Finding the Balance Between Gratitude and Longing
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, Guest Contributor
The sun rose slowly above the redwoods surrounding the park as we ‘cooled down’ from that chilly morning’s tai chi practice. As we took our full minute to stand in stillness and center ourselves, I began to notice that the phrase “thank you” was riding on each exhale. Thank you for this exceptionally beautiful neighborhood. Thank you for the recent, much-needed rain that has popped everything into technicolor. Thank you for this circle of kind, brilliant elders who are fast turning from acquaintances to friends, and for the already dear friend who is also my teacher. Thank you for a body that can engage in this practice and do so much else. Thank you for the day that lies ahead.
This was a genuine, spontaneous, deeply felt experience of gratitude—which tends to be how it happens for me. I know gratitude practice is a powerful one for many, but I am often pulled up short by how contrived it can feel. Part of the reason, I think, is that I sense some emotional bypassing inherent in the practice. At a very basic level, the practice can be seen as a way of focusing on the “good” in our lives and, by extension, overriding or pushing away the “bad.” And even if we approach it with more nuance—say, being grateful for pain because of what it teaches us—in those cases, are we still not pushing something away (i.e., the fact that that pain, well, hurts)?
It makes me curious about how we can be in wholehearted gratitude that truly encompasses all of our experience, cutting nothing out.
A companion to gratitude
Here’s something else I noticed that cold morning in the park, that perhaps is a way into this inquiry: the gratitude I felt, though powerful, was not pure. The exhales of thanks were accompanied by the inhales of what I came to recognize as longing. Longing for my best friend who lives across the country to be experiencing this with me. Longing for more time to simply stand here and be with these people instead of rushing home to my desk. Longing for the sun to climb faster and restore feeling back into my frozen hands. Longing to be of greater service in life. And those were the only things I had words for. There was - always is - a deeper longing with no name. Something that feels timeless, eternal.
As our teacher breathed, his serene face basking in the morning glow, I realized he must be experiencing something similar. He leads a full, peaceful life of service and creativity here in the bay area. Nevertheless, I also know that he longs, among other things, to be back in his home country, living the quiet life he had with his family before war tore them apart. I guessed that was in the background for him on this clear-skied day since it always is.
Two sides of a powerful coin
My felt sense at that moment was that longing is not the opposite of gratitude, not really. Yes, technically gratitude tends to point to what we have while longing points to what we don’t. But the tone—the emotional vibration—of the two feelings was very similar. It felt like a two-sided coin, or a yin-yang symbol—a case where one does not exist without the other.
In her wonderful book The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren helps us see how, when in balance, all emotions are useful - including / especially ones that we tend to label as ‘negative:’ anger, sadness, grief, anxiety, and so forth. I would add longing to this category.
Longing points to the possibilities of our soul’s expansion. Even if our longing is for something invisible, unnamed, or impossible, it fills us out, stretches us upward, and keeps us in motion. Conversely—or, rather, complimentarily—gratitude is more of a settling, a stillness, a receptivity. Both have the potential to be shared; both have the power to connect us to one another and to what is inherently important to us.
It’s no surprise that these two emotions are equally prevalent around this time of year. The gratitude part is fairly obvious: harvest, thanksgiving, reflection, family gatherings, reaping what we have sown. But it is also a time when the veil between the worlds is thin: when we are in closer touch with those we have lost, including the eternal parts of ourselves that wait to be rejoined by our mortal form. The darkness and slower pace of life make it more difficult to act on our longing—if there is even anything to act on—but, like gratitude, it nevertheless asks us to be present in it. But both are here, and their intertwined nature magnifies the power of each.
I invite you to check it out for yourself.
Practice: contacting the fullness of our gratitude
- Make a list of all you are thankful for in this moment.
- When you feel complete, put down the pen and spend 5-10 minutes in meditation, paying particular attention to the sensations in your body. Where does this experience of gratitude show up physically?
- When your time is up, return to the page and write down in as much detail as possible what you felt.
- Now repeat the exercise, this time with a list of what you long for, from the mildest craving to the most existential pull. Again, go inside. Notice what arises this time. Write it down. (You don’t need to do this right away; maybe wait a few hours or a day to allow your body to integrate the sensations of gratitude.)
- When you’ve explored both, check out these two experiences side by side. What do you notice that is similar, or different? Did you find yourself resisting one and embracing the other? What elements of the two overlap?
- Spend a final 5-10 minutes sitting—again, maybe a day later—this time allowing yourself to be in contact with it all. Notice the depth, tonality, and intensity of the feelings. If it’s too much you can simply bring yourself back to one or the other.
What is your experience of making room for longing alongside your gratitude? We’d love to hear from you in the chat.
Mindful Leaders are welcome to take $100 off tuition for Foundations of Coaching, NVW’s virtual introductory workshop. Learn the fundamentals of Integral Coaching, including how attuning to the subtleties of your physical experience doesn’t just deepen your own experience of life, but helps you support others more powerfully.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.