Gratitude Redux

I hurt my elbow doing something really stupid a few weeks ago.  As a middle-aged yoga teacher, I’m used to modifying my practice to accommodate my injuries (which include two overextended hamstring origins, an old rotator cuff tweak, and the intermittent low back pain that most of my generation seems to have).  I can even let go of my ego sufficiently not to feel obliged to move into–or even attempt–every arm balance, inversion or bind that comes my way.  But when my elbow was out of commission, I couldn’t move into any pose where my weight was supported on bent arms.  Sun Salutations were out of the question.  I couldn’t demo chatturanga for my students.  Bakasana, the easiest of all arm balances, was inaccessible.  Worst of all, I had a hard time practicing with teachers who inspired me.  In a word, it sucked.

At times like these, when someone comes along and talks about how injuries can be our best teachers, I feel more like throttling them than thanking them.  Yeah, that’s easy for you to say, I think.  You’re not injured.  But something happened that made me take a step back and reframe.  I experienced a moment of gratitude.

Yoga teachers just LOVE to talk about gratitude.  You might have heard something along these lines:  “Breathe in gratitude for your practice/your gifts/your yoga community.”  I cop to being one of them (although I do try to avoid the NPR modulation and speak in my  normal voice).   I truly believe that practicing gratitude consciously is one of the keys to deep contentment–not a bouncing off the walls, “I just nailed eka pada bakasana on my non-dominant side” happiness, but a calm sense of grounding, peace, and belonging.

The difficulty with gratitude is it’s often equated with thankfulness.  Even dictionaries define gratitude as “a state of thankfulness.” I don’t see it the same way, though.  Thankfulness, or consciousness of benefit received, recognizes something positive in our world–good health, your kid’s report card, a new president, or yes, eka pada bakasana.

Gratitude is a little trickier.  For me, it’s a deeper and more inclusive appreciation for life’s events.  It’s modest and humble, an awareness of what is rather than what is good.  Practicing it forces us to look at the full picture, not just the pretty parts.

For example, let’s say someone (hypothetically, of course) is recovering from an eating disorder.  Being thankful for the disorder would border on masochism, whereas gratitude would not.  Instead, it would provide a means for the person to accept where she is on her journey without plunging into negativity or self-loathing.  Bulimia may not have been one of her goals in life, but at least she can appreciate the purpose it serves–enabling her to survive unbearable pain.  She can walk, or stumble, through her life instead of collapsing in a sobbing heap on the bed day after endless day.  And down the road, when she walks out from the fire, reborn from her ashes, she can look back and say, “I am grateful for having experienced this challenge and survived, for I have learned and grown much in the process and am a better person for it.”

Of course, this person is purely hypothetical and is certainly not me.  I tend to run away from feelings when they are unpleasant.  When I have a headache, I take an Advil.  When I feel sad, I like to eat chocolate.  When I’m faced with an unpleasant task, I procrastinate by playing endless games of Spider Solitaire on my computer.  While these tactics may take me away from my pain in the short run, they don’t transform the pain.  They simply mask it.  It’s still there, underneath, entrenching itself so it can resurface, sometimes more acutely than before.  And then I repeat the cycle again–avoid, run away, hide, mask.

Yet these times when practicing gratitude is so difficult are precisely the times when it is most necessary and can effect the most change. Finding a place where I can be grateful for the opportunity to experience and feel anything, even something unpleasant, allows me to acknowledge it and then–hopefully–transcend it.  One of my teachers is fond of saying, “Everyone has pain in their lives.  Whether you choose to suffer is up to you.”  Yes, we may still have the condition in our lives that causes us pain.  But we also have the choice to see it as a bad thing or a good thing or maybe even just a thing, neither good nor bad, just another event floating down the stream of our lives.

I do my best to practice gratitude, but I’ve rarely been tested.  Fortune has smiled on me for most of my life, and whatever hardships I’ve had to endure have been mitigated by the love of my family and friends, the means to put food on my table and shelter over my head, and confidence in my own natural abilities and talents to sustain myself mentally, physically, and spiritually.  When you’re lucky, misfortune is even more painful.  Bulimia was the quintessential object lesson for me;  had I cultivated a gratitude practice earlier, I might have been able to mediate my pain through meditation instead of Nutella.  One day, perhaps I could be like the hypothetical woman above, allowing the experience to flow through her and simply feeling.  But for now, when my elbow gave me trouble, I went into my habitual patterns of denial, complaining, overeating, and procrastinating.  When none of these tactics worked, I sucked it up and got a cortisone injection.

This was scary.  My last injection was almost ten years ago and was a disaster;  it made an irritating case of carpal tunnel syndrome excruciatingly painful for two weeks.  But my elbow needed something–the exercises weren’t working and it wasn’t healing on its own.  Cortisone was the only viable option before surgery.  successful.  And from the moment I made my appointment until the first day my elbow felt healed, I found a renewed appreciation for not just my elbow but for my entire body.  I was grateful–maybe not for the injury but in spite of it and because of it.  I was well enough to get through my day and continue my active lifestyle, albeit with some modifications.  I was able to see my body as functional instead of ornamental, realizing how much time I’ve wasted worrying about silly things like grams of carbs or whether to eat beef instead of salmon.

I have a body.  It serves me well.  When one of its components didn’t work properly, my perspective shifted, and I’m grateful for that.  I need to appreciate what I have, not dwell on what’s wrong.  One day I could lose what I’ve reviled only to learn that it was something I should have loved all along.  And if I lose something that I’ve taken for granted, I need to be all the more grateful for what I have left, right now, instead of mourning the piece of me that’s lost forever.

My elbow is fine.  The injection hurt way more than I remembered, but within a few weeks, I was chatturanga-ing along with the best of them.

After-the-fact gratitude is a little like predicting a snowstorm the day after it hits, but it was still a big deal for me.  There were moments when I felt that coming to terms with a bum elbow for the rest of my life would just be an event, a thing, rather than a bad thing.  This is progress.  Instead of spinning out the drama inside my head, I felt my elbow, felt my fear, and just sat with it.  Then I picked myself up and continued with my life. Practice may never make perfect.  But it can make the bad times just a little bit easier to move through.

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