Gratitude Practice

One day, a yoga student came to me and asked me what I did to be happy.

She was entering a new phase in life: her children were leaving home and her marriage was ending. She was going to be alone for the first time in her life, and wondered how she’d be able to cope with that.

She didn’t ask me what made me happy—her words were well-chosen. She fully understood that our happiness does not come from sources outside of ourselves, like our relationships, career, or money in the bank. At this pivotal point in her life, she realised that she had to fully take charge of her own happiness.

Since I seemed happy to her, living by myself and running my own business without the loving support of a partner or family, she figured I might have some good advice. I felt honoured by her question.

We sat down in my yoga studio (where I always feel happy) and talked. I told her about all the small, mindful practices that I have integrated into my daily life over the years that bring me peace of mind and happiness. For now, I’d like to focus on just one of those practices:


It’s a big one for me.

 Gratitude  is a much-used word these days. Every third quote on Facebook seems to mention it, and it is being posited as the secret to happiness.

If you just start being grateful, they say, happiness will find you easily.

Is it really that easy? Or is everybody just talking about it without really following their own advice? How many of them actually practice honoring the good things that happen to them on a daily basis? Is gratitude becoming a platitude?

Some people think gratitude as a recipe for happiness is bullsh*t. Not me.

Taking a conscious moment every morning and every evening to acknowledge my abundance is one of my favourite mindfulness practices, and one that I always share with my yoga students at the end of class. It cranks up my levels of happiness without fail.

In the morning, I take stock of all the things I have and can do every day, the constant factors in my life. From the privilege of living where I live to the fresh air I can breathe. From my health to my (relative) wealth to my lovely little yoga and massage studio, and everything that it allows me to do. It offers me so many opportunities for personal and spiritual growth—I get to learn and share, and deeply enjoy the fulfilment it brings me every day.

Throughout my day, I will stop myself for a moment to really appreciate something, whether it’s an intensely pink flower or a cup of jasmine tea, a ripe avocado brought by my landlord or a visit from the little girl next door.

Even though I’m mentioning objects or people here, the real focus of my gratitude practice is the experience that comes with them.

In the evening, when I lay my head on my pillow, I go through my day and highlight the pleasurable things that happened. Then, I fall asleep within five minutes of lying down.

Taking these moments to feel appreciative can help ground us and bring us into the present, take us out of our worrying heads filled with stressful thoughts, and give us short moments of relief and reset.

Some people say that we have to watch that we’re not making our gratitude prayers into a kind of shopping list of all the simple little things in life, but I don’t agree with that.

Giving thanks can go as deep or as stay as superficial as we like.

If our joy wells up over our dog or the oatmeal cookies we had with our tea, there’s nothing wrong with that. Louise Hay expresses gratitude for her bed every morning when she wakes up rested.

Some days there are big and profound things to be intensely grateful for, some days it’s a whole list of tiny, seemingly insignificant things that add up to a giant feeling of wealth and happiness.

We can give recognition for personal things, or for things happening out in the world.

And if we really cannot come up with a single thing to honor about our day, then we can still acknowledge the wealth of having two eyes, two feet, 10 fingers, or a mouth to speak with—or just the simple fact that we woke up this morning (because some people didn’t—just saying). We can always find something to be grateful about.

The act of focusing on what feels good does several things that are beneficial to our emotional and mental well-being.

When we look at all the good things in our day, we don’t dwell on the bad things. Especially at night, before bed, remembering the good stuff can save us hours of sleepless rumination over things that went wrong during the day. When we focus on gratitude, these thoughts just don’t get space in our head.

I’m not saying that we should deny and push away the bad stuff in our lives. But, it makes more sense to address these issues during the day, with a fresh mind and waking hours ahead of us, instead of just before we want to sleep.

Secondly, and this one is big, gratitude sits at the other end of the emotional spectrum of desire, want, need, and lack.

I don’t think anyone will deny that all of those emotions are recipes for unhappiness.

When we focus on our unfulfilled desires (material wealth, a loving partner, success), we find ourselves in a mindset of lack and poverty until we get or achieve all those things, even if we already have plenty to be grateful for.

