It is quite possibly the biggest cliche to wax lyrical about gratitude on Thanksgiving, and that is precisely why I’m sitting down to write what I am writing.
Since 2018, gratitude is something I practice everyday. I use the word ‘practice’ deliberately, as it is a ritual and an act that takes learning and practicing, much like my other practices: writing, yoga and meditation. It seems astonishing to me now that gratitude was not a calculated part of my daily life before then. Sure, I was thankful for stuff and kinda generally “grateful”, but I did not have a gratitude practice.
My gratitude practice has become prayer. I should go back, though.
I stopped praying, like praying to god, when I was 20. Having been raised in evangelical churches and schools, I spent most of my young life under a shroud of Christian propaganda. Not the sombre, ritualistic prayer of Anglican or Catholic traditions. No, prayer in evangelical Christianity as I understood it was a constant acknowledgement of the importance of my own self-loathing, my lack before a god who thought very badly of me and an ongoing self-admission of all the things I’d done wrong: ways I might have led a boy astray by wearing something too tight-fitting or short-cut, or hugging him at the wrong angle — and the fact that I had a girl’s body at all was bad altogether; ways I hadn’t shown up to church and looked or acted Just Right (“Honey, your bra strap is showin’” said the lady behind me on Sunday morning); ways I hadn’t honoured god with every action both seen and unseen; ways I had touched myself in pleasure, and every shameful thing — wearing makeup, dancing, saying the wrong words — BAD words, listening to the wrong songs by the wrong artists — artists who supported abortion or liberal politics. All of these were shame, and my prayers were a constant, sad, desperate plea for god to forgive me for being me.
When I left Christianity, that was it for me. Fuck this. Fuck religion. Fuck god and definitely fuck the southern right-wing church.
I recently have been reading a book called Longing for Darkness by China Galland, much of which is concerned with her worldly travels in search of Tara and the Black Madonna, and in doing so, finding a route back to her own spirituality and reckoning with her Catholic upbringing.
My own path back to spirituality has been similar. Years of tentatively walking through Buddhist and Taoist temples on my trips through Asia. Going through a Catholic wedding. Listening to musician friends openly leaving Christianity themselves. And then, a period of my own dark night of the soul: a series of deep cuts that left me so emotionally broken down that I had no choice but to find my own inner spirituality again to make sense of it all. I absolutely had to reach for the universe or I would have been sucked under and never come back up.
Several practices helped slowly anchor me into these important, dark depths. I don’t like to believe I’ve left the water so much as found a submarine in which to ride the waves, let the dark waters of emotion and spirituality and self come to me. Be surrounded by my own dark, sinuous, lovely murkiness. Me as god is a very rich, dark, indulgent and playful essence.
Meditation has been one of those practices. Learning to be present and, through that, disavowing every inkling of self-judgement. Jesus, learning self-acceptance is hard. Perhaps that’s what he was thinking during his own dark night of the soul. Yoga — something I’ve “done” on and off for years, but never really understood until I’d had a full year of meditation practice in me and then I really could grasp how yoga is about being present in the body, about self-acceptance, meeting your limbs and muscles where they are, not pushing but nurturing (not exercise and not fitness, because fuck that that self-hating nonsense).
And so we come to gratitude. The third in this holy trio. Every evening, after another self-nurturing ritual of cleansing face and teeth, I sit on my bed in the dim twinkling of fairy lights. I take into my hand a piece of smooth clear quartz that I found on my stepdad’s land in rural New Mexico, and I hold it carefully, lovingly. While running my fingers over the cool stone, I say out loud this nightly benediction.
Usually, I say the best thing that happened today. Often that is something small or simple. Sometimes it is something huge. On some nights, I offer myself a whole list of thank-yous – thank-yous to the universe and me and sometimes loved ones for all things, big and small.
Awareness, presence – these are the two foundations of Buddhism, and if I were to slot myself into any one religion (which I decline to do), it would probably be Buddhism. Staying in the moment. Because at the end of the day, the things that cause us worry and strife, the things that become stress, and the stresses that eventually become lodged into the body, resulting in physical illness (dis-ease) – none of these things are real. They are the result of a mind, or ego, attempting to “save” us by planning for unforeseen circumstances. By focusing on those scary unreal timelines, you call them in. By focusing on gratitude, you call in a timeline of abundance. This is the core of what some New Ageists call manifesting. I believe in manifesting because I manifest through gratitude and it is real in my life.
My best friend and I started an adjacent practice. The two of us are both prone to whingeing and can easily fall into negative spirals, and so when we find ourselves there together, we shout (over Whatsapp): FIVE THINGS TO BE GRATEFUL FOR. There are always five. Sometimes they are really funny things. Like “I have a toilet seat,” and “We don’t have to listen to that one person eat their salad really loud at work anymore.”
Gratitude drops you into the present moment. No matter what kind of bad day I am having (and I have had some pretty fucking bad ones, just like you have), I can find one small thing to be grateful for. With this, I am not suggesting we gloss over the hard things, the shit, the pain or the suffering. But I rest in the knowing that, by finding a moment of gratitude, the hardest days become easier.
What’s on my gratitude list tonight? So many things. For now? You, reader! This medium to express myself. An absolutely ma-hoosive Thanksgiving dinner, which I cooked in honour of myself. A nicely scented candle. And the supreme knowledge that I am deeply loved and cared for. First and foremost, by me.