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Sunday, May 27, 2018

More Than Saying Thank You

Activities That Encourage Awe for the Ordinary

photo courtesy Brandi Lust

The following is a guest post by Brandi Lust of Learning Lab Consulting, adapted from her book Myths of Being Human: Four Paths to Connect with What Matters.

It’s so easy in life to take our human experience for granted. Right now, hundreds of thousands of cells and dozens of body systems are operating in such a way that you get to breath air, move your fingers, and read these words. While it’s easy to forget our luck in being alive, we can reorient ourselves toward gratitude through attention and awareness. 

In Myths of Being Human: Four Paths to Connect With What Matters, I describe 4 paths to connect with what’s most important in your life. The four paths are mindfulness, gratitude, growth, and connection. 

Gratitude, the second path, is defined in the book as, 
“more than saying ‘thank you.’ It is also more than recognizing when something exceptional happens and appreciating it. Gratitude is about cultivating awe for everyday human experience—the good and the bad.” 

This is an important skill to cultivate because, unfortunately, our bodies can work against positivity. Research shows we pay more attention, for longer, to a negative stimulus. However, gratitude can help. It’s hard to feel grateful and fearful at the same time. 

The following is a gratitude practice from the book, followed by a modification that can be used with students. 

Gratitude Practice: 
Recognizing and Connecting with Others' Suffering 

Time Commitment: 24 hours 

Resources: None 

One way to recognize the good is to see the many alternatives through the eyes of others. 

Imagine what it might have felt like on the coldest days of winter to sleep on a sidewalk instead of a warm home. 

Recall the many who have lost (or never had) the ability to walk on two legs under their own power or run playfully in the park with children. 

These situations are the reality for many people in the world. 

While it may seem morbid, connecting with others’ suffering is a way to cultivate profound gratitude for what you have.

This is different than feeling guilty. Instead, it’s about being deeply, profoundly appreciative. I have sometimes struggled with the guilt I feel for my great fortune. However, I also try to remember that recognizing and appreciating my many gifts is also honoring those who go without. 

For example, I could take for granted the running water and indoor plumbing in my home, accept it as a given and barely even notice it’s there; this is a perspective of great privilege. 

Or, I can remember that having drinkable water is a luxury. I can remind myself of the incredible convenience and pleasure of not having to go outside in the middle of the night to use the restroom. This is a much more humble perspective that also pays homage to others less fortunate. 

The practice is this: choose one “gift,” or a daily experience that’s important to you, and try to imagine your life without it. As you do this, connect with the understanding that there are people in the world who are going without that gift and living the very situation you are imagining. Then, over the next 24 hours, notice when you are reaping the benefits of this gift, and give thanks. 

The gift you choose to appreciate in this way can be a material convenience or a psychological convenience. For example, you may choose to give thanks for indoor plumbing, running water, food, clothing, access to information, or medical care. 

However, you could also choose to direct your awareness to the psychological resources many go without: comfort from loved ones, belief in yourself, trusting relationships, or a perception of reality that is confirmed by others around you. 

Each time you are reminded of this gift, spend a moment to silently give thanks for being the recipient. Notice how this changes your experience. Then, at the end of the day, spend some time reflecting on how your life would be different if you didn’t have this element of your life permanently. 

Use the empathy you are cultivating to connect with others’ daily experience. Spend a few moments sending all those you have connected with positive wishes. You can do this in writing, or just in your mind. 

If you wanted to turn this practice into a lesson, here is a modification you can try in the classroom. 
1. Engage students by exposing them to a culture that goes without a certain resource (electricity, clean water, information technology etc.);  
2. Assign students to notice all of the times they gain a benefit from that resource for the next 24 hours. (Students could be provided with a tally sheet to keep track of when they use the resource and for what);  
3. After 24 hours, ask students to reflect via discussion on what the last day would have been like without the resource; 
4. This can be followed up with an essay on the value of the resource, a thank you note to the resource (Example: “Dear Indoor Plumbing…”), or even a more extended project helping others who don’t have the resource. 

If this activity was valuable to you, you can learn more about the path of gratitude in my book, or on my website. You may even want to try a 10-minute Lovingkindness practice, sending positive wishes to those in the world who go without.

photo courtesy
Autumn Theodore Photography
About the Author

Brandi Lust is the founder of Learning Lab Consulting, which was created as a tool to improve the quality of life and performance of organizations and individuals seeking to grow in a more mindful, creative and connected manner.  She is also a writing consultant certified by the National Writing Project and is the author of Myths of Being Human: Four Ways to Connect with What Matters


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