Earlier this year, I found myself taking care of my friend’s two daughters – aged 9 and 12 – for two weeks while their mum was recovering from emergency surgery. I quickly realised that, despite years of supporting people, individually and in groups, as they navigate the emotional rollercoaster of becoming awake to the omnicidal trajectory of modern humans, there is still a lot for me to learn about my own emotional resilience! Taking care of these two small beings was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. The girls were fractious; Grandma had died the previous month, and now Mummy was in hospital in another country. They know me and I sense that they trust me, but I also sensed that they were pushing at my boundaries, trying to get a sense of whether I was a source of safety or another reason to feel worried.
There were lots of tears throughout the two weeks – mine as well as theirs. We played games and sang and danced. We entered into fraught negotiations about bedtime and tidying up, during which I silently offered up prayers of thanks and sincere repentance to my own mum for the years of similar chaos that she had endured. The calmest and most connected part of each day was dinner time, when in a moment of uncharacteristic brilliance, I had invited the girls into a daily gratitude practice together. Each evening, as we sat down to eat together, we took turns to share three things that we felt grateful for from that day.
Whether or not this simple practice transformed our time together, I can’t say. But I do know that the girls’ faces lit up as they recalled precious moments from their days, and that it often ended with cuddles and rare moments of sisterly solidarity between them. I spoke with their mum this week and she told me that a daily gratitude practice has continued in their home.
Gratitude as resistance
In a culture which seems to mandate perpetual striving – for a better job, a bigger and more luxurious home, to acquire more, to become ‘my best self’ – we are constantly grasping toward the future, rather than giving attention to what’s right in front of us. And of course, this striving – the belief that how things are right now is ‘not enough’ – is one of the threads of modern humanity’s destructive trajectory. Consumer capitalism depends upon, and perpetuates, a collective sense of scarcity, resulting in untrammeled extraction of ‘value’ from people and the planet. We are convinced that we live in a world of insufficiency, and that the smart thing to do is to hoard resources, and extract as much ‘value’ from people and planet as we can. ‘Wetiko’ is an Algonquin word used to describe an evil spirit that can infect and animate a person – or even a society – with an insatiable greed, becoming convinced that they must extract the life force from others. From an indigenous perspective, all life is part of an interdependent web, so extracting life force, or wealth, or profit, from other humans or from the non-human world is a cannibalistic impulse.
The experience and expression of gratitude can be a powerful act of resistance against these cultural expectations. Firstly, it brings your awareness to the present moment. In order to be grateful for something, one must actively notice what’s present to be grateful for. In fact, according to Buddhist philosophy, when we are able to bring our awareness wholly and only to our experience in and of the present moment, and we let go of our habitual analysis and evaluation, a profound sense of gratitude naturally arises. For Buddhists, gratitude is seen as a powerful tool to soothe the restless wantings that plague our world.
Secondly, gratitude is a state that shifts us from a scarcity to an abundance outlook. Rather than feeling the nagging sense that “I’m not enough” or “there isn’t enough” that feeds extractive capitalism, and therefore continues to precipitate environmental destruction, we can connect with a feeling of abundance. And we may even come to realise how little we actually need in order to be well and satisfied. For Muslims, during Ramadan, the immersion in fasting, devotion, and contemplation brings gratitude to the fore. Many understand through this challenging month the plight of those who do not have a choice and suffer in their hunger.
Joanna Macy, the long-time activist, Buddhist, and originator of The Work That Reconnects, describes how gratitude can help us resist the logic of capitalism. She writes that
“Gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us to realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us.”
As John Ruskin wrote, “There is no wealth but life”. It is easy to take the miracle of existence for granted. Similarly with other non-material things such as the richness that can be found in healthy relations to humans and the more-than-human. Focusing on these things can help us to cultivate a sense of ‘enough’ once our basic needs have been met. In this sense, gratitude can then become a way of life and a way of honouring life and our relations; a way that emphasises interconnectedness and mutuality.
