make that donation is just as important—perhaps more so—than the $50,000 donation from a corporate CEO.

Being generous with our talent asks only that we are willing to share what we do best, whether that’s fundraising, marketing, budgeting, schmoozing, or baking cupcakes.  Each of us has unique talents and part of the job of being human is recognizing them and sharing them where they are most needed.

Generosity of time is an essential element in non-profits and elsewhere.  As we have explored in an earlier post, we are often so pressed for time, so overscheduled, that we blow off opportunities to extend kindness.  Or maybe we don’t even see them in our rush to meet so many deadlines.  Generosity with our time when time is limited can be a kindness beyond measure—especially if we are able to give without conveying to the recipient our stress or our inconvenience.

Other Ways to Be Generous

Beyond the three T’s, there are a multitude of other ways we can be generous:

We can be generous in deed: It can be as simple as holding a door for someone, helping to carry a heavy load, or offering a hand.  It might be bringing freshly-baked bread to a neighbor or washing someone else’s dirty dishes without grousing.  There are so many generous deeds we can offer—big and small—and mostly it’s a matter of training our eyes to look for them.

We can be generous of word: It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day with a kind word.  Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Of course, he is also reported to have said: “I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel they have not said enough.”  Both quotes show how powerful a sincerely expressed compliment can be.  And the wonderful thing is that they’re easy!  We can compliment someone on the great service they provided, or the astuteness of an observation, a well-written report, or how their smile brightens a room.  All we have to do is pay attention.

We can be generous of spirit:  The Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, teaches practitioners to repeat phrases—aimed first at oneself, then loved ones, then acquaintances and strangers, and finally even to adversaries.  The phrases express a wish for happiness, for safety, peace, freedom from pain, and so forth.  In offering metta to people with whom we share conflict or difficulties, people who have hurt or angered us, we are, says Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, “recognizing our essential interconnectedness.”  Salzberg notes that in offering metta to a difficult person, we are not condoning bad or hurtful actions. “Instead, we are looking deeply into our hearts and discovering a capacity for lovingkindness that is not dependent on circumstances and personalities.”  We are expressing generosity not only to others but to ourselves.  That capacity for compassion is our gift to the world.

If we can give nothing else, let us at least give the benefit of the doubt.  This is easier to do with family and friends than with mere acquaintances and strangers.  If a friend or loved one says something that we find hurtful, it’s usually easy to excuse—“that wasn’t how she meant it to come out,” “I know he’s been under a lot of pressure; he didn’t really mean it.”  Why can’t we offer that same understanding to strangers when they say or do something questionable or hurtful?  Instead, we generally ascribe the worst motives and label them jerks.

In our office, we continually remind ourselves to “assume one another’s good intent.”  A simple statement, but enormously powerful.  If I ruled the world (a frightening thought if there ever was one), I’d have the phrase, “we assume one another’s good intent” printed at the top of every meeting agenda and posted on the wall of every room where people gather.  It all comes down to the simple generosity of giving the benefit of the doubt to everyone we encounter.

Generosity isn’t just something we do for someone else.  When I choose to act generously, the greatest beneficiary is always myself.  There is no better expression of the abundance in my life, nor of the confidence that I not only have enough, I am enough.  Giving creates a joyful sense of oneness with my world and my fellow creatures.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” (Anne Frank)