Tuesday, November 26, 2019


What It’s Like

While remembering a recent discussion with a friend, I find myself feeling grateful.

There’s warmth in my chest. I have an image of watery light radiating out of my upper torso and wrapping around me. My mind flits about across memories of his facial expressions, his posture, the arrangement of the other people in the room. I imagine how he felt as he spoke (self-conscious, a little vulnerable, a searching feeling as he narrowed in on what he wanted to say).

Permeating all of that is a diffuse recognition that he is good. I like what he did, it made my life better, and I am glad to be in a world where he exists and is willing to say those things. Then, after a few moments, there’s a subtle pulling sensation. I have an impulse to find him and to say “thank you”.

Deciding to become grateful on purpose, I choose the narrow bookcase in my living room. I imagine the book case, first its general shape and then in increasing detail, eventually attending to the individual books. A weighing feeling begins. What is the weighing? I seem to be contrasting this world with counterfactual worlds where there is not a bookcase in my living room. Then I feel a broadening, and a growing coherence. I’m telling myself a story.

It’s the story of my life in relation to the bookcase: I have a house to keep the bookcase in, where I and the books and the wood that holds them are all warm and dry. I stay in one place most of the time; I don’t have to haul all my belongings around with me. I grew up surrounded by books instead of by war and famine, and I have a brain that can learn and remember. I have time to read my books, to sit on the couch wrapped in a blanket, letting some author guide my imagination just for fun. I’m literate; it’s effortless for me to decipher English text, which is amazing. I can receive the thoughts of people who have been dead for centuries, learn poetry that no one I’ll ever meet could have written.

I feel excitement, and joy, and love. I feel warmth and light and a solid foundation to stand on. But most of all, I feel that this world is good, because I have a bookcase in my living room. I feel grateful.

Later, I choose a garden as I pass by it on my morning walk. The gratitude does not come so easily this time.

I feel a gap, distance, a lack of connection. This is not my garden. This garden has nothing to do with me. We are two totally separate entities.

I search for another perspective. A more intimate perspective, one where I am not so clearly an independent being separated from everything by a pane of glass.

I stand in front of the garden. For a while, I just watch. I see what I see, and think what I think. The sprinklers are going. They hiss and splash on the leaves. Though it’s November, tomatoes are ripe on the trellis. Nasturtium rambles, but not as much as it would without someone to prune it. The basil’s been allowed to flower in a tidy row with rosemary, thyme, and sage.

There is love here. Care. Someone weeds and prunes and feeds these plants almost every day. Nothing is overcrowded. Nothing is out of place.

Everything in this garden could be purchased cheaply at the store just a few blocks away, and by the size of the house it’s clear this gardener can afford groceries. They don’t need the harvest to live. They just know the satisfaction of black dirt in their hands. They feel life expanding when their seedlings drink the water they pour. They smile when their family eats the squash they harvested earlier that day. This garden is a place where the chaos of the universe is gradually shaped into human joy.

I know this feeling. It is appreciation. I see the garden more directly than when it was simply “not mine”, and I recognize its goodness.

But I can feel that a turn is needed here, one more step to find gratitude. The glass is gone, but I’m still at a distance. Where am I? Why am I glad to be in the world with this garden?

My gladness has something to do with this stage of civilization, in my little corner of the world. There’s so much abundance, so much wealth. Not all gardens are like this. This garden is a sanctuary, like my own garden. Like calligraphy and libraries and music. We don’t burn all our resources just trying to feed ourselves. There’s space here for beauty. I walk by this sanctuary every day, and I always feel a moment of peace when I do.

A golden lake pours over me and the tomatoes and the whole neighborhood surrounding us. I am glad to be in the world with this garden. I am grateful.

What’s Up With Gratitude

My understanding of emotion says that emotions tend to be for things. Anger is for action. Fear is for finding safety. Shame is for protecting the interests of disenfranchised factions in internal conflicts. So what is gratitude for?

I claim that gratitude is for plugging yourself into the world. Specifically, it finds the supportive places in the world, then sets your feet on them in an athletic sort of stance. We are grateful for things we can push off of toward action. The time we spend feeling grateful improves our contact with those supportive surfaces, and establishes contact with new ones.

Consider my gratitude toward the garden. There was at least one supportive surface to be found there — awareness of sanctuaries — but I had to spend some time looking for it. It took a while to plug myself in. The garden still is not mine, but it’s part of my world now in a way it previously was not.

What does my conjecture suggest about social gratitude?

Before I began investigating, I think I implicitly believed that social gratitude was just part of how people track debts and reciprocity. If you make me dinner, I feel grateful so that I will be motivated to fix your car in the future, and the great communal books stay balanced. This way, communities can experience gains from trade in the long run.

My new theory say otherwise. It says that when you make me dinner and I feel grateful, I’ve recognized a supportive surface, and I’ve set my weight there. You are now part of my world in a way that you previously were not.

