by Heather Shaw

It has not been the best year of my life.

Much of it was spent with a partner battling stage 3 cancer — juggling the regular responsibilities of a family, a job and one very active puppy (which seemed like a good idea at the time) with an added dimension of constant uncertainty and unease. I tried to do everything, and yet so many things came undone. My mother passed away this summer, without a will or even power of attorney, and my father fell apart as a result, emptying their home of every last bit of everything that held a memory and announcing he was relocating from Chicago to my home in Portland, OR immediately because as an only child I was “all that was left.” My left hip was pronounced “severely, prematurely arthritic” and in need of a replacement. Sometime around January, my eleven year-old daughter stopped sleeping — period — and I found myself creating elaborate bedtime routines that invariably always ended in a campout on my bedroom floor so as not to disturb anyone else in the family (an exhausted compromise at best).

Perhaps this is why I was so surprised to find myself at the dog park in early September, tasting the first bit of space I had found in nearly a year, and feeling an immense sense of gratitude. It was at this moment that I realized something simple but important: gratitude can only arise when there is space for it to manifest.

So often over this past year, people would say things like:

“Aren’t you so grateful that your partner’s surgery was a success?”
“Aren’t you grateful that you could be there for those last days with your mom?”
“Aren’t you grateful that they were able to squeeze you in for another cortisone shot so you can hold off on hip surgery another six months?”

And I definitely was.

It was at this moment that I realized something simple but important: gratitude can only arise when there is space for it to manifest.

But this gratitude that arose on the hill at the dog park on that September day had nothing to do with what I was given, but rather, with what was lifted. It was simple, direct and visceral — a moment of pure awareness. I left my phone in my backpack and allowed myself to not be productive for a little while — a basic gesture of doing less. In that space, I felt the sunshine on my face and noticed that the trees were beginning to change colors. I laughed at how much my dog was enjoying chasing his beloved orange ball down the hillside. For a little while, I just WAS, and that was enough. Conversely, I believe that so often, we approach the practice of gratitude as another thing to do.

Make a gratitude list every night.
Practice noticing 10 things every day for which you are grateful.
Make offerings to cultivate an abundance mindset.
Say thank you.

And all of these are wonderful things to do. But what if you are already so stuck in “doing” mode that your natural sense of gratitude gets stuck in the process? What if you have gotten so good at being “good” that you forget to allow yourself to feel all of the other icky stuff that lies under the surface?

Maybe you could appreciate the icky parts too? Or at the very least, those parts might be grateful for the opportunity to surface enough to breathe — to receive your attention and care. Can a practice of gratitude include crying? Can it include rest? What about just listening and not trying to fix or change or get rid of some part of yourself or your experience? How would it feel to be seen so completely by yourself in this way? What if you just noticed — noticed anything in your experience — and paused long enough to allow the world to speak to you, to touch your heart/mind? Could it be that simple and direct?

For a little while, I just WAS, and that was enough.

Come to think of it, there’s a dharma teaching I turn to when I know I need to slow myself down—to find that pause or space in the here and now. It’s the four simple reflections known as the four thoughts that turn the mind towards freedom. A foundational practice for entering the path to liberation, these reflections make up the first part of the gradual path teachings the Tibetans call the lam rim, introduced to Tibet by the great Nalanda abbot Atisha. These four reflections are: contemplating the preciousness of our human life; contemplating the immediacy of impermanence and death; contemplating the causal impact our mind and actions have on our future; and contemplating how suffering pervades everything short of an enlightened life. It helps me to reflect on these using a shorthand of four terms—


I guess the reason why I find these reflections so helpful is that they allow me to shift my focus from looking outward to looking inward. Whenever I review these four insights, it tends to stop me in my tracks, turning me back to the pause or space of paying attention, here and now. These are also the reflections I revisit every time I crash and burn in my compassion practice of sending love and taking care (see also: Tonglen meltdown). They are the basic facts of life that help bring me back down to earth when I try to fly over them in my rescue urges to be a superhero and just do something.

I once asked a dharma teacher how I could best use my practice to be of help in the world. Ironically, he replied, “leave space.” This was perhaps the most simple, difficult thing anyone could have asked me to do, because it challenged me to bring my whole self to an experience and allow it to speak to me.

And you know what? I’m really grateful to have this precious opportunity to just keep listening.

Heather Shaw (bio) teaches Embodied Mindfulness meditation on Thursdays for Nalanda Institute’s Lunchtime Meditation. View our calendar for more info. Heather is also a White Affinity Group facilitator at the Institute.

photo: Srikanth Adya