Constantly generating new needs and desires creates a never-ending cycle that may temporarily connect us with happiness as a need is met, but will always leave us wanting more. A gratitude practice takes us away from that attitude of not-enough, and will make it easier to stand still in contentment for longer periods of time.

Simply put, gratitude implies fulfilment.

I would love to hear from you what you would put in your gratitude prayer. Please share them in the comments below!

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” ~ Thornton Wilder

This article was first published on on August 30, 2017

The cat that changed my mind


(This blog-post is not part of the series on Pumpkins’ life. That series will be continued soon!)

Pumpkins has disappeared.

He’s gone. Disappeared. Just like that. We went to bed like normal one night, and the next morning he wasn’t there when I woke up. Normally when I get out of bed, he will be sitting on my deck or pop up from underneath, but this time he didn’t.

I went about my morning as normal, thinking he would walk in a little later, that he had just fallen asleep in a cozy spot and hadn’t realised it was morning. After a night of prowling, he usually sleeps his deepest sleep in the mornings, on the doormat or on my lap. So maybe he was just zonked out somewhere else.

But he never walked in that day, heading for his food bowl, as he normally would.

I spent the day hoping that he would pop up in the evening, that maybe he had been wandering off too far in the night and decided to hide out somewhere safe during the day before he would walk back under the protection of the darkness at night.

I hadn’t woken up during the night from screeching cat fights or barking dogs in combination with cat screams, which could indicate that he got in trouble. None of my neighbours had heard anything alarming either. So I didn’t think he was lying somewhere half-crippled and bleeding from a dog-attack, the way we first found him, several years ago. Or maybe I was just hoping he wasn’t.



Last month, I was a writer on fire.

Every time I sat down to write, a great story with a good take-away came out of my keyboard almost without effort.

It was the last month of Elephant Academy—writing month. Super inspiring. Every week, I submitted two or three stories to Elephant Journal, and they were all published.

I received a lot of positive feedback from fellow apprentices who loved and shared my articles on the Facebook pages they were managing.

They cheered me on and told me I was on fire.

I felt like I had wings. I was inspired and 100 percent motivated all the time.

And then it all came to a screeching halt.

The apprenticeship ended. We were gently removed from our Facebook pages to make room for the new group of apprentices coming behind us.

We were told: “The training wheels are off; you can do it by yourselves now.” The group camaraderie changed into more individual contacts with those people I had connected with most in the last three months. Things slowed down quite a bit.

Maybe I should say: I slowed down quite a bit.

It was as if I had gone cold turkey. Without the structure of weekly meetings and writing prompts, I now failed to inspire and motivate myself. Without the whole group cheering me on, I found it hard to generate the enthusiasm to write and keep writing until I had a catchy story with an interesting takeaway for the reader.

My inspiration and motivation were gone. I had lapsed into an acute bout of intense procrastination.

I let myself procrastinate for a while. I had been working hard for three months straight, and I felt I deserved a break.

That was a pretty dumb decision. I allowed myself to lose the invaluable momentum that the apprenticeship had helped me gain.

Procrastination has a strange self-reinforcing mechanism: when we postpone something once, the next day it’s already a little easier not to do it, the third day even more. It doesn’t take long to just forget completely why we wanted to do something at all.

But I had been writing every damn day for more than a month. I knew I was capable of it.

So my question to myself was: why am I procrastinating again? Why am I all of a sudden not able to sit down and write every day, as I would like to?

I decided to dig into the strange phenomenon of procrastination itself.

“Procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.” ~ Elliot T. Berkman, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon

Almost all of us procrastinate in some way, and none of us are very proud of it.

Basically, we procrastinate out of fear. Fear of having to work hard, fear of failure, fear for not getting a reward, fear for the discomfort that is inherent in making meaningful changes in our work and lives. Easier to put it off for a bit, right? There’s so much else we’d rather do.

By putting it off, we falsely assume that tomorrow it will be easier to do the task, that we’ll have less fear. God only knows why we think something will change overnight that’ll make it easier. It turns out that the opposite is true, according to Forbes contributor, Margie Warrell:

“Our fears grow larger, not smaller, the longer we put things off. Eventually they lead into the burial ground for unfulfilled dreams and untapped potential.

