We all have goals and ambitions that keep us growing, improving, and moving forward in life. As soon as we attain one of these goals, however, there’s always a new one to take its place. Whether it’s a goal of self-development, career, health, lifestyle, or learning, the irony of our goals is that they seem so grandiose and idealistically amazing when we’re pursuing them but that estranged desire slowly seems to fade after the dream becomes reality. It doesn’t take long before we turn our attention away from what we’ve attained and focus on to the next thing.
In following this pattern of pursuing one ambition after the next, it’s easy to lose sight of appreciating the things we already have. It’s like the way in which children want a new toy for Christmas. They had fun playing with their old toys, but they now gander a particular new toy on display at the store. However, next year the pattern will repeat all over again as their new toy becomes just another old one. It’s part of human nature to do this.
Consider also the way we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses. Nostalgia has a way of heralding the past in a way that filters out all the boring and undesirable memories to highlight the best parts. We look back on a time when we enjoyed ourselves and wish we could revisit the past. Perhaps when we were living in that moment we didn’t appreciate how good things were or the opportunities and possibilities we failed to seize.
The common habit between both of these situations – focused on future goals, and focused on the past – is that we’re not living in the present moment.
Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, has some very interesting teachings on this subject of living in the present, and I would recommend checking out his teaching, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” if you’re interested in mindfulness and meditation to help you develop mental discipline of keeping your mind focused on today. For the Christian perspective, I recommend the book Victory Over Depression, by Bob George. It’s an excellent guide to helping people overcome depression caused by anxious thoughts about the past and the future while outlining Biblical excerpts.
So the first step is to recognize where our mind is focusing – in the past, in the future, or in the present? Even when we’re not presently encountering trials and hardship our minds can make hardship our state of mind by allowing anxious and fearful thoughts about the past and future.
After letting go of the past & future, the next step is practicing gratitude and thankfulness. It takes a effort to do this. It’s not our default mode to take the time to stop and think about what we’re thankful for. Consider the following questions: What were some situations that were difficult, but could have been much worse? How have the people in your life helped and supported you? What currently gives you comfort, laughter, or happiness? I love the way Fred Rogers encouraged others to ponder on this in his Emmy Award acceptance speech. If you’re not used to mindfully practicing this, I’ve found that it helps to start out with the small seemingly-trivial things that I’m thankful for. Even if it’s something ridiculous like having my favorite drink in the fridge, starting with the small things will create the snowball effect of helping you to recognize the larger, more impacting things that you have to be thankful for. I don’t care who you are, everyone has SOMETHING to be thankful for.
One common hindrance to being able to have an attitude of thankfulness is comparing ourselves to others. Don’t let others’ outward appearances fool you – everyone has their own trials behind their persona. Life has a way of balancing the trials and triumphs out in life. There’s an excellent excerpt from a TD Jakes teaching about this (starts at 11:55). Comparing ourselves to others can strip us of enjoying the attitude of thankfulness because we let our minds believe a false reality that our lot in life is lacking. We tell ourselves that we’ll allow ourselves to be satisfied “if only.” We believe that good things are being withheld from us that would provide us with satisfaction, yet we fail to see all of the times we’ve attained something we wanted and still weren’t satisfied. Thankfulness is a risk. It’s a brave step toward allowing ourselves to accept who we are and the life we’re given and to be satisfied right now. Thankfulness is a lifelong practice. The trials in life will often throw you out of a thankful mindset, but that’s OK. It’s a never-ending journey to learn being thankful.
Being thankful isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it. So take 10-15 minutes after reading this to pause for yourself and think about the question: What are you thankful for?