Cultivating Gratitude During The Tough Times

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When life is going splendidly it’s obviously pretty easy for most of us to summon up a sense of gratitude. But when unwanted circumstances arrive suddenly gratitude feels like the incorrect response, a masochistic response. It seems like the appropriate response should be bitterness and resentment. People might think to themselves “I’m supposed to feel gratitude for this? Not happening. I hate this and if it were happening to you you’d hate it too.”

While the above attitude is understandable, from the perspective of mindfulness it’s the result of an error in perception. Whether the object in question is wanted or unwanted, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly, it’s the opportunity behind that object that matters. The opportunity to grow, to self-actualize, to better understand the nature of human existence, these are the opportunities that can inspire gratitude. So the object itself is secondary. One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is that it’s attachment to objects of all kinds that gets us into trouble.

So what’s the opportunity behind the tough times, behind life difficulties of all kinds? It’s the opportunity to cultivate compassion, for Self and others, thanks to that concrete experience with suffering rather than with the theoretical idea of suffering. It’s the opportunity to learn how to bear up under psychological, emotional, or physical pain rather than projecting it onto others. It’s the opportunity to become more skilled at handling suffering now so that when it invariably comes around in the future you’re  prepared for it. And it’s the opportunity to get closer to the nature of human existence since as beings who want to stay alive yet must accept the inevitability of our own deaths suffering is weaved into the fabric of our existence, regardless of how splendidly life might seem to be going at various moments in time.

Therefore it’s always possible to cultivate gratitude, not just during the good times but during the tough times too. We’re not actually cultivating gratitude for the wanted or unwanted variables in our environment but rather for the various opportunities these wanted or unwanted variables provide.