It starts in third grade, those formal lessons in mathematics: the counting of negative numbers. -1, -2, -3, and on and on and on. The counting of things that are not there. If you’re like me – which is to say, human – then you’ve no trouble at all counting deep into the abyss: the lack, the loss, all that you do not have and everything that’s not quite right.
I was a good student, so it went like this: I lost my marriage, my best friend, my dog, my house, all my grandparents (and quickly), my favorite shirt, a lot of money, a laundry list of dreams, my health (that Crohn’s disease diagnosis sure came out of the blue), and probably a little faith too. My life had become a veritable country western song, and I don’t even like country western music. There I was: the becoming had led me to being all the things I’d always feared or hated.
Except even when you think you’ve lost everything, you’re never without. In fact, this is the perfect moment to allow gratitude to be your guru, to whisper with grace small words of thanks for everything – anything – in your life. Begin like this: I am alive.
The funny thing about life’s riches, they were always there; I wasn’t.
Becoming present was not the result of therapy or chiropractic adjustments, Yoga nor aimless road trips, though all of those things certainly helped. The real key was, simply, listening without borders, boundaries or expectations. Letting go of the knowing and living in the experience. You are surrounded by people who are living in bliss. I was. I am. And it is our duty, as Kurt Vonnegut shared weeks before his passing in 2007, to help each other through this life in whatever ways we can.
As a journalist, it is my job to listen. So, discarding the third grade math lessons, I chose to listen. Really listen. An ode to joy is what I heard, sung in the voices of our modern-day gods – superstars of the silver screen, the sports arena, the pop charts and the printed page. Men and women who, in some cases, were born to poverty, stricken with terminal illness, saddled with sad songs and brutal stanzas, and yet not only survived, but thrived, and did so with a powerful sense of abundance. These people not only thank their agents and their parents on awards shows, but many of them maintain very active gratitude lists even when the world is not looking.
When I collected their stories into the book On Gratitude, these are some of the gems I heard: Jeff Bridges revealing “the funny judo-deal” that is “the big blessing” in his life; Marcia Gay Harden sharing the thrill of being a child in Greece, watching Media at the Parthenon; Anna Kendrick sharing how her white-knuckled passion for a certain alternative-rock band prepared her for the cultural blitz that is the Twilight franchise; and Samuel L. Jackson telling how the film Do the Right Thing saved him from prison and, possibly, death on multiple occasions. Morgan Freeman saying thank you to Miss Cosgrove, his third grade teacher, for giving him detention, which paved the way to his acting career; Kristin Bell expressing gratitude for her eleventh-hour stint as an obstetrician in a third-world country; Malcolm McDowell savoring the flavor and pleasure of killing Captain Kirk; and comedy maestro Adam McKay unfurling fond memories of bombing onstage in Pittsburgh, bottle caps flicked at his face by surly patrons during particularly rough stand-up routines. David Lynch discussing transcendental meditation’s transformative impact on his life and work; Seth Rogen saying thanks for Canada’s lax drinking laws; Maya Rudolph waxing rhapsodic on avocadoes; and Forest Whitaker discusses the profound experience of dancing with child soldiers in Uganda. It’s a grand mixture of the silly and the sublime, the sacred and the profane, these expressions of gratitude I was blessed to hear.
What I found: listening felt great. I was receiving so much by simply being more present. I was given an enormous gift with each conversation, simple parable, anecdote, testimony or revelation. The more I listened to the gratitude of others, the more grateful I felt in my own life, and the more compelled I felt to share with others that which was given to me.
Todd Allen Jensen’s book On Gratitude shares many of the above stories and more for a heartfelt exploration of gratitude embodied. Buy a copy of the book or share your own gratitude list at: thegratitudelist.org.
Join Todd Allen Jensen at his Monday night Gratitude class at the Toluca Lake Yoga studio he owns with his wife: theyogitree.com.
Gratitude In Action
There is some extraordinary research occurring right this second at UC Davis and UC Berkeley indicating that those who maintain even a casual gratitude practice (recording grateful thoughts a few times a week for three months or more) are measurably (25%-30%) happier and healthier than those who do not. You can read more about that in Dr. Robert A. Emmons amazing book, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
Don’t know where to begin? That’s easy. Gratitude is about being in touch with your senses. Start with what you’re feeling. What is your body feeling? Where are your toes? What’s at your fingertips? Is that a breeze tussling your hair? That rise and fall at your core? Embrace your breath. That’s a first – and fairly reliable – clue that you’re alive. (This is always a good place to start. Alive? Check!) Feel it. All of it.
Now consider these things: who gave you life, who gave you encouragement, what flavors do you love, what film or book or song changed your life, what’s that thing that teacher told you that stopped your mind, that perfect day. Maybe you’re grateful for a good cup of Joe. A first kiss. Your baby’s good health. The L.A. Dodgers. (Oops, that’s mine!) Quinoa and cranberries. The roof over your head. There are no wrong answers here, only what you know to be true.
Go on, I’m listening. Submit your gratitude list to: