Gratitude as Medicine
I was eighteen years old the first time I traveled to India. I had just graduated from high school and had deferred college for a year because my dad had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: he had promised to take me to Nepal to see the Himalaya, if I agreed to venture with him to India to learn something about meditation.
We arrived in Delhi, as most international travelers do, around 2 a.m. We had enrolled in a meditation course that began later that day, so we drove straight to Jaipur and entered the incredibly still, peaceful world of the meditation center. We spent the next ten days in complete silence—sitting cross-legged, on the floor, for upwards of twelve hours per day.
When the course ended, despite being relatively well-traveled, we emerged like helpless children—extraordinarily sensitive, and completely unprepared for the tremendous onslaught of sensory input that so uniquely characterizes India. We still laugh about how wide-eyed and vulnerable we must have seemed. Thankfully, a number of young travelers from the meditation course (who had already been in India for some time) adopted us, and helped us to navigate the bustling city of Jaipur, find a hotel, and order our first few meals.
But eventually, we were on our own, and I will never forget the impact India had on me over the course of the coming weeks. At this stage in my life, I knew nothing of what it meant to be an empath. I knew that I was sensitive, but I was generally in the habit of believing that my sensitivity was a problem, a fault—something that needed to be fixed. Needless to say, I became completely overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the extreme poverty we encountered day in and day out.
My heart broke over and over again every day as children dressed in rags, their hands and faces smeared with dirt—some just five or six years old—ran along beside us, one hand outstretched, the other tugging on my clothes, pleading, “Rupi? Rupi? Please Aunty, just one rupi?” It was truly more than I could bear. Never before had I been so painfully aware of the privileged life I was leading. I couldn’t wrap my head around the seemingly indiscriminate cruelty of the human condition, nor why my place of birth and my family lineage had spared me so much suffering. I began to feel agonizingly guilty for all that I had.
Over the course of the years that followed, I developed an unwavering belief (though deeply unconscious) that if I were to embrace abundance in my own life, it would have to come at the expense of someone else—however distant or removed they might be from my reality. So I began to fervently reject any desire for money or wealth, and instead vowed to follow my heart and to find meaningful ways to be of service. I told myself that if I was doing what I loved, and doing good in the world, that enough money would follow, that I would be supported. But beneath the surface, I had become severely averse to receiving abundance—most particularly money—because deep down, I truly believed that doing so would harm others. What happened instead was that I developed a habit of over-giving while undervaluing myself, and my work, which began to take a very serious toll on my own well-being. It has literally taken years to disentangle myself from my own poverty consciousness, and in truth, I’m still working on it.
But there is one thing that has shifted my perspective and helped me to heal these outdated belief systems more than anything else: the practice of gratitude, which has become a powerful and transformative force in my life.
Opposites as Medicine
One of my favorite aspects of Ayurveda is the idea that everything can be medicine. If every substance, every experience has a qualitative nature, and if opposite qualities balance one another, then even something like the experience of gratitude can be curative—its therapeutic value determined simply by its qualitative nature. So recently, I got curious about exploring gratitude from this perspective. So far, this is what I have observed.
The Qualities of Gratitude
Gratitude swells from, and lightens the heart. But it also requires a certain presence, which I believe gives it a particularly slow, grounding quality. To me, the experience of being grateful feels clarifying, calming, warm, nourishing, soft, and smooth. It also has a distinctly spreading, subtle nature—meaning that it easily penetrates where denser energies might not. From an Ayurvedic perspective, this qualitative profile would make gratitude an appropriate antidote to any substance or experience that is especially heavy, sharp, cloudy, aggravating, cool, depleting, hard, rough, stagnant, or physically tangible. And in fact, gratitude has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate, support in healing trauma, and even help to improve coronary artery disease.1
Gratitude is also highly sattvic. It vibrates at a very high frequency, fostering a sense of meaning, connection, and expansive consciousness. As such, it is the energetic opposite of most any lower vibrational emotion you can imagine: stress, overwhelm, sadness, frustration, anger, aggression, envy, judgment, impatience, intolerance, fear, attachment, self-pity, loneliness, stubbornness, even boredom.
Of course, one could argue that love is an effective opposite to all of these experiences as well—and it is. But in my experience, accessing unconditional love when we are overwhelmed by an intense or challenging emotion can be quite difficult. I have found gratitude to be unique in that it readily serves as a bridge from one state of being to another. Let me explain.
