Without any plan to do this, I have slipped into the habit, as I lay down to sleep, of thinking of something or someone from the past day for which I am grateful. And then, when I awaken, thinking of something I am grateful to look forward to in the new day. Often, I am surprised by what comes to mind. Almost always, they are small things, or momentary unexpected encounters with people, that elicit a smile and a peaceful feeling. Sometimes, they are big things — pivotal moments in my life or opportunities that changed things for me completely. The effect is the same. Finding gratitude brings with it peace.
It occurred to me to share this experience with a client I saw recently who complained that she had trouble sleeping because as soon as she went to bed, her head filled with all the negative, unpleasant events of the past day, and she always awakened dreading what might happen today. As she talked, I remembered years of my life when I did that, too. Without any understanding of what I was doing, I would catalogue the negative events and the mistakes I had made as I went to bed, I would sleep fitfully, and I would wake up with my schedule and all its demands on my mind. I was always tired and out of sorts. I thought it was because my life was a pressure-cooker of demands and disappointments. Now I know it was because I had no idea what I was doing to myself with my own power to think.
My heart went out to my client because she really was exhausted and overwhelmed. She was jittery and on the verge of tears, and she confessed that she spent most of her days that way, drinking copious amounts of coffee to keep going and fighting off depression as she tried to get her job done and take care of her family. She said she always had a “looming sense of disaster.”
She was taken aback when I asked her if she had anything in her life for which to be thankful. “I’m sure I must,” she said, “I just never think about that.” I suggested we take a little time to think about that now.
It took her a few minutes to redirect her thinking, but then she started listing things. Her two children were healthy and happy in school. She had a secure job that paid well enough for her to get by as a single Mom without too much worry. She liked her landlord and she lived in a safe place that was well taken care of. Her parents lived nearby and enjoyed babysitting so she could get out sometimes. She liked the Church she attends and had good friends there. Her ex-husband paid child support regularly and, although he lives far away and never sees them, he does remember the children’s birthdays and holidays. She has a good friend who invites her and her children to a cabin in the NC mountains in the summer so they get to take an inexpensive vacation that the whole family enjoys.
As she slowly worked through this list, she relaxed, and her whole demeanor brightened. “I guess I really have a lot going for me,” she said sheepishly. “So why am I always so down on my life?”
She had opened the door to seeing something completely new to her: What we call “life” is actually our moment-to-moment experience of the thinking we are bringing to mind about life. I explained to her that the little exercise we had just completed could be mistaken for “positive thinking” — but that the power behind it is NOT the power to fix or change the content of our thoughts. It’s realizing how easily each one of us can let some thoughts pass and entertain others, and knowing that the true power behind our perceptions is that we are making everything up — good and bad. That is the gift of the spiritual nature of life, the gift TO think. When we don’t know that we are the thinkers, it appears to us that we have no choice; when negative thinking floods our minds, or when we get in the habit of taking everything negative that comes to mind more seriously than other things, we spiral into misery and it starts looking like there’s no way out.
I asked, “Do you think you could have refused when I asked you to think of things for which you could be thankful?”
“Of course,” she said. “I almost did. I wondered why you would want to waste my time not talking about my problems.”
“Then why did you decide to go along with it?”
“I don’t know. You seem like a nice person who wants to help me. It was kind of a refreshing request. So many people I have gone to for help have taken me deeper into all the bad stuff and I end up feeling worse. The idea of stepping away from it appealed to me. And then, once I started, I was surprised by how easy it was to keep coming up with more things.”
“So you were actually directing your own thoughts the whole time? You could have chosen to think anything, but you liked the idea of bringing different kinds of thoughts to mind.”
“Yes, I guess so. But what does that mean?”
“It means,” I said, “you are free. You do not have to live as the victim of your own most distressing thinking. You can think anything, and you can take whatever you think more or less seriously. It means your power to think your way through life is the key to the quality of your experience.”
“Wow,” she said. And she asked me to explain more about that. She began to look inside, at the power described by the Principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought. I saw her twice more, and then she thanked me and said that she was fine. She would call me if she needed any more help, but she really felt confident that she was realizing her own strength and everything was changing for the better.
That night, she came to mind as I lay down to sleep. I am deeply grateful for the work I get to do as a Mental Health Educator.
I leave you with this from Sydney Banks:
“Gratitude and satisfaction have wonderful effects on our souls. They open our minds, clearing the way for wisdom and contentment to enter. Once you become grateful, the prison bars of your mind will fall away. Peace of mind and contentment will be yours.” The Missing Link p. 131.