On the other hand, if you make me dinner and I feel guilty, then I am indeed hoping to balance the books. Guilt is something else, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But if I feel grateful for dinner while I’m offering to fix your car, then I’m trying to plug into the part of the world that is you. I am breaking the glass barrier that makes “me” and “you” totally distinct entities who have nothing to do with each other. Instead of floating in a sky bubble with no opportunities for traction or even direct observation, I’m improving my contact with a part of the world I can push off of toward action.

If you do the same, then we can push off of each other.

Which means, it seems to me, that gratitude expands the self into that larger and more powerful entity known as community.


Appreciation shares a lot with gratitude, but they’re distinct.

When I appreciate the new curtains I put up in my bedroom yesterday, I look at them and notice the way their calming color is appropriate to their surroundings. I notice how well they block the light from outside. I think they do a good job as curtains. I recognize their quality, and I’m glad that they exist.

Appreciation is recognition of quality. It’s awareness of what one perceives to be excellent in an object. If I say, “Curtains, I appreciate the way that you harmonize with your surroundings,” I’m telling the curtains that I see something good in them. I’m over here, and they’re over there, and I recognize their quality.

Appreciation is necessary for gratitude, but gratitude goes further. In gratitude, I am glad not only that the curtains exist, but that I share a world with them. When I am grateful to my new curtains, I look at them and think about the effect their color has on me as I relax in my room. When I express gratitude to my curtains, I say, “Thank you, curtains, for contributing to the calming atmosphere I sink into when I enter my room.” In gratitude, I am part of the picture, and my connection with the object is central.

I think appreciation leads to some of the same good outcomes as gratitude, but not all of them. If someone were to practice appreciation deliberately, I expect that they would improve their discernment, or their awareness of their own sense of taste.

They wouldn’t plug themselves into the world, though. They wouldn’t have gumption. That would take gratitude. If someone were to practice gratitude deliberately, I think they’d improve not only their discernment, but also their ability to apply the resources around them.


When I first started gratitude journaling, one of the most common obstacles was guilt. I’d write “Today I’m grateful for,” then pause. When nothing immediately came to mind, I started feeling guilty. “I’m absurdly privileged, and yet totally ungrateful?! The boomers are right about us. D:” This was strongest when thinking of things I’m supposed to be grateful for, like the fact that I never have to worry about whether I can afford to eat.

There’s something very direct about gratitude. If you want to be grateful, you have to begin by seeing real things with the eyes you have now. Looking at stories about things with other people’s eyes, or with yesterday’s eyes, doesn’t work. Original seeing is part of how gratitude plugs you into the world. It makes contact.

When I feel guilty, it’s very hard to see directly and originally. Guilt is for correcting your own mistakes; it sees through the eyes of the past, and weighs all perceptions against loftier concepts. Whatever I’m doing while guilty, I’m cutting off the vast majority of my experience and only keeping the parts I can compare to “supposed to”. It’s a valuable perspective, but it doesn’t set your feet on the ground.

So when I find myself feeling guilty while trying to practice gratitude, I stop trying to be grateful, and I do original seeing for a while instead.

For example, instead of trying to be grateful for my lack of hunger, I start naming the foods in my fridge. Eventually, I’ll notice some kind of happiness about the yogurt or the eggs. And from that mental state, I move toward gratitude.

Guilt is also super dualistic. “Is this what I’m supposed to do? Is that what I’m supposed to do? Am I doing it wrong?” Whatever It is, It is over there, while I am over here. Guilt does not encourage the “part of one thing” perspective that gratitude relies on.


The “part of one thing” perspective is, I think, much of why I have more trouble feeling grateful toward people than toward inanimate objects. There’s something a little rude about gratitude, if you’re used to NVC-style socialization.

Imagine saying to someone, “Thank you for making me feel safe.” That sure blurs the two of your together! Did they “make” you feel safe? Maybe they weren’t even thinking of you at all. You’re the one who felt safe, all on your own, in response to events that may or may not have had anything to do with you, right?

This line of thinking can lead to gratitude journal entries like, “When I heard Jason talking softly at the meeting today, I noticed that I felt safer.” By the time I’m done writing a sentence like this, I feel robbed of whatever gratitude I started with. It’s hissed out through the autonomy valve.

It seems to me that gratitude and violence come from pretty similar places. They’re both brash, intimate, and authentic. They both involve being enmeshed in a world. They both set you up to act. It’s not too surprising if the careful self-pronouncing distance that undermines violence also undermines gratitude.

I’m not sure how to navigate this yet. For now, my rule is that I can thank others as Non-Violently as I feel appropriate, while in my own private journal, I write, “I’m grateful to Jason for making me feel safe.”

How To Be Grateful

In the Moment

I usually don’t try to be grateful all at once. There’s a progression. If I move too fast or try to force it, I might get stuck, or I might just get less out of it.

Suppose I’ve chosen the walls of my house. I start by saying hello to them.

Then I just observe them for a while. I try to see them originally, noticing whatever I personally experience of the walls in that moment. They’re cream-colored. There are horizontal indentations in the paint, as though someone held the roller straight up and down. The surface feels firm and cool to the touch. And so on.

