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Obstacles to Gratitude
The old barriers no longer confine us and the old fears no longer constrict or claim us. Gratitude opens us to freedom, a sense of generosity, and
connection to the wider world.
We would be remiss if we did not touch on the obstacles we may encounter on our gratitude journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us, “Five great enemies to peace inhabit us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” Modern life itself, through its many distractions, can erect these barriers to the practice of gratitude; these barriers, however, can be overcome by establishing and committing to a gratitude practice, by incorporating the awareness of gratitude into our daily lives. Obstacles to the experience of gratitude itself are another matter, and we must be aware of them as we begin this work.
The chief assailants of gratitude are envy, greed, pride, and narcissism. Envy comes from the Latin word invidia (looking with malice or coveting what someone else has). Envy and jealousy are qualities that are fed by comparison. The more we compare ourselves to others, or desire what they have, the less satisfied we become with what we currently have; envy creates the perception of lack. As a result, envy also feeds greed—the temptation to hoard as a means of overcompensating for our perceived lack.
Envy and greed are upheld by the hubris and arrogance of pride, which Evagrius Ponticus described as “a tumor of the soul, when it ripens and ruptures, it creates a disgusting mess.” In many spiritual traditions it is thought that pride is the worst sin of all because it contains the seed of all other sins. This unhealthy form of pride contains an overpowering need for self-importance and vanity that holds oneself above all else—the law, any person, any faith. Pride, in turn, feeds the state of narcissism, the self-absorption of unsolved ambition and repressed anger that breeds a sense of entitlement and specialness.
The practice of gratitude provides healing and enhances our inherent nature.
All of these states serve as incubators for ingratitude. It is important to be aware of them and acknowledge them when they arise, but we need not fear that they carry the power to sabotage our gratitude practice. We each have the ability to shift our awareness to one of “grateful seeing”—noticing first what is working in our lives before dwelling on what we lack or desire but have not yet attained, or on our challenges or burdens. When we look first to the blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections that remain ever present in our lives no matter what our difficulties, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a state of ingratitude. Thoreau reminds us that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” Gratitude, the parent of all virtues, is the most fertile ground for growing in virtue. It is our intention of leading a good life, combined with the generation of new perspectives and thoughts, that eradicates the excesses or temptations of avarice, greed, envy, and anger.
Martin Seligman, who has established the field of positive psychology, emphasizes that when we can approach life from the perspective of seeing what is working, without denying our current challenges or burdens, we can cultivate more positive thinking and thankfulness in our lives. Positive and realistic thoughts, plus looking at what is working in our lives, are reminders of how blessed we really are.
Gratitude awakens another way of being in the world, one that nurtures the heart and helps to create a life of meaning and purpose. The old barriers no longer confine us and the old fears no longer constrict or claim us. Gratitude opens us to freedom, a sense of generosity, and connection to the wider world.
The human spirit is always reaching for the reclamation of its own well-being. The practice of gratitude provides healing and enhances our inherent nature. The journey that lies before us holds unlimited possibilities filled with blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections waiting our discovery. May this journey be marked by unexpected gifts and insights, and an ever expanding awareness and renewed connections to the very best in ourselves, in others, and in life itself.
Angeles Arrien, PhD, is a teacher, author, and cultural anthropologist whose teachings bridge the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion, while focusing on universal beliefs shared by humanity. She lectures and leads workshops internationally at colleges, corporate settings, and personal growth facilities.
Her book - Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life (Sounds True, Inc., Boulder, CO, ©2011) - integrates the latest teachings from social science with stories, prayers, and practices from cultures and traditions spanning the globe, and presents a 12-month plan for making gratitude your foundation for daily living.
The above excerpt is posted with the author's kind permission.