A first observation about gratitude could be that it’s not easy. It goes against our common, habitual tendencies. Our attention goes effortlessly to the things that hurt, irritate, or annoy us, just as much as we forget nearly everything that helps us, enables us, and extends the reach of our experience.

A teacher notices the one student who is not paying attention in class. Although she is aware of many other things (other students, the classroom, her physical position in the classroom, and her train of thought), her awareness of the inattentive student engages her much more intensely.

We can replace the classroom example with the example of a pain in the body, which reveals our usual inattentiveness to the body. We notice the pain, as the teacher notices the absent-minded student, with heightened awareness.

There are exceptions to this general tendency. A person who lives with chronic pain might tell you he is having a pain-free day, which shows how being free of pain–something most of us would ignore–can take centerstage for someone. We have a comparable experience after recovering from an illness, though recovering from an illness doesn’t involve confronting something new. We are brought back to, and are reacquainted with, what we previously had. It is the direction of movement–from illness to health–that affords us a fresh perspective, not the experience of health alone. It is the background of illness that highlights the significance of health for us.

Photo by Michael Burrows

That leads us to a second observation about gratitude, namely its relation to the background of experience. Getting upset about the absent-minded student depends on the background (i.e., preconscious) assumptions about the classroom conduct of students. An expectation, a demand, a feeling that something “must be there!” arises from a background. Just like a musical note can sound false against the background (a musical stream), but fit in a second background, the student’s inattentiveness seems false (an interruption, an interference, something that doesn’t belong), against the teacher’s background assumptions.

Distinguishing the foreground and the background of experience, and their interrelation, is necessary for understanding our own responses to events. We discover what appears in the foreground. We discover our own responses, just as we discover external objects of perception, which is to say we do not spontaneously generate our responses–grateful or otherwise–in the present moment.

It seems to me, therefore, that the practice of gratitude aims to produce a shift in the background of experience. This view runs contrary to the self-help approach to gratitude, which aims to distort what is in the foreground. The self-help approach results in disappointment and disillusionment, because of the resistant nature of the facts of life. You start writing a series of self-congratulatory “affirmations,” as recommended by a positive-thinking guru. Half-way through a sentence, the tip of the pencil breaks, and it is all over.

To be grateful for something doesn’t require denying the facts of life, or affirming falsehoods. It might require, instead, that we pay attention to the facts from the right place (akin to approaching health from illness). It is that (starting) place that is important for our purpose. The practice of gratitude is the practice of beginning–and being able to begin–from that starting place.

Note: This post was partly inspired by a 2019 essay by Richard Keys about practice (posted on the blog, Dharmic D├ętourne) Thanks to Glenn Wallis for bringing that essay to my attention.