If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you; it will be enough. ~ Meister Eckhart
Today I bought myself a Blessings Jar. Actually, it is just an ordinary glass container decorated with a heart shape made up of tiny flowers, but I intend to make it my Blessings Jar. I first heard of this idea via social media and thought it lovely. For those who don’t know, the Blessings Jar is a receptacle for all those things we are grateful for. Each day, we write on slips of paper the blessings we receive. Over time the jar fills and at the end of the year, we literally ‘count our blessings’ reading through the slips and reminding ourselves just how wonderful our life is.
When times are tough, we can lose sight of our gratitude. I have certainly been guilty of this over the last eighteen months. I wrote in my previous post how acceptance is a transformative act; I also think that gratitude can powerfully shift us out of a negative space. When low, we tend to focus on what we lack. Inevitably, what we focus on grows in our perception and we can find ourselves constantly bemoaning our lot. Lack and abundance are coloured by perception, and gratitude moves that perception from a world-view where few of our needs are met, to one where we become aware of just how full and rich our lives are.
The Blessings Jar is a simple but profound daily spiritual practice that can help enormously when coming to terms with loss. Every recognised blessing is a root that grounds us in our present, and when our roots are secure we can flourish.
What follows is an article I wrote for Philip Carr-Gomm’s Blog in May 2013. It talks further of the importance of gratitude. It was written five days before my dad died, and it is interesting for me to now note how the feelings I felt at that point struggled to find expression in the following months. What is reassuring is that despite the journey into grief and depression I have taken since then, the gift of gratitude – just like the gift of acceptance – has been patiently waiting for me to re-engage with it once more. It is never too late to be grateful and when we are, life opens and expands…
Today has been glorious. Here in Scotland the spring has come late – the winter relentlessly long. I sat with a coffee in the garden, the sun’s heat upon my back; the Ash trees’ buds unfurling in the warmth; abundant pussy willow and blossom signalling that perhaps at last the season has shifted. The greening of the trees in my street and garden has been swift; the last few days has seen that vibrant spring green cut through the grey, and now the sun intensifies its vividness– it is hard not to be filled with joy and hope.
The garden is surrounded by mature trees and feels grove-like. I am always struck by the beauty of sunlight through a canopy of trees; it is a sight that can guarantee to raise the hairs upon my neck. For me, it speaks so readily of those moments when the Divine breaks through the veil of our clouded, distracted thinking, shining a spotlight on the magic of this world, reminding us of our blessings. In Druidry, the three-rayed symbol of the Awen expresses that very moment when the veil of our dulled vision is pierced by those shafts of inspiration. We are rent open and the light pours in; what a moment before had seemed merely two-dimensional is animated with a shining that renews and gives depth to the world.
Watching the sunlight break through the branches of the trees in my garden, I felt an enormous sense of peace and gratitude, and it occurred to me that there is an intimate link between this sense of thankfulness and our sense of wellbeing. It true to say that no matter what struggles befall us, gratitude can go a long way to easing the stresses and burdens of that struggle. I have noticed many times when I have been wrestling with limited finances and the worries that these bring that focusing on the lack only serves to deepen the discomfort. When we consciously choose to count our blessings, the difficulties seem easier to bear.
There is a Pagan Northern Tradition blessing that seems apt in this regard: Flags, Flax, Fodder and Frig. These four small words stand for some mightily important essentials that each of us needs to remain happy and healthy. In modern understanding ‘Flags’ refers to the hearth and home, to the roof over our heads; ‘Flax’, to the clothes upon our backs; ‘Fodder’, to the food on our plates and in our bellies and ‘frig’ to our relationships, sex and human connection. The balance of these in our lives leads to another Northern Tradition concept of ‘Frith’. Frith is more complex a notion than I can’t do justice to here, but it usually translates as ‘peace and prosperity’. When we have our basic human essentials met, it creates a balance that brings peace – this being equally true within the individual as well as wider society, and is therefore something that should be sought after in both.
These essentials are not only crucial for our health and wellbeing but they are also the foundation upon which something greater within us can develop. The Humanistic Psychologist Abraham Maslow recognised, through what he termed the Hierarchy of Needs, that when humankind’s most basic needs are met – that is once they have food, shelter and safety – they will endeavour to move towards self-realisation. Maslow understood that this drive to actualise our greatest potential is a fundamental part of our humanity. In other words, as long as we are not starving, homeless or war-torn – consumed wholly by the demands of mere survival – we will come to a point when the urge to express, create, grow and flourish will move in us.
Tragically, many in this world do not have their basic human needs met. Not only does their well-being suffer but they are also denied the right to discover what gift – unique to them – that they possess to offer the world. This is a tragedy not only for the individual but for wider society too. How often has poverty and war robbed us of so much potential, gifts that given the right environment and nurture might have transformed our world for the better? For those of us whose basics are met – even if at times our security might feel a little shaky – it can be good to remind ourselves of all we possess that supports and enriches us.
When we engage with and acknowledge the blessings of our home, having warm clothing and enough food; when we celebrate our relationships and the many sensual pleasures that each day brings, we can find ourselves a little closer to the reality of Frith. Frith is connected to the God Frey, himself a bringer of the sweet things in life – he is the life-giving sunlight and rain that makes the earth fruitful; he is joy and pleasure; love, sex, abundance and joy – the many things in our lives that sustain and enrich us. I have seen him written about as a light-bringer in the sense that he can break through, just like those shafts of sunlight through forest canopies, enlightening our dark spaces. For me, his connection to gratitude is an important one. When we express our thankfulness for what we have – regardless of how humble – he blesses us with that joy, peace and a sense of well-being that gratitude brings.
It can be so easy to lose touch with gratitude when we feel challenged by life. We can become distracted by the everyday minor irritations that we each deal with or – at those moments when major changes overwhelm us – we can feel in some way exiled from life’s sweetness, from the many blessings that we are touched by. When we look a little deeper, even at the most painful times, we can find that we are surrounded by a million unspoken kindnesses; within touching distance of beauty and joy; never far from a gift – be it a word, an act, a sight, that has the potential to open and bless us.
I don’t do it nearly enough but I think a regular practice of consciously giving thanks is a simple but powerfully effective spiritual practice that anyone can do, regardless of religious belief or lack of, and it would seem, regardless of where we might find ourselves.
Perception is everything – how we choose to see and interpret our lives is ultimately the deciding factor in how our lives are shaped. We might not draw the outline – plenty of external stuff impacts on us too – but we select the colours that fill those lines; the tone and the texture are ours to create. The wonderful thing about gratitude is that it transforms the world into a magical place, full of meaning and depth. It is that shaft of sunlight breaking through the leaves, the world turned golden and precious by its touch.