Gratitude..isn’t always easy

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by Rebecca Selove

Years ago I participated in a weekend therapeutic workshop because I wanted to be more courageous and satisfied with my life. The workshop leader instructed us to sit in dyads facing one another, and then each of us was to tell a brief version of our life story to the person seated across from us. We were to focus for about four minutes on the major difficulties and challenges we had experienced from birth to the present day, and then to listen to our partner. We were then to sit quietly and notice what was happening in our bodies. Next we moved to another partner, and each told our life story, this time focusing on the lucky breaks, generosity and kindness of others. You can probably imagine the difference in feelings we experienced from hearing and telling the two versions of the truth about our lives. In that workshop I began discerning differences in the stories I tell myself about my experiences.  I think that neither one is wrong, and I want to acknowledge disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness and fear when those feelings come up for me. I know that it is possible to shift from the experience of being challenged to the experience of being grateful. I also know that it isn’t always easy.

I began discerning the difference in the story I tell myself about my experiences.

As a psychotherapist who has become involved in the Work That Reconnects, I have thought that the work we facilitate as advocates for participation in The Great Turning has some parallels to psychotherapy.  Each of the domains in my life sometimes informs the other. I’ve observed that sometimes people set up a meeting with a psychotherapist because they feel stuck in unsatisfactory scenarios. In therapy they may identify patterns of thinking and behaving that they developed in response to trauma at some points in the past. Behaviors that helped them cope in some situations may now be counter-productive. Sometimes therapists teach clients about the neurobiology of trauma, including the way our brains react to actual or perceived threat by narrowing our focus to survive what is frightening to us. Understanding this biologically advantageous reaction to danger may help clients view their own reactions to past events and situations with more self-compassion, and to see new possibilities for responding to contemporary and future situations.

Counted Cross-stitch by Rebecca Selove

Courage and persistence facilitate this change in self- and world-view. Gratitude can play an important role in mobilizing these qualities. A supportive therapist can help direct a client’s attention to people and opportunities that have been positive and helpful.  Clients can be encouraged to notice how their bodies respond to remembering and talking about these nurturing experiences, how their mood and perhaps their attitude about the future change as well.

While we live in a time of increasing risks for personal and collective well-being and survival, we also live in a world with a variety of paths and companions and possibilities for peace and health. Taking time to practice gratitude is important preparation for the essential work of honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes, and going forth as an active agent of change. As Joanna Macy pointed out, “recognizing the gifts in your life is profoundly strengthening.” (Active Hope, p. 43).

As a therapist and as a facilitator of “coming from gratitude” in the Work That Reconnects, I aim to help people envision and navigate the transition from “business as usual” in their personal lives to something that is more satisfying. As Joanna and others have pointed out, evidence is mounting about psychological benefits of gratitude practices in general, and recently I had an opportunity to explore this in more depth. In October 2018, I attended a workshop for psychotherapists presented by Salman Ahktar, a psychoanalytic psychiatrist. His topic was psychotherapeutic dimensions of “good stuff” – generosity, gratitude, humility, and courage.

We are all experiencing trauma in our current lives.

 Here are some thoughts about how Salman’s ideas converge with the Work That Reconnects. Reflecting on the impact of trauma can help counter our reluctance to acknowledge and address present dangers. In addition to various traumas that may have been part of personal childhood experience, we are all experiencing trauma in our current lives. We witness, to some degree, the tragic impact of floods, fires, famines, deforestation, war and other kinds of violence on humans and other beings. In a recent posting on the Ecopsychology Facebook page, Zhiwa Woodbury commented that “this isn’t ‘change’ – it’s Climate Trauma!” Those of us drawn to the Work That Reconnects know about the impact on Earth’s ecosystem associated with burning fossil fuels, draining wetlands, bulldozing rainforests, and other consumption-driven mania.

In coming together to participate in the Work That Reconnects, we are already acknowledging our experience of trauma about what has been happening on our planet and in our society. As facilitators, we may acknowledge this commonality, and explain that we will begin our workshop with gratitude to ground ourselves in a positive worldview. We might explain that this is important because of the tendency we all have, in the face of trauma, to constrict our field of vision, and we need to expand our view of what is possible in order to be active in working for healthier social organizations.

Generosity, a desire to help others, is a response to gratitude.

