Fashioning a New Lens on Life
How I began to intensify my search for gratitude.
Just over a year ago I woke up with a case of Grade-A ingratitude. I’d spent a sleepless night tossing and turning. A small headache started making itself known around three AM, and from there I stayed up to perform a sort of ad hoc sore throat test, swallowing over and over for an hour or more to see how much discomfort I felt. At four a sore throat was definitely coming on. When I finally woke up at a quarter to six, my bedroom was still dark and my wife had already gotten up to go downstairs to make tea. No question about it, I was headed straight for a shitty day.
I have a daily practice, something I’ve done every morning for the last thirty years or so. As soon as I open my eyes, I say a four hundred year-old Jewish prayer called Modeh Ani. The prayer is short, three lines. It’s something kids are taught from the earliest age. The purpose of the prayer is to engender a sense of gratitude in the person saying it, gratitude for having been returned to life, and gratitude for a return to consciousness in general, after a night’s sleep. The timing of the prayer is critical. You’re supposed to say it immediately upon awakening, but since wakefulness often happens gradually; assessing exactly when you’re actually awake can be difficult. Once you do say it though, you’ve made your decision, you’ve now finished lounging around in bed and it’s up and off into the day you go. And on a cold dark morning, that’s not necessarily an easy thing to commit to. And like many things that are prescribed, the act of opening one’s eyes and saying some ancient prayer can easily devolve into a meaningless habit. I’ve found that more often than not, my own attempts are just that; more half garbled grunt than consequential invocation.
But for some reason, that morning, unlike so many others, I did something new. I sat up in bed and began reciting a list of things I was especially grateful for. Like many behaviors that purport to improve one’s life, doing this kind of thing is far easier thought about than actually done. And even though for most people, enunciating things they’re grateful for would seem like a valuable thing to do, there are a million different reasons those same ‘most people’ would never get around to doing it. This time though, I simply willed myself to wake up in a completely different fashion. By doing so, I saw the intricate and tiny details of my life as I rarely had, not as the unimportant, taken-for-granted minutiae of my life, but as very real, very important contributions to my own happiness and wellbeing.
The first thing I remember doing was staring up at the shadows on our A framed ceiling and saying (quietly, but nonetheless out loud), ‘I am thankful to be in a space with a roof that protects me from the rain.’ This idea of being protected from rain is so basic to most of us that we forget how many people in the world don’t have this luxury. And though our bedroom is very nice, I never would have used the word luxury to characterize anything about it. But in that moment, as clouds were gathering and rain seemed ever more imminent, the term luxury seemed perfectly descriptive. I was aware that something strange was happening, it’s not like I did this kind of thing everyday. But just then my concentration moved to the bed I was laying in and I could hear myself saying, ‘I am thankful for the blankets on this bed, they are so soft and warm.’ And then, ‘I am grateful for these pillows, there are six of them and they make me so comfortable.’ From there I looked at my hands and said, ‘I am utterly grateful, grateful that I can move them according to my will, grateful that I can use them to write and to draw and to play guitar.’ By then my mind was flooded with an endless stream of things for which I was thankful — from the hot water in my bathroom (another incredible luxury) to my friends (and I said the names of twenty of them aloud), and my mother and my siblings, and finally, the most precious things in my life, my wife and my four children.
And suddenly, without my even noticing, I had shifted from a “shitty mood” into something far different. I actually felt happy. True my head still ached and my sore throat was still threatening — two things that typically would have sent me headlong into a storm of pessimism — but even while recognizing that things weren’t perfect, I was experiencing the dramatic mental shift that happens when our thoughts go from: ‘I need more,’ to: ‘I have enough.’
When I made my way downstairs, instead of infecting my wife (who was happily reading the New York Times off her Ipad and drinking her twig tea), with the virus of my rotten mood, I looked at her and felt truly grateful for her presence in my life. Instead of canceling a boxing workout that I’d scheduled for later that morning, I decided to go and workout at a slower pace — all the while remaining cognizant of my gratitude for the opportunity to box on a Wednesday morning in the first place. Instead of complaining about a laundry list of things I had to get done, I felt grateful for the ability to do them. Instead of feeling like I needed anything more than what I had at that moment, I was content to be exactly as I was.
What I was at the threshold of accomplishing that day — and I sensed even then that it would take a monumental effort to fully realize — was to create a whole new paradigm, a whole new prism through which I could view the world as a place of abundance, as opposed to a place of paucity. Of course, that didn’t mean I’d suddenly be able to change the quantity and the nature of the things around me, rather, I began to believe that by looking for a way to more deeply appreciate things as they are, I could fashion a new lens on my life, one that would allow me to see through eyes of gratitude, and to use that vision to fundamentally change the way I moved through the world.