Why Starting a Gratitude Practice Can Change Your Life
In the beginning of his Meditations, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius begins with a section on debts and lessons. He thanks specific family members, tutors, teachers, and friends for a myriad of reasons. For moral lessons like, “not to waste time on nonsense” and “to recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces” as well as the mundane like, “introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures-and loaning me his own copy.” In just a few pages Marcus Aurelius manages to run the path from the profane to the sacred and acknowledge the debt he owes to all these acts of kindness and moral examples that helped make and form him. Even though he would end up becoming one of the most powerful men in the world, he still found the time to remember, reflect, and express gratitude to the things that helped him along the way.
While much has been written and indeed continues to be written about Meditations, it is not the only autobiography/diary/journal to catch the attention of history. A great many people from various walks of life throughout various civilizations in the past have kept diaries, journals, memoirs, and personal papers. Some, like Meditations, were written for personal purposes without thought of publication, and others were written to keep a record for posterity. One person from the Islamic civilization to also journal about his debts, lessons, and gratitude was the Usuli scholar Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505).
Suyuti was, in every respect of the word, a polymath. He wrote in nearly every Islamic subject and lists in his autobiography 495 works he penned throughout his lifetime. One book, however, stands out amongst the rest; his autobiography. Suyuti wrote Writing About God’s Blessings being inspired by the Quranic verse, “and by the favors of your Lord express” (93:11). Like Meditations and so many journals and autobiographies before him, Suyuti dedicates many pages to acknowledging those who taught him, those who guided him, and those, including his father, who inspired him. He writes about his travels, other scholars he interacted with along the way, a list of his writings, and even unique legal principles he held and peculiar legal debates he engaged in during his lifetime.
However, one unique feature of Suyuti’s autobiography is that he dedicates the opening pages to writing about the act of showing gratitude as a practice and its importance. He provides some key insights, all based on his understanding of readings from the Quran and Hadith tradition, to argue that expressing gratitude is a necessary act, the source of increase of blessings, and leads to ultimate happiness and a better life.
Suyuti begins by using verse 93:11 to demonstrate that the appropriate relationship we should have towards our blessings is to acknowledge them, express them, and write about them. This does not have to be public as in the case of Suyuti, but it is important for each one of us to develop a practice of acknowledging the blessings we have. When we are first aware of a specific blessing, this should trigger a show of gratitude. This could be as simple as saying, “alhamdulilah,” or one could pick up a journal and write about it. The important thing is that this needs to be a practice and occur frequently.
When we begin this process and take it seriously, we start to notice that the blessings we have are many. Too many, in fact, to enumerate. “And if you seek to enumerate your blessings you will not be able to” (16:18). Suyuti argues that in reality, and from a theological point of view, one will never be able to show true gratitude for every blessing since they are infinite and on-going. At every instance we are blessed with so many things that allow us this particular moment of life. At the next moment, these same blessings are manifest again and renewed, equally powerful and equally giving. Therefore, the act of showing gratitude for one’s blessings is something that could occupy us always and forever. It is the act of showing gratitude for living, for being. We are not called on to actually enumerate them all, since we can’t, but rather to be constantly aware of the blessings that surround us.
Suyuti also writes that expressing gratitude is a cause for its increase, basing this on the verse, “if you show gratitude, I will give you increase” (14:7). This is not about showing off Suyuti argues, but simply living with, enjoying, and expressing all that one has been given. This leads to a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. To have a blessing is to acknowledge it and praise it. To have a blessing is to use it and be grateful for it. By doing this, more blessings are attracted; either because we start to see more of them, or we are rewarded by the Almighty for our gratitude by receiving more. This is his basic formula for a good and happy life.
How to Begin Your Gratitude Practice
One does not have to be a Roman emperor, a world-class scholar, or even a famous person to express gratitude. All you have to be is human. If you are reading these lines, this means you! We all owe it to our self and our Creator to express gratitude for everything we’ve been given. Here is where you can start today to develop a daily practice that will change and transform your life:
When James Lipton asked James Gandolfini why he liked to play blue-collared characters, he replied, “because I stand on their shoulders.” The point is you didn’t get here on your own. There are many people in your life who helped you along the way. It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily all positive experiences; even the negative experiences have helped shape you and given you the resilience you need to survive. Begin by acknowledging your past and your debts. Start making a list (mental, written, or digital) of those upon whose shoulders you stand. Remember all the moments, good and bad- happy and sad, that formed who you are. Take a moment and express gratitude for all of this.
Find the Patterns
In his famous commencement speech, Steve Jobs talked about the importance of “connecting the dots” and seeing the patterns in one’s life that help lead you to where you’re going. God has a master plan for us, this is a pillar of our faith, and if we pay attention closely, and listen carefully, we can find it and, more importantly, be grateful for it. This is another level of expressing gratitude. It’s about seeing the overall patterns at play. It requires taking the time to reflect patiently on past events and how they impacted and guided your trajectory.
The twin to gratitude is contribution. Just like you owe debts to those who have helped you get to where you are, you yourself are the cause of other’s gratitude. You are an integral part of someone or multiple people’s lives. This deserves reflection and gratitude. It’s a blessing to be able to help people. The Prophet said, “the best of you is the one who is most useful to people (Tabarani).” A huge chunk of Suyuti’s autobiography is dedicated to his own scholarly contributions to the entirety of the global Muslim community. Indeed, many of his books are still used as standard texts in Sunni centers of learning, like al-Azhar, around the world.
Again, there is no need to think one’s contribution needs to be at the level of a Nobel Peace Prize. We tend to forget that goodness comes in all sizes and we are rewarded for all sorts of acts of charity, even as simple as removing a harmful object from the path, as mentioned by the Prophet in the famous hadith. The world is a good place because people practice small acts of kindness, not just because people create peace between waring nations and find cures to diseases. One way to remember this truth is to reflect and recall our own contributions, no matter how small, and express gratitude for this as well.
Now! Don’t wait, don’t postpone, don’t delay. Right now, the first blessing that pops in your head express gratitude for it. Congratulations, you just started a journey that will change your life!