Lake Tahoe. Lying in a hammock last week overlooking the placid waters, I wondered what could be better. Of course, my mind quickly had an answer: “The two jet skis could be silent. If only the sun would move off my face, I’d be more comfortable. I wish I had brought something out here to drink.” My bliss was turning into a disappointment. Here I was lazing away an afternoon in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet, and I felt dissatisfied. How did this happen?
Fortunately, I remembered something. I was at a retreat center where the theme of the week was gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. The guest facilitator was Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of Forgiveness Studies at Stanford University. (Check out his YouTube videos and his book Forgive for Good.)
Dr. Luskin’s basic take on forgiveness is that it is making peace with not getting what we want. When I wasn’t getting the perfect “Lake Tahoe viewed from a hammock” experience, I recalled what we had learned as the first step toward making peace with what is: gratitude.
Gratitude begins with: “I am not the center of the universe.” I can see Lake Tahoe without feeling that I own it and that it owes me something. I am part of it. It is part of me. What created that lake observes it through another part of itself (me). This is humility. When I quiet the screaming mind that always wants more, I notice what I’m already given. Then my suffering shifts to gratitude.
Our biology/neurology predisposes us to find problems in order to keep alive, but not to make us happy. We have well-developed threat monitors. For most of us, the part of us that finds good has atrophied. We need balance. Wholeness is to appreciate the goodness without pushing away the suffering. Yes, there are real threats and suffering. Most of the time, however, in the midst of this unpredictable, dangerous world, we are ok. That in itself is reason for gratitude.
Fred Luskin shared an easy way to monitor whether we are cultivating gratitude or suffering. In any moment we can notice if we are responding to life with “Thank you!” or “It’s not good enough.”
Studies show that 75-80% of our day is consumed with “It’s not good enough.” No need for judgment. It’s a biological survival mechanism. It’s just not conducive for happiness. For happiness we need to balance that problem-obsession with gratitude.
Gratitude is saying “thank you”. If we are the center of the universe in our own experience, then everything must be perfect…otherwise we complain. We can even turn abundance, even Lake Tahoe, into a problem. We have so many choices, and every choice makes us count the missed opportunities of options not chosen. It’s like online dating, which creates anxiety about what is lost/missed by the innumerable choices not selected. “I deserve to get more/all”. This is the polar opposite of gratitude and “thank you”.
So in that moment by Lake Tahoe, I chose to say “thank you”. I inhaled appreciation for my surroundings, relaxed my tensed belly, and exhaled. I kept doing this until my self-absorbed compulsion for more/better subsided. “Thank you” was enough. (Mystic Meister Eckhart said that if “thank you” is the only prayer you ever learn, that’s enough.)
A deep, in my body sense of gratitude turned an agitated moment into a happy one. Nothing had changed. Except me.