With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day. We can become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We can find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath. – Tara Brach
Feeling a sense of separateness, loneliness and cut off from community are sorrowfully common experiences this year. And for many people struggling with an eating disorder or other mental health challenges, these feelings are not unique to 2020. Eating disorders thrive in isolation and it is the essential work of recovery to cultivate relationships and meaningful social connections.
Gratitude is a pathway toward connectedness. In difficult times, we may feel pulled back into the familiarity of separateness, yet this practice can keep us orienting toward connection. Healing is supported when we deepen our sense of being linked with our communities, our relationships, and the earth. When we move into a place of gratitude, we can practice extending love and kindness, energetically expanding a sense of thankfulness even beyond our own circle of influence to the greater world.
The idea of being grateful to belong with each other is a transformative concept. Brother David Steindl Rast, a Benedictine monk, discusses how gratefulness is the key to connection and belonging. Through a gratitude practice, we become aware of our interdependence as humans. We can engage in a gratitude practice while still acknowledging our humanity, our vulnerabilities, and our suffering.
Gratitude enhances our lives as we intentionally focus on positive emotions such as joy, compassion, and awe. It is also a practice of both reflection and action. Our reflection may include encouraging ourselves to consider the positive and good things in our lives. Our actions may include journaling, meditation, verbal expression of appreciation, writing a thank you note, or reciprocity by returning the favor. There is remarkable research suggesting that gratitude enhances wellbeing and supports us in living a flourishing life, making us happier and healthier. Gratitude serves as a defense against stress and impacts us positively in various domains of life. Whether the object of our gratitude is human or non-human (animals, nature, God, etc.), it is relational in nature. When we feel or express our gratitude to someone or something, we enter into a relationship with the giver and become part of a larger network of reciprocity.
Cultivating grateful feelings leads to better interpersonal relationships, helps us develop stronger bonds with others and builds a sense of community. Relationships are built on reciprocity – of love, trust, respect, giving and gratitude. It can be difficult to acknowledge our interdependence when autonomy and self-sufficiency are valued attributes. Gratitude asks us to prioritize community, not only as the giver, but also to allow ourselves to be the recipients, breaking through stigma around asking for help.
Gratitude promotes reciprocity in a community. This can start a chain of gratitude, expanding out beyond a dyadic relationship to a larger network of people as we pass on kindness. This aspect of gratitude roots us a bit more in the things that are found in relationships with others, with nature, with God or a higher power, or animals.
Even with all the evidence to support the benefits of gratitude, we cannot overlook how complicated this can all be, especially in a year like 2020 and especially for those suffering from an eating disorder. Intentionally cultivating positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors even in the midst of adversity, challenges, and fatigue is good for us, and it can be really difficult to practice. Some days it can feel impossible to have an attitude of gratefulness. As a community, we have suffered this year. There have been unbelievable and unbearable losses – of loved ones, jobs, and life as we knew it. We also can honor the difficulty, sadness, and grief that is present. The work of recovery asks that we invite all the various parts of ourselves to the table in service of integration and wholeness.
In this way, gratitude is a spiritual principle. It motivates us to look for the beauty in life, even amidst despair, pain, and suffering in our lives and the lives of the ones we love, and in the context of the greater suffering of the world.
Oliver Sacks, a physician and author, wrote:
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”
Gratitude orients us toward what we have rather than what we are lacking. And we can start small. We can be grateful to a tree for providing us shade or something steady to lean on when we feel weak. We can be grateful to our animals for their warmth and companionship on a lonely day. We can be grateful to our partner for bringing home our favorite snack. We can be grateful for the lessons learned in our adversity.
For some reminders on gratitude, check out this video called “A Good Day” which includes images and inspiration:
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