Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Its beauty is in its simplicity… no decorating or wrapping required. There’s a certain freedom in knowing that everything you expect will soon be on the dinner table, and this somehow allows more energy for just being with family and friends. The simple enjoyments of a home-cooked meal, perhaps a walk or some football. A time of connection and giving thanks for our blessings.
Gratitude was a habit I had to cultivate. Several years ago, I went through a very difficult period in my life. It started with the economic crash in 2008 and then moved to a more personal level –cancer diagnoses for my husband, aunt and sister, and the deaths of several family members and three friends. Just when I was starting to accept the “new normal,” another challenging event would occur. It felt like I was being tested, and that I was not faring very well. In the dark hours of the night, I was sometimes gripped by a fear that I rarely felt during the day. Though I’ve always been an optimistic, sunny person by nature, I started to feel worn down by life.
During that time, my prayers felt dry, rote and sort of lifeless – an endless series of laments and petitions. Everything I used to do to jolt myself out of a sour mindset no longer worked. I began to notice how much of my time and energy was spent telling and retelling my story of woe to myself, or to anyone who would listen. It looped over and over until I was honestly sick of myself. Seeing only problems and challenges, I began to lose sight of my many blessings. I needed something new and fresh. A new perspective.
As time passed, I came to realize that although I could not change the circumstances of my life,
I did have a choice. I could live in worry and fear of what might happen next, or choose to trust that these difficulties were happening for a reason – though I may not understand why, or be able to make it stop. My mind searched for reasons, but something deeper was asking me to stay open-hearted and find rest in the mystery of it all. Ultimately, it felt that I was being asked to let go of the sense of control I thought I had, while remaining open to life “as it is,” without closing my heart in self-protection or pain. I wanted to nurture and protect the flame of spirit and hope that lay within. How, I wondered, could I encourage more open-heartedness and hope in my life?
I started to pay attention to what was working and what was not. My daily yoga and meditation practice, a staple in my life for many years, still fed me, but I somehow needed more. Slowly, I began to see what was right in front of me, instead of being stuck in the story that swirled around in my head. It was then that I noticed how much joy I could find in even the smallest things. Paying attention, or being mindful in the moment, brought me out of my repetitive thoughts and back into the sweetness of now.
Did this practice of noticing make my challenges disappear? Of course not. But it did give me a fresh perspective and served as a reminder that despite life’s difficulties, God always offers us beauty. It is up to us, however, to look for it and actively choose to see it. It was the beauty I found in the day-to-day that sustained me through those dark times. I learned to allow myself to feel what I was feeling instead of resisting the circumstances of my life. I sensed the places in which strong emotions were housed in my body and welcomed them, instead of trying to fight them off like enemy intruders. By accepting them, I allowed them to move through me and was able to let them go much more quickly than I ever had before. The residue of strong emotion no longer hung around for hours or days as it had during the times when I was stuck in my story.
I began to focus on things that made me feel good and gave me energy – being in nature, spending time with friends, listening to music, making and eating healthful food with my family. Through noticing these small blessings, I started to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. When I could genuinely give thanks, it gave me an energy boost that I felt in my body. I consciously wanted to make gratitude a habit, and thought that if I could write down just one thing I’m grateful for each day before I go to bed, that would be a start. When my children were very young and demanding, I recall my mom saying that “some days are successful just because you got through them.” I was very much feeling that if I could just meet this day, hour or moment with presence, trust and gratitude that would be a triumph. I began a gratitude journal to remind myself of the beauty that blessed my day-to-day life.
Looking back at my journal from those days, most of the things I wrote about were very simple – the tart crispness of a Fuji apple, a kind smile from a stranger, the sweet and salty smell of the South Carolina marsh at the end of our block, a beautiful sunset, an evening walk with my husband and dog by the beach, a warm cup of tea, or a good book. In the end, it’s the seemingly small things in life that fill us.
I’d like to say this transformation happened overnight. But forming a new perspective is a slow process that requires a great deal of practice, trust, patience and grace. I needed to loosen my grip in terms of trying to control the circumstances of my life, and to trust that whatever happened, I would somehow be okay. This is no small task. It’s about learning to trust God – and myself. And I give thanks for being able to do these things.
Susan Pannier-Cass is a Spiritual Director and kundalini yoga/meditation teacher, and is grateful to be a new staff member at the Claret Center.