The holidays can be a time for reflections of gratitude—or not. Often the holidays are also a time for stress and unresolved resentments and heartache. In this tug of war between heartache and gratitude, I believe there are some things we can do to swing the pendulum towards the thankful side. We begin with a desire to tap into feelings of holiday gratitude. Just that desire can be very powerful.
To build the fire under our desire for gratitude, let’s look at a few of the benefits of being thankful. First, feelings of gratitude decrease stress levels, and decreased stress levels have many positive implications for our health. Gratitude also improves our relationships, and during the holidays it is often family relationships causing the stress. I was once told that the three most important things to most people are: 1) their health, 2) their children, and 3) their money. Gratitude improves your health, helps your relationships, and is free. Sounds like pretty good reasons to tend our gratitude gardens.
To feel the power of gratitude, try this simple exercise. Sometime when stress is mounting, stop, take a deep breath, close your eyes (if you are driving keep them open!), and pick three to five things you genuinely and deeply feel grateful for. Focus on each of these one at a time, picturing, hearing, smelling, being in the moment with that thing for which you are grateful. Focus until you feel your heart softening and smiling. Then repeat with the next item. When you have gotten through your list, take another deep breath and see how you are feeling. It is quick, easy, and free—and very effective.
What can we do to tap into and nurture the power of gratitude? While raising my children I also raised a very large garden. Gardening taught me some things I believe can be helpful in nurturing our gardens of gratitude.
- Soil is important. Having good soil to plant the seeds into is just as important as having good seed. How do we improve the soil for the planting of gratitude seeds? Poor soil often consists of ground that is either hard and impenetrable or lacking important nutrients. If the ground is hard, it needs to be tilled and broken up. If it is lacking nutrients, they can be added and worked into the soil. Sometimes, our hearts become too hard to let in feelings of gratitude. Even if the feelings begin, thoughts of, “Yes, but…..” can quickly cast them out. If a feeling of gratitude comes, stop and let it in. Think about it, work it into your soil, let it nourish and improve the ground for more planting.
- Each seed has potential. We often conclude that we could not possibly be grateful for THAT. And, truly, there are some seeds that are simply bad. However, there may also be surprises as we plant seeds. We may understand or feel for the first time how something we thought was terrible can also be something we can feel grateful for. Often I feel deeply grateful just that it is over.
- Weeds come uninvited. It is frustrating but true that the weeds which choke out gratitude often come without any invitation. We want to feel grateful. We try to feel grateful. But somehow in the midst of all that effort something happens out of nowhere to test our resolve. It is okay to be upset and frustrated by these uninvited intruders. Recognizing them is key. I always tell people that you can’t fix what you don’t notice. Noticing when seeds of resentment and self-pity come into our gardens is the first step to pulling them out.
- Weeds are not our fault, but they can’t be ignored. Stuff happens. We are offended, disappointed, rejected, and hurt. I often wondered why weeds grew so much quicker and stronger than the plants I was trying to grow. I do not have an answer. They just do. And seeds of resentment and bitterness and hopelessness have a way of taking over our gardens if we are not vigilant. Weeds come, but we have the power to pluck them out before they take over.
- Plant enough good seed, and there is not enough nourishment for weeds. This was one of the fun discoveries made during those years of gardening. If I could keep the weeds out long enough for the plants I was tending to grow bigger and stronger, the weed problem diminished significantly. There was simply not enough water, sunshine, and nourishment for the little weed seedlings if the tended plants were much larger and stronger. The stronger our sense of gratitude, the more difficult it is for negativity to grow.
- Consistent attention is everything. In the end it really does boil down to consistent effort and attention. We may go all out to weed our garden one day, and that is great. However, if that is the only day in the growing season that we weed, our gardens will be overrun with weeds and not bear fruit. Again, it is about noticing on a daily basis. How grateful are we feeling today? Are there negative weeds to be pulled? Do we need to take some time to nourish our ground? Some days it may require only a quick look. Other days we may need to spend some significant time and effort. We can only make those decisions if we are consistently looking and evaluating.
- It is work. The definition of work is an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” There is, indeed, mental and physical effort in tending to our gratitude gardens. The “result,”, however, is our own happiness and health and well-being. Tending these gardens is free and very powerful.
What are some ways you have found to nurture gratitude in your life, especially during the holidays? What are some methods you have found to pull out the weeds of resentment and self-pity? Do you have a certain time of day when you tend to your gratitude garden, or what have you found works best for you? What are some benefits you have gained?