I start to pay attention to feelings of affinity, satisfaction, or pleasure in these observations. I ask myself what I like about the walls of my house. I like their solidity. Their tallness. Their color. I appreciate them.

I move toward gratitude when I ask myself, “Why am I glad to share a world with these walls?” The aspects I appreciated are clues or prompts, and I run with them. The walls are solid even in strong winds, even when the ground shakes, even when I feel like I’ve shattered into a thousand pieces and then melted. When I am surrounded by the walls of my house I don’t have to be so solid all the time myself, because the walls surround and protect me. I’m glad to share a world with these walls because they make me stronger just by being there.

I do that part for as long as I want, considering as many aspects as I want. When I am done, I say, “Thank you.”


I keep a gratitude journal, of course. I add two or three entries each evening. That’s a good place to start.

I did the Marie Kondo thing a while back, imagining how I want to live, tidying all of the objects in my house and keeping only the ones that spark joy. Whenever you come across an object that doesn’t spark joy, that you don’t want to carry forward into the next part of your life, you’re supposed to thank it and send it on its way. I considered and discarded a whole lot of stuff, and so I thanked a whole lot of items in quick succession. I think that’s when I really started to get a handle on gratitude.

I also took Kondo’s suggestion to thank my possessions whenever I put them away. I still do it often. “Thank you, cup, for holding my coffee.” “Thank you, jacket, for keeping me warm.”

I frequently use appreciation as a trigger for gratitude. When I feel the sun and enjoy its warmth, I think, “Thank you, sun, for warming my skin, and for powering all the life on this planet.” Not in words, necessarily. But I spend a moment in gratitude.

I thank people for things. Not as often as I’d like, because it’s still a little scary for me. I’m never worried about how a tea cup might respond, while people are so complicated. But I often feel grateful to people when I appreciate them.

Even when I’m uncomfortable saying “thank you” directly, I let gratitude flow into my actions. I bake cookies and share them. I wonder how people are feeling, and do what I think might help them. I try to show them in concrete ways that we are part of the same world.

Every morning when I wake up, I drink a bottle of water. Then I sit on my couch saying good morning to everything I think of, and being grateful:

Good morning, crow on the roof. I like your caw. Thank you for the song. Good morning, carpet. I like your squish. Thank you for protecting my bare feet from the cold ground. Good morning, person jogging in the dark. I like your dedication. Thank you for reminding me that progress can happen a little at a time.

It’s a wonderful way to start the day. When I get up from that, I always know that there’s ground to stand on. I feel like whatever I choose to do, the whole world will be there to help me face it.

Receiving Gratitude

I’ve noticed that since I started practicing gratitude deliberately, I’ve sometimes felt more comfortable receiving gratitude as well.

It used to be that when someone thanked me, I felt some combination of happy, guilty, scared, and confused, depending on the situation. I think this happened because I really didn’t understand what gratitude was about. I tended to think (not very consciously) things like, “What does this person want from me? Will they expect me to do something in the future?”, “Are they trying to appease me? Do they think I’m upset with them?”, and, “But I didn’t do it for you!” I’d say, “No problem,” or whatever, and try to act like things were fine. But I didn’t really get it.

Here’s what I didn’t get.

“Thank you” is neither a request nor an imposition. It’s an invitation to a certain vantage point. “Thank you” means, “I have noticed that we live in the same world, and I am glad that we do. I’ll go on noticing this and being glad about it even if you float in a glass sky bubble. But you don’t have to float in a glass sky bubble if you don’t want to. You could see us as people in a world together, both of us with feet, both of us able to walk on the ground. There is abundance here. Can you see it?”

When I recognize “thank you” as an invitation to share a world, receiving gratitude feels a whole lot like being grateful myself. It causes warmth in my chest, rather than tightness in my solar plexus. It feels like grounding and connection, rather than uneasiness and distance.

And when I say “You’re welcome” in such moments, I don’t mean, “I agree that I did something nice for you,” nor, “Here are the polite words one says at times like these.” What I mean is, “I welcome you into my world. I welcome this awareness. I walk with you on the same ground, and we both know it.”

Dark Though It Is

Gratitude is properly a Winter emotion.

It can happen in the Summer, when things look warm and bright, when I tend to feel that I am powerful all on my own. But I need it more in the Winter. I need it when I might not survive if I fail to recognize a single one of the resources around me.

This is why gratitude should be trained as a skill. Anyone can be grateful with their mouth full of food. It is important to be grateful in times of abundance; it sends that abundance into the future. But to engage gratitude’s power, you have to be grateful when you’re hungry. That’s when every point of contact with the world matters most.

It isn’t hope, or optimism. It’s not about the possibility that food will show up soon, or about pretending you’re full when in fact you’re starving to death.

It’s about going hunting even then. Especially then. It sets you deep in the world, with other people who share your problems, where things can be learned and solutions can be found. When you’re inclined to shiver silently in a ball by yourself, gratitude keeps you moving.


by W. S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is