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Healing with Gratitude
By Anne Macaire

When we experience pain, either physical or emotional, we tend to contract. Think of stubbing your toe and how your body tightens up and pulls into itself, or how your face draws in when you feel sad, fearful or angry. Charles Darwin actually called the facial muscles that contract with these difficult emotions the “grief” muscles. This tendency to contract around pain, however, actually causes us more pain.

Stephen Levine who has supported the dying and grieving for most of his life, offers guided exercises for working with pain by creating space in and around it. This spaciousness is the opposite of contraction. Finding ways to open up the contraction, to feel a greater sense of expansion, creates the space for healing to occur.

When I see people who are grieving, their bodies are usually tense and their minds are spinning tightly in relentless thoughts of pain that give no rest. One way to loosen the tightness is to find some comfort: a walk in nature, a warm bath, treating ourselves with more kindness. Feeling a sense of gratitude also offers a way to open beyond the contraction of our grief.

Several years ago, I was at the dentist, practicing my usual relaxation routine of paying attention to my breath and unclenching my fists - over and over. Then I happened to remember all that was being offered to me: a skilled dentist who was completely focused on my wellbeing, a comfortable, friendly environment, even the precision drill that was working out on my tooth, and I began to feel grateful. I found the more grateful I felt, the more relaxed I became. I realized that I couldn’t feel grateful and be contracted at the same time. Gratitude opens us up. It expands us and gives us a space to rest in. For the first time ever, I became completely relaxed in the dentist chair.

When we are in the midst of grief and despair, to look for things to be grateful for may seem trivial or irrelevant. But we don’t have to feel grateful for everything that’s happened and gratitude helps us to see the whole of life. It gives us a bigger context within which we can experience all of our emotions.

In our darkest times we can be hard put to find something to be grateful for. This is when we can turn to some of the simplest things in our life. Probably most people reading this have a bed to sleep in; there are millions in the world who do not. My own bed is a great source of gratitude for me. A car that starts, clean water to drink, our own breath; the list is endless. We have only to look as far as a warm cup of tea and our next meal to find a place for our gratitude to land. Each time we feel gratitude it expands our sense of self and nourishes our wellbeing.

Gratitude is so profound that it can be a life preserver when the seas get rough. But the time to begin to cultivate this simple practice is not when we need cheering up or when life has suddenly taken a downward spin. It is right now and every day.

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