April 23, 2003

Exploring the Link between Gratitude and Attention

by Gregg Krech

"If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you' that would suffice."
- Meister Eckhart

Your eyes are still closed when you hear the beeping of your digital alarm clock go off on the small wooden table next to your bed. Without opening your eyes your arm naturally reaches over to press the black "snooze alarm" button - a motion you repeat just about every morning. But this morning nothing happens. The beeping continues – and is getting a bit irritating. So now you open your eyes and watch your index finger press hard on the correct button. More beeping. You hit another switch which should just turn the alarm off completely. Still more beeping. In a fit of frustration you finally pull out the cord from the electrical outlet. Ahh.... quiet at last. Perhaps it's time for a new clock.

A few minutes later you find yourself about to get up from a brief stop at the toilet when . . . . the toilet won't flush. "I'm really starting off the day in great shape," you think. You get dressed and start the coffeemaker to give you a bit of a jolt, but when you come back to the kitchen there is hot water and coffee grounds all over the table. Now you're beginning to think that this is a bad dream and you must still be in bed. But it's not over. You open the door to grab the morning paper and quickly check the news before leaving for work but . . . no paper! You look to the left, to the right. Did someone take your paper? Did they forget to deliver it? No time to speculate further. Got to get to work. As you drive down the highway to work, you're thinking about how rough the morning has been when suddenly . . . the person driving in the next lane changes lanes – cutting you off and almost running you off the road. When you arrive at work your heart is still racing and you take every opportunity to share your "extraordinary" morning with your colleagues. What a relief it will be when this day is over!

If you've ever had a day when everything seems to go wrong you can probably sympathize with the subject of the story above and it appears understandable that he or she would feel frustrated and perhaps have a sense that the world is a pretty unfriendly place.

To begin to understand the relationship between attention and gratitude we need to turn the story around. Imagine a day when . . . .

- the alarm works perfectly
- the toilet flushes just the way it's supposed
- the coffeemaker produces a hot, aromatic cup of coffee
- your morning paper is waiting outside your door
- no other car crashes into you or cuts you off on the way to work

Now what happens? Do you arrive at work feeling overwhelmed with gratitude – with an attitude of appreciation for all the people and things that are supporting you on this glorious morning?

Probably not.

Habits of Attention

Most likely your attention has identified and attached itself to some other problems. If there's no particular problem going on that morning, your mind may ruminate about something that happened in the past or anticipate some difficulty that may occur in the future. It is common for our attention to focus on the problems and difficulties we are facing because we have to pay attention to such challenges in order to handle them. Unfortunately we can develop a "habit of attention" in which we fail to notice the many things that are supporting our existence – our health, our work, our family, and our efforts to accomplish the things we want to do. The more this "habit of attention" has developed, the less likely we will be able to experience gratitude.

I first made the connection between Gratitude and Attention when I discovered a Japanese method of self-reflection called Naikan (like the name of the camera). The word Naikan means "inside looking" or "inside observation." This method of self-reflection is primarily based on three questions:

1. What have I received from others?
2. What have I given to others?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

As you can see these questions are very simple. And when I participated in a 14 day retreat in Japan in 1989, these questions became the framework for me to reflect on my entire life. I reflected on each stage of my life and on every person who had playing a meaningful role in my life since my birth (my mom, dad, grandparents, teachers, friends, colleagues, ex-girlfriends, etc. . .) When I stepped back from my life and began quietly reflecting on everything that had been done for me and given to me (question #1) I was surprised and overwhelmed by how much I had received in my life. The day I left that retreat I felt more cared for, loved and supported than ever before. It was as if I had a blood transfusion and gratitude was now simply flowing through my veins and arteries. I had learned to notice what I had not been noticing. Through self-reflection I had learned about attention and gratitude.

That two week retreat inspired me to return to Japan many times to investigate, in more depth, the Japanese art and practice of self-reflection. I have yet to discover a more profound method for cultivating gratitude and reshaping our attitude and understanding of our lives.

Let's consider three of the greatest obstacles to gratitude. They are:

We are so preoccupied with our own thoughts, feelings, needs and bodies that we have little attention left over to notice what is being done to support us. You might think of your attention as flashlight. As long as you shine the light on your problems, difficulties, and aches and pains, there is no light available for seeing what others are doing for you.

When I turn the switch on my bedside lamp I assume the light will go on as it (almost) always does. Once I've come to expect something, it doesn't usually get me attention. My attention isn't really grabbed until my expectation isn't met (the light bulb doesn't work). So my attention tends to gravitate away from what I expect and towards what I don't expect.

