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Hi! I'm Nadia Colburn—writer, teacher, yogi, activist

From “Attitude of Gratitude” to Authentic Appreciation

Published 7 months ago • 5 min read

Dear Reader,

First, I want to say that I am deeply thankful for your presence here in this community.

Each Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about authentic gratitude.

I know that so many people around the world, as well as some close to me, are suffering. To simply express gratitude can feel blind to what is happening. And yet, cultivating a mindset of gratitude can be an expansive, generous, healing, and life-affirming practice.

But I’ll be honest: my journey to understanding and embracing gratitude has been a long and complex one.

One of my earliest memories of struggling with gratitude took place on my 10th birthday.

My grandmother gave me a dress with frills and bows. I never particularly liked fancy dresses, and at ten, I had a fierce independence. But I knew that I needed to thank my grandmother.

I remember that feeling I got in my stomach as I thanked her. I knew that my thank you was not genuine, and I knew that in getting me this present my grandmother had not really been thinking about me. She had been imagining some version of girls at ten and had been involved in her own relationship with clothes, appearance, and society.

It didn’t feel like a free exchange. It was as if the adults had given me the present, not for me as much as because they knew it was something they “should do.” And kids at that age have an incredibly keen sense of authenticity.

As I was reflecting this past week on this moment with my grandmother, I started to think about how problematic it is that children are so often asked–scolded even–to be “thankful” to adults and to overly perform their gratitude for adults, when there is already a huge power imbalance between them. I found myself troubled by this unequal exchange, this unequal channel where thanks is given/demanded.

For hundreds of years in Europe, there was a similarly unequal economy of “gift giving”: if you were a feudal lord who had been born into wealth (that had essentially been plundered) and gave some of your harvest to the local population, they would be indebted to you for this “gift”.

And, of course, if you consider the history of the United States, there's a real perversion in thanking Native Americans for what they gave so freely, when the next move was to appropriate the land and eradicate a whole way of life.

These are but a few examples of ways in which gratitude practices can be misused.

Sometimes the “attitude of gratitude” mindset can do more damage than good if it is used to silence people. If we ask people to feel grateful and don’t give them a place to also express pain and sorrow, that can hinder healing.

Similarly, if we are asked to be thankful and not also given a chance to work towards positive change–in our own lives or in the life of a family, institution, or nation–that also can do more damage than good.

Gratitude, like all emotions, needs to take place within a framework of an honest field of truth-telling and emotional range.

The world can be heavy with injustice, irony, and paradox, but underneath all of that wounding and lack of trust, there also exists a pure channel of deep gratitude that each of us has access to.

In other words, there is a gratitude that is not required, a gratitude that holds no debt, a gratitude in which energy flows freely and depletes no one and fills everyone.

It was later that afternoon with my grandmother that I first gained a glimpse of this kind of gratitude.

After sitting still at the restaurant, we went for a walk in Central Park, and I remember running ahead, and then suddenly looking around me and seeing the clouds above the park and the sun shining down through them. I hadn’t wanted to give thanks inside, but now I felt myself spontaneously giving thanks: it felt as if the sunshine was coming down just for me.

And something in me shifted. I somehow was able to see from a larger frame. At ten, I knew that my grandmother had hurt my mother as a child, but suddenly I could also see my grandmother and the whole human world in a different light. I saw that she was doing the best she could. And I felt gratitude for life itself.

To be alive is a great gift. To see the sky. To smell the air. To sit in a body and then run in that body is a great gift.

May we appreciate our life and all that supports life: the sunshine, the water, the soil, our ancestors.

This kind of gratitude is not something that is ever at the expense of suffering, but rather, something that can heal suffering. An attitude of gratitude can, in fact, renew and strengthen us; that gratitude must be authentic, but it is also something that can be practiced and that can grow over time.

May we approach life and one another with reverence.

In that vein, I’d like to close by sharing an excerpt from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s beautiful Thanksgiving Address, which Robin Wall Kimmerer shares in her wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. This prayer helps us redirect our attention and live in greater connection:

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address

Greetings to the Natural World

The People

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.

Now our minds are one.

The Earth Mother

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Waters

We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms- waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water.

Now our minds are one.

The Fish

We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Plants

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

Read the full address here at my blog.

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While I hope you might share this address with your loved ones this week, it is not just for one day of the year. Can you imagine starting every day with a deep thanks for the earth and waters and plants and animals?

This gratitude situates us in the great web of all life and matter; it helps us remember the true miracle that it is to be alive and our deep relationship with all beings.

With love, warmth, peace, and deep appreciation for your presence on this precious planet,

Nadia

Hi! I'm Nadia Colburn—writer, teacher, yogi, activist

Author of The High Shelf and founder of Align Your Story writing school.

At Align Your Story Writing School, we bring traditional literary and creative writing studies together with mindfulness, embodied practices, and social and environmental engagement. Join a community of over 25,000 other mindful writers. Get the tools and community to write your best work.

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