Top 5 Tools for Cultivating Gratitude

“The man who simply became ready to have God remove his judgmental attitudes was surprised to find God’s answer was to make him more trusting of others and less judgemental of himself.” – Anonymous


I recently attended a covenant group at a local Unitarian Universalist church. It was a group for parents and as is the case with groups of this kind, was accepting new members for a limited time. Most covenant groups close the “tent flap” seasonally in order to nurture trust within the circle and deep conversation and relationship among its members.

As the sounds of our playing (read: screaming) children rose up through the floor, a group of us young couples opened up our hearts and shared about the difficulties of turning the other cheek, setting a good example, frustration with family members and in-laws, fear of failure in front of our kids, and more.

One recurring theme emerged. Across the board and within all three dimensions of self, culture and nature — cultivating gratitude is hard work.


When it was suggested that part of the solution was to simply be more patient, gentle and forgiving with yourself, one of the fathers said, “I don’t know how to do that.”

At that moment, one (or more) of the kids started banging on a downstairs piano. The sound was jarring and discordant and came up through the floor in angular vibrations that momentarily put all of the parents on edge.

It occurred to me that the children didn’t know how to play the piano, but they were doing the best they could to make music with it. They, too, were ignorant to the workings of the instrument and so they simply wailed away at it, hamfisted and dispassionate. They were being too rough and too forceful, not patient or gentle.

This piano is a metaphor for our self-care. How often do we expect others to be maestros of communication, trust and compassion? How often do we expect others to be delicate, patient and gentle — to take their time, choose their words carefully, think before they speak or act, and to hold themselves with the utmost self-respect? And yet, how often, when it is our turn to do the same, do we bang out a rhythm or a half-baked melody and tell ourselves that it’s good enough. How often do we settle for less when it comes to finding pleasure or acceptance in ourselves?

Self-love and self care is not just about mindfulness. It’s not just about carving the time out of your day to pray, meditate or be present with your friends, co-workers and kids. It’s about moving beyond mindfulness to the difficult work of being in the world and witness to all its suffering. It’s about having the courage to put yourself out there when someone needs emotional or spiritual support, but also having the courage and intelligence to receive that support yourself.


Gratitude is also present in our attitude toward others.

Stephen Prothero has consistently proposed that the world’s faith traditions are an attempt to solve a specific human problem with a specific spiritual solution (sin/salvation, attachment/awakening, pride/submission, exile/return, etc.). Since pride is usually near the top of any list of cardinal sins, it is usually one of the first items to attract the attention of rigorous spiritual practice.  

Gratitude can be seen as the opposite of pride. The process of becoming more grateful, more thankful and more humble is the process of letting go of our pridefulness, ego and will.

We are reminded by Matthew Fox and Meister Eckhart that the word “humility” has its roots in the latin humus, or earth. To be humble, then, means to be grounded or in touch with our Source — forehead and face down, even, in our earthiness.


So, if the heavy lifting at 2nd-person (or intersubjective) awareness is to be grateful to an ultimate “other,” and if this requires moving from willfulness to willingness, then the work at 3rd-person (objective) awareness is to simply be grateful for all that is arising and unfolding. The practice of cultivating gratitude also includes an attitude of humility toward our position and smallness in the Cosmos. We must afford nature the love and respect we would an elder and view God and the Cosmos as something that is more creative, powerful, far-reaching, inclusive, even willful, than ourselves.

It would be great if it were all that simple, but there is still the matter of being grateful for experiences that are less than pleasant. There is the small matter of turning the other cheek when you have been smacked in the face and stand opposite another with stinging eyes and a bloodied nose. There is always pain and suffering that demands we smile and be grateful for what we do have — respite from pain and suffering, the moments between.


Jim Rigby, a Presbyterian pastor from Austin, TX recently recounted the story of “The Game of Pirates.”

He explained that “pirates played a ‘game’ with their prisoners chaining them in a circle around the mast. Each prisoner would be given a whip and told to strike the prisoner in front of them. While it would have been in everyone’s interest to strike lightly, as the game proceeded, each prisoner became convinced they were being hit harder than they were hitting. To avoid being the ‘sucker,’ each prisoner began to beat the other to a pulp.

Referring to the recent acts of terror in the United States, Rigby states, “it is human nature at times like this to escape our pain and fear by finding the one scapegoat, the one simple cause for what has happened. Inevitably, we leave out any responsibility we ourselves may have had in the spiral of violence. It is natural for humans at times like this to get angry at any effort to understand with more complexity what led to an act of violence. Quite naturally, people want to strike out immediately so they can feel safe and in control. But is that method working in our world, or is it making things worse?”

He asks, “Will we ever get around to exploring our own role in the spiral of violence? How can we remain peacemakers when all around are calling for revenge? How can we keep from sinking into despair?”

The stakes for pulling ourselves out of this vicious cycle are high. We must be gentle with ourselves, we must be willing to see and hear one another, and we must be grateful for what we have — for the moments in between.


Here are some tools that you can incorporate into your own practice to cultivate more self-care, more mindfulness and more gratitude.

Photo Nov 26, 1 46 09 PM

Gratitude Tree, 11/26/15

  1. Self-Love – Try looking at yourself in the mirror every morning and using positive, affirming language, i.e. “I am loved” or “I am beautiful.” Or try hugging yourself in the shower as warm water cascades down your back. Too young and too often we are told that touching ourselves in a loving way is against the rules. Cross your arms, clasping your arms or sides; close your eyes; squeeze gently; imagine yourself slightly behind and above your own body. Can you simply relax into your own embrace?
  2. 11:11 Alarm – Set a daily reminder at 11:11 a.m. Use a gentle alarm like a chime or a bell. You could even use your favorite song. Ask yourself “What are you thankful for?” If possible, say the answers out loud.
  3. Blessings Before a Meal – Most of us eat three meals a day. That’s three opportunities to express how grateful we are for our healthy bodies (self), the hands that prepared it (culture), and the Earth from which it came (Nature). For those that don’t identify with a Higher Power, you don’t have to say, “Thank you, God.” Just saying “Thank you” is always enough.
  4. Pay it Forward – This can be any random act of kindness, and is usually pretty uncomfortable the first couple times you do it. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line. Keep a backpack full of toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste in your car and give it to the next homeless person you see. Send a handwritten note to someone who you are especially grateful for.
  5. Gratitude Tree – Every Thanksgiving, my wife builds a centerpiece for our dining table called the “Gratitude Tree.” It consists of a bundle of sticks and small branches (usually decorated with glitter or paint). They are placed into a large vase next to a bowl containing blank gift tags and pens. Family members and visitors are encouraged to write down what they are thankful for and hang them on the “tree.”

What are some of the ways that you express gratitude?

What are some of the ways that you have learned to be grateful?

We want to hear from you in the comments below.

About Joran Slane Oppelt

Author, Musician, Interfaith Minister, Chaplain, Public Speaker, Event Producer, Marketing Professional, Husband, Father - Not necessarily in that order. Follow me on Twitter @joranslane. View all posts by Joran Slane Oppelt

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