In Latin “gratias” is translated as thanks, but really the same word can translate to grace or gifts. From this perspective, gratitude is a form of grace or a gift from God.
I would suggest that we should not practice gratitude because it is polite or expected in our spiritual circles or because our friends or family are doing it. Nor should we force ourselves to practice it, simply because we read that practicing gratitude can really change a person’s life. These are artificial and superficial constructs that often just dwindle out of existence soon enough. They might however begin as a starting point which develops into something a bit more meaningful further down the track.
The primary reason gratitude should be practiced is because we are trying to cultivate a new way of being in the world. We are trying to change our inner worlds so that we can be more at peace and feel more joyous with the passage of time. We might hope that our external circumstances change also, but largely we are looking inward in order to become happier.
Often the practice of gratitude is a spiritual experience. It is a way of giving thanks for a presence other than our egoic selves in our lives. This presence (call it god, the universe, the absolute, Buddha, whatever…) is less about the objects and events which inspire gratitude as it is about how our hearts are touched. Our boundaries loosen when we are touched so and as a consequence grace is allowed to enter. Gratitude seems to flow easiest when our hearts are touched in some way.
When I talk to people about gratitude it seems to me that often they are sounding the words of gratitude but it is not really a heartfelt experience. There is a hollowness to the experience which does not really touch them. Sometimes they might even be attempting to practice gratitude, but under their breaths they are moaning about life. Needless to say this is not the practice of gratitude.
In my experience, gratitude works best when it is practiced as if it were a prayer. Here, I am referring to the contemplative and meditative aspects of prayer rather than the route pronunciation of some words. I know it’s popular to make lists about what we are grateful for and there is nothing inherently bad about that. But usually people just skip through each item almost as if they are in a rush to get through it. What would be much more beneficial is to spend some time with each item in the list and give it the attention it deserves.
If people spend between 30 seconds to a few minutes with each item on their lists, what often occurs is they are much better able to contact gratitude. Gratitude becomes more like an experience that touches the entirety of being as opposed to being an intellectual exercise. By spending some time with the things we are grateful for, we deepen the practice of gratitude. It helps to quieten us down and helps us to get used to our inner worlds again – an art which is becoming increasingly rare. We change our brain patterns because it becomes a more meditative type of experience. As such we grow into a different type of being and usually we are all the better for it.
My best suggestion is to really spend some time with gratitude. Make it a daily practice to not only attempt to cultivate gratitude but also to deepen it.