Gratitude and wellbeing
Modern science, too, has revealed more about the benefits of gratitude, which are both psychological and physiological. Many studies in the last two decades have proven the link between cultivating a sense of gratitude – either through practice or inclination – with better personal relationships, happiness, well-being and optimism. It has also been associated with increased levels of empathy, vitality, lower stress levels, better sleep, and even pain relief. These effects can be attributed to the fact that feeling grateful has a direct impact on our neurophysiology. Dopamine and serotonin are released, and our mood is enhanced. We feel calmer, more secure, and more connected. Regularly practising gratitude ‘re-wires’ our brain, a fact which is used in some addiction recovery programmes, simply because it works. Even if we may not initially feel grateful, practising gratitude using the method of ‘fake it till you make it’ retrains our synaptic connections and can help us feel safe, secure, and cultivate a sense of abundance. (Read more about the neuroscience of gratitude here.)
Isn’t this just denial?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably struggling to some degree, to find ways of maintaining a sense of equilibrium while knowing that the world is becoming more and more precarious. Perhaps you are searching for ways of taking positive direct action to address the disgraceful inequalities which mean that the people and communities who have contributed least to the unfolding climate and ecological catastrophes are the ones who are suffering the worst impacts. Maybe you have children or grandchildren, and you feel fear and powerlessness when you think about their future. In that context, an exhortation to express gratitude as a way of feeling better – the ‘“fake it ‘til you make it” advice – may seem to contradict what climate psychologists are advising about cultivating emotional resilience by allowing the difficult emotions to arise and to be felt and expressed.
Emotional resilience, however, is not an “either/or”. Rather, it is the ability to respond to stressful or unexpected situations and crises. This includes both expanding your ability to remain centred while experiencing difficult emotions, as well as the ability to regulate your nervous system, to recover from stress and return to centre. This requires self-awareness, and practical tools, as well as the sense of agency to use them. Cultivating and practising methods for regulating the nervous system is not denial or distraction. In the context of anticipating increasing devastation in the natural world, and consequent impacts on people’s lives, giving careful and loving attention to calming one’s nervous system is an essential ingredient of being capable of making wise decisions that can help reduce harm.
Gratitude and community
Increasingly, I’m thinking and talking about the nervous system as a collective phenomenon. At a very basic level, we can see and feel how being around stressed or traumatised people can activate our nervous system; anxiety and hypervigilance can be infectious. When we perceive a threat, we feel stressed or fearful, and adrenaline and cortisol are released in our bodies. The sympathetic nervous system takes over, which is fundamental to the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ responses. When we’re in this state, we are less able to make rational decisions, and our ability to empathize and communicate is impaired; we’re more likely to feel frustrated and to behave in a reactive way.
Being able to effectively become present and calm, to counter a dys-regulated nervous system, is important. We can engage more fully and compassionately with others, who are then more likely to feel calmer and safer, thus avoiding conflict. The capacity for emotional co-regulation is an invaluable community resource.
Deep Adaptation is a kind of community. It’s true that most of us are only connected virtually, and that we don’t depend on each other for security and sustenance in the way that the word community usually implies. However, what brings us together is our collective desire to find ways of being together differently, and in the process, to divest ourselves of the deeply embedded belief systems of patriarchy, coloniality, ecocide and capitalism.
The first of August is ‘Lughnasadh’, which is the Gaelic festival marking the beginning of harvest – traditionally a time, in the northern hemisphere, when communities celebrate and give thanks for the abundance of Mother Nature. And beginning today, the Deep Adaptation community launches a month of gratitude. You are invited to express your gratitude to people in your life (within DAF and ‘in real life’!). You can write on our gratitude page here. Please consider joining one of these three free online events, hosted generously by members of the DA community:
- 16th August (Americas and Europe): “Embodied Gratitude: A Practice of Pleasure” https://www.deepadaptation.info/event/gratitude-embodied/
- 23rd August (Americas & Europe): “Cultivating Gratitude” https://www.deepadaptation.info/event/cultivating-gratitude/
- 27th August (Australasia & Europe): “Grounding Gratitude” https://www.deepadaptation.info/event/grounding-gratitude/
The month will end with an online dance/jukebox session with a gratitude playlist expertly DJ’d by one of our community.
Thank you for reading, I’m grateful you’re here.