The Work of the Light: On Gratitude, and the Nature of Mud, and Lotus

“Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.” ~ Alphonse Karr

Not two blocks before a Lexus SUV slammed me to the asphalt I had the thought: In all my scootering around the world, from Thailand, to India, to Italy, I’ve never had an accident. 

My helmeted head was the first thing to hit; whole left side body followed, shaving layers from my loosely yoga-clothed skin. I remember having this thought upon impact: this is the hardest I’ve ever hit my head. Later, waiting for results of a brain scan, I’d feel grateful for the memory of that thought, evidence I’d suffered no retrograde amnesia.

I instinctively jumped to my feet as soon as I hit. My scooter and I had been tossed apart; It lay wounded, in the path of oncoming traffic, and in my daze I tried to right it, but, too dizzy to stand, nearly joined it on the pavement. A woman grabbed me, and sat me down along the curb. I’d later learn she was a nurse, and just happened to be driving behind me, saw the whole darn thing. Wordless, stunned, I remember feeling grateful for her steadiness and soothing spirit.

My unwitting assailant must have heard the thud, looked in her right-hand rearview mirror to see a body and mint green scooter slam against her car, and then the pavement, and then the pavement again. She came to me, visibly shaken. I remember feeling the need to console her. I was okay, no damage a little time wouldn’t heal. I remember saying, “Let’s both walk away from this feeling grateful for being alive.”

Later that week I arrived in Tulum, Mexico for a week-long training with my spiritual brother Bryan Kest. I showed him my road burned skin before the start of the first class, and let him know I’d be modifying heavily. A two hour sweet, sweaty flow ended, as Bryan often does, with a meditation on gratitude. He offers that you recall your very first moment of life, and consciously affirm gratitude for that moment; and then, for every single thing that follows for which you feel grateful. From the profound, to the banal, name it. Let the mind rest wholly in the lightness that is gratitude, whatever the source: I am grateful for my parents…I am grateful for their love that made me…I am grateful for first sips of morning coffee…I am grateful for language, for movement…I am grateful for…I am grateful for…I am grateful for…Before you know it, tears of gratitude are streaming down your face, and every ounce of you is pulsating with intense awe and appreciation.

I remember leaving that morning class, greeted outside the beachside shala by Tulum’s ocean soaked breeze. I hugged Bryan, told him how grateful I was for him, and he looked at me and said, “I’m grateful for helmets, sister.”

Gratitude. It changes everything.

A moment of gratitude is like opening the blinds, letting the sun pour in. As the space around you is illuminated, more sources of gratitude are revealed. In choosing to affirm gratitude, you choose to perceive the world around as abundant, full, enough. The mind is often addicted to perceiving lack, as filling the perceived void gives the mind a sense of frenzied purpose. A gratitude practice, and the real contentment it generates, calms the mind, creates mental space and ease. As Rumi writes, “Giving thanks for abundance is greater than the abundance itself.”

What experience imparts, science affirms: research finds that feelings of gratitude activate regions of the brain associated with dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter. Feeling gratitude floods the brain with the same endogenous medicines as are activated when you’ve achieved some thing. Additionally, dopamine is associated with action; when you increase dopamine, you’re more likely to re-engage in the behavior that informs the initial influx. That is, gratitude helps initiate a kind of neurological virtuous cycle.

Additionally, a practice of gratitude can be meditative in its present centered-ness, requiring practitioner to pay attention to what is. This, too, has benefits for the brain, as the sheer act of noticing strengthens practitioner’s capacity to notice.

These neurological changes produce behavioral changes, research finds, including increased determination, attention and enthusiasm. Regular gratitude practices are correlated with improved sleep quality, and decreases in depression and anxiety. In my own life, the difference between a day filled with thankfulness, and one rife with complaint, is palpable. Where lament paralyzes, gratitude energizes.

This Thanksgiving, plenty will direct you to practice gratitude. Reminders are welcome, for the mind is tricky, and addicted to the mental malaise of glass half-emptiness. We must teach it to perceive how truly full-to-the-brim is each breath.

And so, I’d like to offer an addendum to your daily gratitude practice: This Thanksgiving, practice being grateful for the things that challenge you, even - especially - for the things that have caused you pain. We have a saying in yoga: no mud, no lotus; the blessing that you praise is implicitly connected to some darker circumstance. A torn up ankle and reconstructive surgery brought me to yoga.  A series of life challenges brought me to doing life's work as therapist.  A failed relationship brought me to the practice of jiujitsu, where I met a teacher who turned out to be my love, my life partner.  Every ounce of this lemonade, essentially connected to every one of those sweet, sweet lemons. As Rumi writes, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Because of what we know about how the brain responds to gratitude, we can posit that a paucity of gratitude impacts the brain and behavior inversely; if we only focus on the acidity of circumstance, we won’t be as capable, even neurologically speaking, to perceive, to taste the sweetness. 

And so, I offer to you: look for the Light around the edges of even the darkest circumstance. It’s always there - if only in the knowledge that the challenge is temporary, because everything is temporary. Yes, even in moments of greatest pain, choose to see the Light. Though it might sound trite, it’s actually a neurological prescription for a more joyful life. The mind sees what the mind sees, until it is directed elsewhere. Choosing to perceive that Light primes the senses to that Light, makes living in the Light more possible. 

And over time, you might find, things aren’t as easily shuffled into categories of good or bad, better, or worse; rather, experience is life, life is experience, and everything, even great challenge, is ripe with blossom. “Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it,” writes Rumi. Choose to perceive all circumstance as a source of gratitude, and, as Rumi suggests, “Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.”