Giving True Thanks
In these days following Thanksgiving, most of us have spent a good share of our time thinking about what we’re thankful for, listing our health and our families and friends among the many things that help us move forward in our lives. I’m particularly struck this year because so many of us have felt pummeled by the pandemic and all of the ways it has blown through our sense of normalcy and regular life. I’ve never been an overly optimistic person, though, so thinking about what I have to be grateful for is rarely my first focus when I’m feeling down. Instead, I can easily lapse into replaying the dark scenes, the scary scenarios, the discouraging moments. But I’ve been thinking this year that my penchant for dwelling on the negative is probably more a very bad habit than it is a reflection of reality.
Like putting some healing salve on a cut, my brain just settles down and I’m reminded of the loveliness of simple things, like dogs, and sunsets, and a good cup of coffee.
When I’m worried about something that might happen, for example, I can take my thoughts right to it in detail—almost as if it’s occurring right in front of me in real time. Then, as if to give it even more power, I can get myself totally worked up about what I need to do to prevent this made-up disaster from occurring, or what I should do if it does. All of this, remember, is in my head. It’s like watching a bad version of some dramatic TV show and being asked to create my own ending. That’s how fictional it really is. And, because I’ve been doing this so long—with great help from my mother, for whom making up potential disasters was a favorite hobby—I’ve always imagined that seeing the world in another way would be impossible. In fact, I’ve even thought that if I were generally optimistic about things, I might feel naïve or simple-minded. I’ve even gone so far as to be pessimistic about my pessimism—“That’s just the way I am,” I’ve said more times than I can count.
But recently, thanks to meditation practice and a willingness on my part to consider I might be wrong about “how I am,” I’ve been finding some success by just changing my view. In other words, even if there is a possibility that some situation that affects my life may blow up, staring at it and perseverating about it while it does, is a useless activity. It makes much more sense to turn my thoughts and my attention to something more fun and much more positive. That’s it. I don’t even have to come up with a big justification to convince myself that the bad thing isn’t really going to occur. I just stop thinking about it. Period. And I start thinking for a moment about something real in this very moment that brings me pleasure—or at least a bit of peace. The first few times I did it, I almost couldn’t believe it. I was running one morning and going over and over something I was worried about. Then I remembered this new approach and I looked up to see an egret standing next to the canal. I gazed at his long, graceful neck and watched him turn his eye to look for food in the water. It was lovely. My “problems” hadn’t disappeared, but I’d kind of reset my brain to something real and awesome.
I’m also lucky to have two hilarious and entertaining dogs. If I remember to do it, I can watch them, pet them, take them for a walk, or just sit by them whenever I start down any bad road. Like putting some healing salve on a cut, my brain just settles down and I’m reminded of the loveliness of simple things, like dogs, and sunsets, and a good cup of coffee. Of course, a lifetime of practiced cynicism is not that easy to overcome. Some days, the review of grim scenes wins and I spend more time than I ever want to reviewing all the terrible things that I can imagine might occur. But I have a good tool at my disposal now—my own commitment to doing things differently. I’m looking for something good now, no matter how naïve that sounds, and I’m determined to let that good thing do its work.