The more I think I've earned something or deserve something, the less likely I am to feel grateful for it. As long as I think I'm entitled to something I won't consider it a gift. But when I am humbled by my own mistakes or limitations, I am more likely to receive what I am given with gratitude and a true sense of appreciation for the giver as well as the gift.

To experience a sense of heartfelt gratitude we most overcome these three obstacles. Self-reflection provides a path for doing so. It allows us to pause to appreciate what is being given to us rather than focus on what we don't have. It allows us to consider the countless objects and human beings that made it possible for me to get to work or turn on my computer. Through self-reflection, we can come to see everything we have, and are, as gifts. And through self-reflection we begin to train our attention to notice what we haven't noticed.

It is rare to meet a person whose life is full of gratitude. Many people don't truly appreciate what they have until it is gone. And having lost the opportunity to be grateful, they simply find another reason to be disappointed.

If you wish to cultivate gratitude you must develop a practice. Without practice, there is no development of skill - only an idea. You cannot become a grateful person just by thinking that you want to be grateful. Sometimes we are engaged in a practice, but we don't think of it as a practice. For example– complaining. Complaining is a wonderful practice if you wish to cultivate disappointment, resentment and self-pity. Have you ever tried this practice? It is quite effective. Each time you complain you get better at complaining. It is like learning to play an instrument.

Most of us are better at the practice of complaining than at the practice of self-reflection. We have developed a habit of attention – to notice the troubles others cause us. And we have developed a habit of speech -- to complain to others about these troubles. But to cultivate gratitude, we need to develop a new habit of attention – to notice the concrete ways in which the world supports us each day. And we can then develop a new habit of speech – expressing our gratitude to others.

So start your practice today. Notice. Reflect. Express. Hey, what's that sound? Oh, it's the alarm on my watch reminding me I have an appointment. What a nice feature. It frees up my mind to attend to other things. Thanks, watch. And thanks to my wife Linda who gave it to me. And thanks to all the people who made it. And thank goodness my finger works well enough to shut it off. Time to move on.

Gregg Krech is the Director of the ToDo Institute and the author of several books including A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness and the award-winning book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. He conducts ToDo Institute's annual distance learning courses which include Working with Your Attention in April and A Month of Self-Reflection in November. More information on these courses is available by emailing the ToDo Institute at todo@together.net

Posted on April 23, 2003 3:46 PM

This meaningful article has add on to my yet another reason to be grateful and i definitely feel the joy of it this very minute.Since i have been practising this priceless gift many years ago ( with little info about the benefits of gratitude) there's never been a day i missed to reflect and thankful of the littlest gift given to us by god. Thank you for sharing Gregg.

Posted by: shima on November 19, 2009 9:09 AM

My eyes opened up when i started to read this

I appreciated everything i read ,and felt ,energy

thank you

Posted by: Aaron on October 13, 2007 6:02 PM

It was such a pleasure to read this article.

I was adopted, as a child, and was constantly being reminded about how 'grateful' I should feel toward the people who adopted me.

I just couldn't feel 'grateful' because they were alcoholics, and consequently, were abusive toward me.

It was next to impossible for me to comprehend what it was about that situation, for which, I was to be 'grateful'.

Now, several years later, I am trying to change my way of thinking regarding the word GRATEFUL.

I want to learn HOW to be more grateful, and this article has given me a good starting point.

It is most appreciative that you took the time to write it....thank you....

There's enough in the Universe for everyone.

Bren...a beginner in this journey.....

Posted by: Bren on August 2, 2007 3:00 PM

Thank you so much. I was feeling a little down about stuff, but when I read this I saw that I have so much to be thankful for. I work for a community center and some times the public can have a neg. effect on your day, but I was forgeting about all the people that when I see them I can't help but smile.

Thank You,
Joni Davis ARK

Posted by: Joni Davis on September 1, 2005 10:50 AM

Dear Gregg,
I fortuitively came upon your lovely article today
while avoiding my task at hand. writing the Acknowledgement page for my new Novel,"Prisoner
of Romance. You have given me the key to expressing exactly what I wanted to say. Acknowledgement is about gratitude and attention. Every serious book is the result of the many people that have contributed to its creation. Thank you Gregg....Selwyn

Posted by: Selwyn Mills on December 12, 2004 6:20 PM

Thank you Linda and Gregg for helping me realize through a quick "reality check" that my self-pity-absorption-interest is the cause of my ignorance.

Posted by: Babu on March 31, 2004 3:09 PM
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