While we all know that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is a part of living our most joyful life, how can we authentically do this when we are less than grateful? Feeling ashamed or guilty about the “real” nature of our feelings, or pretending to be thankful for what we would have very much preferred to say “NO thank you” to in our lives gets in the way of happiness and creativity. What if your heart is broken? What if you are in terrible pain without relief in sight? What if you have received terrifying news that has changed your life in an even more awful way? Even with all the joyful self-help gurus and happy, shiny, advanced yogi specialists beaming at you from their glossy magazines promising peace and abundance for all your expressions of gratitude, and even as much as you wish to crawl into their tie-dyed yoga pants and bask in the bliss of all that they proclaim and stand for, the truth is that when your life is going to Hades in a hand basket…….well, no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.
But, if you are reading this, you DO have something to be grateful for. This something does not, in any way, diminish however awful things are for you right now. As the Buddha taught us, suffering is a part of the human existence. We suffer because we desire things to be anything other than what they are right now. We suffer because we are afraid, when things are wonderful, that we will lose that fabulous feeling. Therefore, we know that our suffering can exist at the same time as our one thing that we always have to be grateful for. What is this one thing that is ever-present? Breath. Yes, if you are reading this or even aware enough to listen to someone else who can read it to you, then you have this one thing that you can be grateful for in this moment.
You don’t have to pretend that all the suffering isn’t there. Well, at least, don’t pretend on my account! I don’t even own a single pair of tie-dyed yoga pants for you to covet or crawl into. (Although, if anyone reading this is inclined, I would absolutely LOVE a pair!) I’m suggesting that there is a way to cultivate gratitude even when all hope is lost. The beauty of observing the breath and being genuinely thankful that it is with you, of you, and through you, is that you create a little hope and space where there just didn’t seem like any could be found or made. No, all your problems aren’t solved. But, the subtle shift may be just the little miracle you need. If not, you were taking those breaths anyway and so nothing gets lost through your effort.
I was recently reading a book about the subtle body by Tias Little. I randomly opened it to a page with a breathing exercise that described the lungs as an upside down tree with the branches (lung tissue) towards the earth and the roots in the upper palate/roof of the mouth. I love this visualization because, in Chinese subtle body mapping, the color of the liver energy is green. In Hatha yoga chakras, green is the color of the heart-chakra. Therefore, when we breathe in, we can grow green leaves and fill the branches of our respiratory tree making it more and more lush with each in-breath. As you exhale, you can feel those roots reach towards the crown of your head and pull up on the roof of your mouth. There is actually a pleasure center of the brain that is located right above the upper palate of the mouth. When you exhale, the palate lifts and stimulates this center. Thinking about this tree helped me stay focused on the breath in a very powerful way. When I am very upset, using a strong visual tool like this helps me stay present with the breath. Otherwise, my mind tends to wander and feed my sadness, fear, or pain. Sure, when times are calm and good we can be aware of the in-breath, breathing in, and aware of the out-breath, breathing out. But, in times of chaos and confusion, using visualization can mean the difference between a nourishing and a frustrating practice.
Please do not feel that accessing these few moments of peace require that you deny the reality of your sufferings. Feel all your feelings, know what is true for you, and be authentic in your expression and communication! All the while, know that you can also create a sanctuary of peace and beauty through the practice of breath awareness. Although the in and out nature of the breath happens without your explicit effort, you can still find some gratitude in the presence of breath. How lovely to feel and hear the breath coming in! How amazing to be able to feel the release of the breath and all that is no longer needed! It is happening right now.
Posted by Sharon Fennimore, a yogini, teacher, and writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Find out more here.