Nov 22, 2023
Welcome, and thank you for joining me.
I am recording this episode on the day before American Thanksgiving, and I would like to share some thoughts about the feeling and expression of gratitude.
I have a student who has been an actor and theatre director, and last week we were talking about how you can't make yourself feel specific feelings on demand. He was telling me about how frustrating it can be for actors pursuing a technique like Method Acting, when they think they're supposed to be able to conjure up an intense feeling in real time, in the service of the character they are portraying.
When we experience a feeling, it arises within us, in response to both internal and external conditions. It arises, and we experience it, at various degrees of intensity, and then eventually it passes, to be overtaken by the arisal of other feelings. Buddhist philosophy equates feelings with body sensations, and emotional feelings arise and pass the same way that physical sensations do. Like how you would feel cold, if you were walking outside on a late autumn day without a coat, and then you would feel warm again when you go back indoors. You can't make yourself feel cold and warm in this way. These sensations are your body's natural response to external conditions, your body's way of communicating with you about its relative degree of comfort or discomfort.
Gratitude is a wonderful thing to be able to feel. For me, gratitude feels like a warm bath. I feel gratitude when I feel seen, appreciated, supported, safe, and loved. It really is a delicious experience, to sense feelings of gratitude arising and flowing through me. Now, as I describe this to you, I am actually feeling a sense of gratitude, but this isn't because I can make myself feel gratitude—it is because gratitude is an experience that I am grateful to be familiar with, and when I think about it, and share these thoughts with you, I am actually feeling grateful to be capable of experiencing gratitude. And I am—if when I got to this point in the podcast I weren't, I had an alternative script to refer to!
I think this is a relatively new experience for me, to be able to experience gratitude in an uncomplicated way, and this is why I wanted to talk to you about this, the day before Thanksgiving.
It seems to me that many, if not most of us, were taught to perform gratitude, at an age before we are fully capable of consciously experiencing, and intentionally expressing, gratitude. Gratitude is a highly complex emotion, and children will become capable of experiencing and expressing gratitude at different ages. In this culture, however, most, if not all of us, are taught the importance of being polite, pretty much from the age we become capable of asserting ourselves by saying NO all the time, and our caregivers try to teach us the importance of understanding when it is acceptable to say no, and when it is not, effectively negating our will to negate, if you will. Which in this culture is certainly necessary for our own safety, to some extent.
But if you're still trying to figure out when it is and isn't okay to say "no," it follows that you are also still trying to figure out when it is and isn't okay to say "yes." And to experience real gratitude, that requires a big, unequivocal "yes"! We learn the social conventions of when it is appropriate to say "thank you," with a smile, maybe even a hug. We know that saying "thank you" under these circumstances will please the person who just did something nice for us, as well as make our caregivers and teachers proud of how polite we are, or at least relieved that we did not embarrass them.
Thus it is, that we learn to perform gratitude.
This doesn't mean that we don't also begin to experience genuine gratitude. Hopefully, we do! But the more genuine gratitude we become capable of feeling, the more disingenuous performative gratitude begins to feel. I remember strongly resenting the expectation of performing gratitude, when I was a child. I know it really must have confused my parents, why had no idea why I refused to be polite sometimes. It was because of this, that it felt increasingly icky to me, to pretend to express things like gratitude when I wasn't feeling it, precisely because I was capable of telling the difference, and I didn't want to lie, not to myself, or anyone else. How could it possibly be the polite thing, to lie?
Eventually, if grudgingly, I got on board with the whole politeness thing. But this is why I say that I feel like I have only recently become capable of experiencing and expressing genuine, deep feelings of gratitude. I became so confused and mistrustful of my own feelings, that I couldn't really even tell whether I meant it when I said "thank you" to someone.
Performative gratitude cheapens the real thing. I had the right idea, when I was a kid. I just didn't have the vocabulary to express the complexity of my inner conflict. I've probably only had that vocabulary since this morning, when I sat down to script this episode.
Tomorrow, you may find yourselves surrounded by people with whom you have very complex relationships. You may feel genuinely happy to see many of them. You may feel genuinely apprehensive about sitting down to dinner with some of them. You may be feeling deeply grateful, to be among loved ones to share a traditional meal. You may be feeling really stressed out about the economy and fearful for your future. You may be feeling both, and you may be feeling lots of other things.
I encourage you to just stay with your feelings as they arise and pass, hold space for them, hold space for yourself. If your gathering is one of those where everyone is called on in turn to say what they are grateful for, hold space for them, too. They may not themselves know the extent to which they are feeling gratitude, or performing gratitude. When it is your turn, just say what it occurs to you to say in that moment. But know that one thing you can hopefully always feel grateful for, is your self-awareness.
Self-awareness can be hard to come by, and hard won, in a culture that requires us to perform emotions from time to time. If you are listening to this podcast and made it to the end of this episode, then I imagine that self-awareness is something you value, and if it is something you value, then you are continually expanding your own powers of self-awareness. I am genuinely grateful to you for doing so, and I hope that you appreciate this about yourself as well.
Have a mindful Thanksgiving!
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