By Mary Marcdante, MSC Trained Teacher
In the research-based MSC course developed by CMSC Co-Founders Chris Germer and Kristin Neff and taught globally by 4000 trained teachers, there are eight to ten sessions depending on whether you take the course in-person or online that help us integrate self-compassion into all aspects of our lives with the final session focused on savoring and gratitude. In light of what’s going on in the world and the upcoming holidays, I’d like to offer a few insights and suggestions from that session and my own experience for cultivating a gratitude practice. Before I do, though, I’d like to share an experience to put this in perspective.
It’s a quiet Sunday morning and I’m sitting outside by myself at a small orange metal bistro table on the second floor balcony of a condo I’m subletting in San Diego. I’m looking out on a clear blue sky and the hills of Mount Soledad in the distance. It’s the end of October and there’s enough dampness in the early hours to make it seem like fire season may be warded off this year. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the eucalyptus and maple trees alongside this long stretch of Gilman Canyon. My eyes land on the sunlight illuminating my coffee mug and a slice of freshly toasted rosemary olive sourdough bread with mashed avocado I made for myself. I notice how peaceful I feel, which is a surprise, followed by this welling up of grateful tears for how blessed I am to be here.
And then, my mind flashes to the news and all the suffering going on in the world. I cannot get the images out of my head of all the videos of current humanitarian tragedies that showed up in my social media feed earlier this morning. And here I am, safe, free, calm, and enjoying a coffee. I feel grief and guilt wash over me. My thoughts start going down a rabbit hole of “These poor people! What is wrong with this world?! What is wrong with me that I’m just sitting here? I’m not doing enough. I don’t deserve this goodness when so many are suffering.” And then I catch myself. I hear Kristin Neff’s words, “This is a moment of suffering,” and my hand spontaneously goes to my heart. I take a breath and walk myself through a Self-Compassion Break.
“This is a moment of suffering. May I be kind to myself.”Kristin Neff
A few minutes later, I’m able to remind myself that I cannot stop war and disaster but I can practice self-compassion and share it with others. As a student and teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), and now CMSC Communications Director, I have the good fortune of being able to swim in this life-giving ocean of self-compassion and gratitude every day and…that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle at times with what life presents to me, which is why I’m so, so grateful for MSC and our self-compassion community helping me practice both tender and fierce self-compassion. As Chris Germer reminds us, “Self-Compassion is best learned and practiced in community.” Expressing gratitude can be too.
Gratitude is noticing the good things that life has given us, both within us and around us. For some of us, we may say we’re grateful but we brush over the words and don’t stop to feel the grateful feelings, or like I did, slip into guilt and miss the benefits of gratitude. Those benefits, validated by research, include less stress, lower rates of depression, greater calm and resilience, better sleep, and healthier relationships.
In the Mindful Self-Compassion course we talk about gratitude as a wisdom practice because it reminds us that life is complex and interconnected, that there are a myriad of events that have happened and people who have contributed to us experiencing this moment. Gratitude in this context can elicit positive and negative responses. When feelings of inadequacy arise (“You don’t deserve this.”) or cultural shame (“Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining about injustice”) self-compassion allows us to hold and acknowledge the shame, anger, and other negative emotions while grattiude can open the door to feel positive emotions and what is working in our lives. Gratitude connects us to ourselves, the larger world, and the wonder of life.
Gratitude is not just a fleeting feel-good emotion; it’s a practice that can be cultivated and integrated into our daily lives. Here are seven tips for creating a gratitude practice based in self-compassion. Some or all may be familiar to you, so I invite you to choose one practice and do it within the next 24 hours. And then do another for each of the next six days. See what surfaces and allow it to flow. Energy flows where attention goes.
- Gratitude Journal: Start by keeping a gratitude journal. Jotting down three things you’re grateful for each day been found in some studies to decrease depression and increase happiness. It’s a simple yet effective practice to shift your focus toward the positive aspects of your life. I keep a list in my phone notes, a handwritten journal, and voice notes and I’m always surprised when I go back to read past entries at how easy it is to forget these moments and how good it feels to remember them.
- Gratitude Letters: Take the time to write a handwritten gratitude letter to someone you appreciate. Express your thanks to individuals who have positively impacted your life. Sharing your gratitude can deepen your connections and help you feel better about yourself. And if that feels like too much, send an email, a text, or make a phone call and leave a message. You may not think it matters or you don’t have time, but you’d be surprised how many people keep those messages to read on hard days and the number of people who regret not making that effort—”If I would have known they wouldn’t be here I would have done it sooner.” If you really want to push the envelope, send a text, voice mail, email, or letter to yourself.
- Daily Gratitude Moments: Incorporate daily moments of gratitude by pausing to appreciate small, overlooked things. Recognize and share with others what brings joy and thankfulness into your life. Share photos. Find a gratitude penpal. Your grateful response may just be what you or someone else needed to hear in that moment. Last year we invited our community to share what they’re grateful for on our CMSC Gratitude Wall. People have continued to add to it throughout the year. You can review or add to the CMSC Gratitude Wall here.
- Gratitude Meditation: Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and focus on the things you’re grateful for. Small or big, everything counts. Start with the words “I am grateful for…” or “May I be grateful for…” If you’re struggling, try the words, “Maybe I begin to feel grateful.” As you exhale, allow yourself the space to feel your feelings.
- Sharing with Others: Consider creating a gratitude journal for family and friends. Start by sharing what you’re grateful for about them and then include extra pages and photos so they can continue the practice. This can be a thoughtful and heartwarming gift that strengthens connections and reinforces a culture of gratitude. A friend of mine and her daughter have been doing this with each other for the past decade on birthdays, holidays, and surprise days, and every Thanksgiving they reread the entries to each other.
- Body Gratitude: Tune into your body and practice gratitude for its strength and resilience. Recognize the immense work it does to keep you alive and functioning. If you feel uncomfortable with your body or certain parts, try an Affectionate Breathing practice.
- Take a Walk in Nature. The combination of forest bathing and a walking gratitude practice can bring deep relaxation. Focus on your breathing and repeat a mantra such as the words, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Hold a soft smile while you’re walking to help enhance the grateful feelings.
By nurturing gratitude and self-compassion, you become a beacon of hope for yourself and also inspire those around you. May you always remember what a gift you are and how grateful we are at CMSC to have you in our community.
“Who do you appreciate? Tell them.
What are you grateful for? Tell yourself.
What inspires you? Tell the world.”
Mary Marcdante (She/Her/Hers) is Director of Communications for CMSC and an MSC Trained Teacher. She is responsible for overseeing marketing strategy of programs and professional training and nurturing strategic partnerships to increase visibility of CMSC worldwide.
Before joining CMSC, her experience includes the previous decade working as a marketing consultant with business, government, nonprofit, and community organizations to create and complete mission-driven collaborative projects and events, and a 30-year career traveling internationally as a communication and stress management speaker and author. She lives in San Diego, California and loves leading walking meditations and self-compassion retreats at Torrey Pines Reserve and Beach.