[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Unity Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.]
How a number two pencil became a magic wand that broke one spell and cast another
I had to do something. I had to change my mind. I couldn’t keep trudging down the same tired road, stuck like water in a channel it did not choose. I needed to dig a new channel. But I couldn’t find the shovel.
Simply scolding myself to think new thoughts didn’t help. Habitual conditioning doesn’t break that easily.
I needed to take action.
I began to keep a gratitude journal.
Every morning for a year I got up and sat with my blank book and a pencil. I’d write, “I’m grateful for…” and wait. Sometimes it took a while. But I always came up with something. Even if I didn’t really feel it, I wrote it anyway. Action precedes internal transformation.
I often wrote about the same things – my wife, my work, my home. And sometimes fleeting moments crept in – the color of the sky, a hovering hummingbird, the smell of French onion soup.
Some days it was easy. Some days it was hard. But a certain tenacity, a stubborn doggedness took hold. I was not going to screw this up. My ego was on the line. Hey, whatever it takes.
After a few weeks something began to shift. I began to look forward to my morning writing. It was a chance to testify, to tell the simple truth about the life I live, to proclaim and record the evidence that life has infinite value and is fleshed out with a beauty that takes your breath away. It is surprisingly not often that one gets to say true things. It’s generally frowned upon in polite conversation. People look at you like you’re drunk.
Then a few months later I began to notice a subtler, deeper shift. The daily practice of writing concrete examples of gratitude made me look at my experiences through different eyes. As I went through my day I scanned the periphery like a predator for beauty, grace, and the generosity of the world, you know, things to be grateful for. Knowing that I had a writing assignment due in a few hours, I stayed vigilant, eyes wide for bounty. And do you know what happens when you look for something? You find it.
This is the secret power of the gratitude journal. In the end, the journal doesn’t matter. It’s just the leavings after the feast. It’s not the product, it’s the process that changes you. The gratitude journal is simply a device, a shovel for digging a new channel through which the restless mind can flow.
Before I began keeping a gratitude journal I passed the hours in worry and fear, convinced that I had to guard against the inevitable onslaughts of an uncaring world and navigate a sea of vaguely dangerous human beings all working at cross purposes. It was stressful. After keeping a gratitude journal for a year these old habits of thought were reprogrammed. The scales fell from my eyes and I began to see the world as a field of infinite possibility, a beneficent, nourishing, beautiful home filled with creative people all working toward the good as best they understood it.
I didn’t change the world. I changed the way I saw the world.
And then the final, subtlest and most important shift occurred. An insight arose from the marrow of my bones. In the authority of my own experience I came to know something I had previously only suspected, or read about second-hand in the world’s great spiritual classics, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I came to know that I was one with the sacred source of all things, an integral member of an interconnected web of being. I made peace with paradox and declared an everlasting armistice with myself. My conflicted confusion gave way to confident serenity. My grimace of anxiety gave way to a smile. I began to laugh more easily and cry more deeply. The light returned to my eyes. I let go of the need to control, a need born of the fear that there is never enough. I came home to myself, and found that it was a pretty good place to live.
Who knew that a pencil and a piece of paper could do all of that?