Generosity, a desire to help others, is a response to gratitude. In his workshop, Salman defined gratitude as acknowledging that we have received something of value, associated with a sense of respect and warm regard for the giver. He described this sense as something that arises over time as you “let gratitude sink inside of you, feel the experience of it, and then a generous impulse will arise” (Salman Ahktar, 10-20-18). This is accompanied by “an unhurried emotional indebtedness, a sense of wanting to give back or to others that does not rush in to overshadow the moment of appreciation for the gifts one has received.” In this way gratitude not only contributes to our capacity to tolerate the grief that comes in the second part of the Work, it also serves as a foundation during the subsequent stages of Seeing With New Eyes and Going Forth. Deep feelings of gratitude strengthen our commitment to contributing to the well-being of others and Earth.

While there may be variations in how gratitude is expressed across cultures, there are some common origins for all human beings. In describing the origins of gratitude, Salman, who grew up in India and was educated in England and the U.S., noted that there are cultural differences in how children are taught to respond to gifts from others. Some parents prompt their children to say “Thank you” until it become automatic, while some cultures and families may encourage a kind of independence that may look like leap-frogging over or denying gratitude. For example, he noted that sometimes friends responded to his offer to pay for a meal by saying “I will get it next time,” which he thought might reflect a reluctance to be in an imbalanced position with him. He also observed that people might experience gratitude and express it in a way that was taught in that family or culture.

Fern in Yellowstone. Photo by Rebecca Selove.

At the same time, Salman noted that there are some universal experiences that contribute to the capacity to experience gratitude. First is the dependence of the infant on adults. All of us who are alive as adults had enough nurturance from others to get us to this point in our lives. Also, we all benefit from the non-human world, including sun, soil, rain, and perhaps other animals that provide our food. We might experience the beauty of trees, flowers, mountains and rivers, the moon and stars, as gifts from a generous planet that requires nothing of us for what it provides. “Even after all this time the Sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky” (Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky, 1999).

While psychoanalysts and psychologists disagree about the age at which the “realization of the world’s goodness” (Salman Ahktar, 10-20-18) can be experienced, in psychotherapy and in the first phase of the Work That Reconnects, one goal is to establish participants’ sense of trust in key relationships. When facilitators take care to create a space that enhances participants’ sense of receiving goodness by selecting a beautiful site, providing beverages and music, and warmly welcoming participants as they arrive, they are activating each participant’s sense of being a beneficiary simply by showing up.   

Deep feelings of gratitude may be inhibited by competing feelings. Salman described variations of “pathology related to gratitude” associated with unfortunate experiences with receiving and giving of life and love. An example might be having a parent who was unreliable or withholding, or experiencing a chronically critical authority figure – “that murky unpleasant stuff [that] is our work as therapists” (Salman, 10-20-18). A person might have developed a sense of not deserving, or of having little to offer others, and sadness and self-doubt overshadow feelings of gratitude.

Consumer culture inhibits feelings of gratitude, promotes dissatisfaction on a grand scale, and aims to distract us from the splendor of the non-human world.

 Joanna and others who facilitate the Work That Reconnects also note that consumer culture inhibits feelings of gratitude, promotes dissatisfaction on a grand scale, and aims to distract us from the splendor of the non-human world. By describing these dynamics explicitly, facilitators address common challenges to experiencing gratitude. Gathering the Gifts of the Ancestors helps participants see their inheritance as coming from experiences far beyond the caregivers and teachers of their current lifetime. Milling activities can include sentences reminding us that, as we look at others in the group, we are part of a community with diverse gifts including the ones we offer. We can experience gratitude towards them, and at the same time take in the sense that they see us as generous and caring, giving our time to the same large effort.

We need to fortify ourselves with gratitude.

 The time we take to deepen our experience of gratitude at the beginning and at other points in the Spiral enables us to continue to move forward in the face of trauma, of awareness of suffering and destruction on this planet. In order to acknowledge Earth’s precarious situation and human fragility, and to respond creatively to opportunities, we need to fortify ourselves with gratitude.

I give thanks for those who have contributed essays, poetry, and art in the Deep Times journal, and all that inspires their efforts.  


Macy, J. and Johnstone, Chris. 2012. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. New World Library: Novato, CA.

Ecopsychology FaceBook page:

Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky. 1999. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master. Penguin Group: New York, NY.

Rebecca Selove has worked as a clinical psychologist in community settings and private practice for several decades. Currently she is a public health researcher focused on cancer-related disparities. The foundation for her love of  Earth was established during her childhood on her family’s dairy farm in West Virginia. She was blessed to be surrounded by animals, flowers, clouds, creeks, and mountains on a daily basis. She read her first Joanna Macy book in the mid-’80’s and has been facilitating WTR-inspired workshops since the early ’90’s. She lives and gardens on a certified organic farm in Tennessee.

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