The Alchemy of Gratitude
As a pitta-predominant person, I can be a bit short-tempered—especially with my immediate family. And when I am mad, choosing to embody more love usually feels next to impossible. But somehow, even in my most frustrated states, I can generally find something to be grateful for—however insignificant it may seem at the time. And if I focus my attention on that feeling, allowing it to grow and spread (as gratitude is apt to do), pretty soon, my energy softens, my perspective broadens, and I can much more easily make a conscious choice about how best to move forward. Even more significantly, this practice doesn’t require that I ignore or suppress the anger; instead, I am invited to allow my emotions to express in far healthier ways. This same approach has also helped me to move through and rise above feelings of discouragement, overwhelm, and sadness. In my view, there is no question that gratitude can have an immediate and measureable effect on our physical and emotional health, but its impact extends even further.
The Magnetism of Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude also serves to naturally attract more of what we love into our lives—which I find truly remarkable. One of my dearest teachers, Dr. Claudia Welch, often says that, “prana follows focus,” meaning that our life-force energy lines up behind exactly those things that we are focused on at any given moment. When we are in the habit of feeling grateful, and are intently focused upon it as a practice, our life-force energy gathers around—and gives buoyancy to—the very things that we are most aligned with, which naturally magnetizes more of the same toward us. This is the essence of the law of attraction. Prana follows focus. I, for one, would much prefer that my life-force energy serve and perpetuate gratitude over thanklessness, appreciation over resentment, and abundance over scarcity. And truly, I have witnessed the tide turn in my own life as I have shifted my focus from any one of these to the other.
It is also important to acknowledge that our ability to radiate gratitude expands in proportion to our experience of suffering. It is much easier to be grateful for something if we can sincerely conceive of its absence. In other words, the more direct our experience of loss and pain, the more we can appreciate the true value of the things we are most thankful for. In this way, I believe that our struggles are actually capacity-building events that leave us more capable of feeling gratitude—and of sharing it with others.
Gratitude as a Practice
Our aptitude for gratitude is also strengthened with practice. The more we try to feel grateful, the more easily the feeling comes. Here are some suggestions as to how you might play with expanding your own sense of gratitude:
Begin Your Day with Gratitude.
Cultures and traditions around the world suggest starting the day with gratitude, and many have gestures or physical postures intended to help us embody the experience more fully. You can tend to gratitude before you ever get out of bed in the morning, or you can make it a practice of its own in the early morning hours.
There are many ways to write down what we are most grateful for. Some make it a daily practice. Others engage with it more fluidly. You can write in a gratitude journal, incorporate gratitude into a broader writing practice, or simply pen a letter of thanks or appreciation to someone special in your life.
Meditate on Gratitude.
Gratitude can easily be incorporated into a meditation practice as well—at the beginning, at the end, or as the heart of the practice itself. And you may gain useful insights simply by noticing the sensations and subtle energies you experience while meditating on gratitude.
Share Gratitude with Others.
There are countless ways to share gratitude. We may do so casually around the dinner table, or more formally in an intimate community setting. Whatever the case, speaking our gratitude publicly activates and strengthens the experience of gratitude in everyone present, which can be quite powerful. My family is in the habit of speaking gratitudes regularly over dinner, and my heart often melts at the things my son and other small children are able to articulate that they are grateful for.
End Your Day with Gratitude.
Closing the day with gratitude can be an equally potent practice. You might choose to speak your gratitude for the day to a spouse or a loved one before bed, or silently bring specific things that you are grateful for to mind as you prepare for sleep.
It really doesn’t matter how you practice. The point is to practice—in whatever ways feel most authentic to you—and in doing so, to explore the power of practicing gratitude in your own life. There are most likely an infinite number of things each of us could be grateful for; it is simply a matter of choosing to direct our attention toward any one of them (or several).
So yes. My first trip to India had a profound impact upon me. And yes. I spent years unraveling the belief systems that were activated as a result. But today, I can appreciate both the pain and the awakening that came out of it all. Were it not for the heartbreak I experienced, and for the broken relationship with abundance that followed, I might never have discovered the power of gratitude.
As we enter this season that so unabashedly celebrates gratitude, giving, family, connection, and the unity of our precious human family, my advice to you is this:
Find a way to focus intently on those things in your life that bring you the most joy, the most inspiration, the most nourishment—body, mind, and spirit—and consciously cultivate gratitude for all that there is to be grateful for. There is little doubt that this sort of uplifting, connective energy is needed on the planet—now more than ever—and practicing gratitude may just change your life for the better.