By procrastinating, we sellout on our happiness—both today and in every tomorrow.”

Ouch! We don’t really want to do that, do we? Sellout on our happiness? Bury our dreams? Leave our potential untapped?

There’s three good reasons to stop procrastinating!

The question is: how can we stop?

Here are a five ways in which we can beat procrastination and get going again, according to psychologists and other experts in the field:

1. Define our goals: The clearer our goals, the easier it is to motivate ourselves.

According to Berkman, it is important to connect our goals with our future self. Imagining how we will feel if we achieve our goals, really identifying with that fulfilled future self makes it easier to detach form the present self that just wants to indulge.

Asking ourselves the specific question: why do we want to exercise, meditate, learn to play the guitar, stop drinking, or start saving money? What is our goal?

For that matter, why do I want to write? Good question.

Because I love writing! It makes me feel alive. Because I have many unique stories and experiences and insights in my head that I want to share—they might be of benefit to other people. Because I am a teacher, but I don’t like crowds—so I’m better off writing it down. Because I have a book in me that needs to be birthed.

Because I want to reach out to the world and be of service with my words.

2. Once we have a clear idea (again) of our goals, we can look at the things we have to commit to in order to achieve them.

The experts recommend making this as specific as possible. It is easier to fulfil specific goals than vague concepts.
If we want to get healthy, our goal should not be a vague wish for “more exercise.” Specifying it into “going for a 30-minute walk every day after we’ve had our morning coffee” makes it more likely that we’ll feel committed enough to actually do that.

If I want to be a writer, I can commit to sitting down and writing 1,000 words every damn day, starting at 9 a.m. right after breakfast. I can commit to posting a short inspirational post on Instagram every day after lunch. To submitting a story to Elephant Journal every Tuesday. Three specific and doable goals.

3. An often heard piece of advice is to break the big goal up into smaller bits that are easier to handle.

If we aim too high or too big at the beginning, first of all, it will seem too overwhelming. Secondly, we set ourselves up for failure further down the road. It’s called self-sabotage.

It is also important to focus on fewer tasks and really being choosy about our priorities.

We cannot start running 10 miles when we have not moved at all for the last 15 years. We may start with a daily walk just around the block. When that feels comfortable, we add another block. The priority is moving every day, not moving 10 miles.

If I want to be a writer, I won’t crank out a best-seller on the first try. Or become a daily blogger overnight. So I start small with a weekly blog submission. I do one Instagram post a day, instead of four or more. I’m not getting into Twitter or Pinterest yet. I aim for a 1,000 words every day to begin with, instead of 2,000 or even more.

When we set ourselves tasks that are within reach of our abilities, but just a tiny bit out of our comfort zone, we are more likely to fulfill them compared to goals that are too unrealistic. Growth happens right in the middle between too easy and extremely difficult, between comfortable and too challenging, between well-known and totally unfamiliar. Choosing tasks that fit in that middle zone will set us up for success.

When we are able to fulfill the smaller goals that we have set for ourselves, we will feel accomplished. That feeling will motivate us to keep going, and move on to the next goal. Celebrate every achievement for an extra motivational boost!

4. Imagining the future rewards and understanding our intentions and motivations.

Regular exercise will bring us prolonged health so that we will be able to take our grandchildren on hiking and camping trips. That’s a reward worth working for now.

Now that I’ve lost the immediate reward of multiple cheers from my Academy peers, it’s time to redefine my reward for writing.

Getting published all the time is actually a worthy reward in itself, knowing that I only started submitting stories a couple of months ago. I’ll celebrate every 10 published articles by buying myself a book that I really would love to read as a bonus reward. I’ll write for that!

5. Take the first step—even if we’re not yet convinced that we can attain our goals.

As Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

Although that first step is the hardest, because it is the one that has to move us from our comfortable procrastination into action mode, it is also the most rewarding. Once we get going, the next step is already easier. We gain momentum (again) and before we know it, we are at full steam. The fact that we have taken the first step is reason for celebration of our accomplishment, which motivates us again to keep going.

My first step was writing this article about procrastination! What could be yours?


This article was first published in Elephant Journal

Image: Flickr/Andrew Wiggin