I have a confession to make - I am a compulsive thanker. Compulsive thanking disorder, the label I’m sure my condition will acquire once the pharmaceutical industry gets its hands on it, is characterized by excessive and often exaggerated expressions of gratefulness. It may be that you’ve never heard of this condition before—I don’t think it’s yet been recognized by any official diagnostic texts—but I assure you, it is just as real as any other malady described in the medical and psychiatric bibles. Do you find yourself having to revise emails time and time again deleting phrases like “I appreciate…”, “thanks for…”, and “I’m honored that…”? Maybe you’re a compulsive thanker too. I’m grateful proud to report that I am in active recovery from my thanking disorder—no pills, electroshock treatments, or lobotomies required. Yes, friends, there is hope!
Okay, all joking aside, I really would like to share some epiphanies I’ve had over the past year regarding that fluffy, esoteric concept we know as gratitude. As I’ve delved deeper into my yoga practice, the way I experience gratitude on my mat has transformed the way I relate to others. My compulsive thanking disorder (not to be confused with compulsive thinking disorder; that will have to be a completely different article) has evolved into a practice of radical gratitude.
I have a hard time receiving from others . This may seem odd in a culture where we have a gift-giving holiday nearly every month of the calendar year, but for as long as I can remember being in the position of receiver—rather than giver—has made me extremely uncomfortable. Even as a kid, I squirmed anxiously in my chair as I opened presents at birthday parties, flushing with unease as I peeled the wrapping paper away from tokens of love bestowed on me by friends, family, and elders. I hated taking from others more than I felt I deserved. I hated knowing that my parents had spent the few hard-earned dollars they had on luxuries (you know, like new socks) I was confident I could survive without. Even as a young child, I clung to and reveled in my sense of independence. My little ego loved getting the boost of confidence I found in knowing I could get by on just-enough.
As I grew older, I had to find ways to cope with my anxiety around receiving. I found that rejecting gifts usually just exacerbated feelings of awkwardness between me and the giver, so I learned to diffuse the anxious energy by telling others just how thankful I was—excessively. I had to make sure they knew how much I appreciated their generosity, their sacrifice of time, energy, or material resources on my behalf. I created a gratitude toolbox; I learned myriad phrases for conveying my gratefulness, kept a well-stocked box of craft supplies for homemade thank-you cards on my shelf, and developed a still-difficult-to-break habit of thanking people constantly for anything and everything they offered me.
Sure, I imagine my acts of gratitude might seem insincere. One could argue that my expressions of thanks weren’t real gratitude, that really I was just acting out of my own feelings of insecurity. In some ways, that may be true. Compulsive thanking is the way many of us cope with feeling that we don’t deserve to receive, that we’re not worthy of the grace that Life (God, The Universe, Chance, or whatever you choose to name it) has bestowed on us. I don’t think that’s the whole story though. When I began to more closely examine what motivated my compulsive thanking behavior, I realized that it too could be an opportunity for growth.
Let me assure you, I was not simply saying “thank you” to make myself feel better. I was genuinely grateful, intensely aware of the sacrifices others made on my behalf. From the small, seemingly insignificant gifts (holding open a door for a stranger, maybe) to the more substantial ones (offering reduced-cost yoga to a financially strapped student, perhaps), I knew that all gifts represent time, effort, and resources offered freely by another individual. What I soon discovered though, thanks in large part to my yoga practice, was that receiving could be an act of giving in and of itself. In my next post, I’d like to explore this idea further and share how I learned to use my acute sensitivity to sacrifices made on my behalf to develop a practice of radical gratitude grounded in action.
In my last post, I shared how my unease around receiving led me to develop a sort of “compulsive thanking disorder” and alluded to how later in my life yoga helped me transform that “disorder” into something I called radical gratitude. In this post, I’d like to explore what I mean by “radical gratitude” and share how I think transforming words of thanks into actions has the power to improve our relationship to ourselves and our world.
Radical gratitude is certainly not a concept of my personal invention; in the words of the great Marie Antoinette, there is nothing new except what has been forgotten. In fact, the notion of “radical gratitude” is really just modern terminology for a teaching I discovered in a text several thousand years old.
In ancient yogic scripture, The Bhagavad Gita, we bear witness to a dynamic dialogue between a young prince, Arjuna, and the embodiment of enlightened consciousness, Lord Krishna. Krishna—who one might argue could be exchanged in this context for God, Allah, Buddha-consciousness, etc—expounds on the philosophy of karma yoga, a discipline through which one transcends suffering and discovers his/her true nature by engaging in conscious, selfless actions.
According to Krishna, everything—including self-restraint, passivity, and withdrawal from the world—is a form of action:
“He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men.” – BG, 4.18
As simple as these words seem at first, when I really let them sink in, let them percolate with memories of how I have acted and in-acted in the recent past, I began to see my life in an entirely different light. What would it mean to endow all my thoughts, words, and deeds with the power of action—including my efforts to stay out of a position of receiving? Action, at least in the way the sages of ancient India understood it, is the ultimate creative force of the universe; it is the seed that gives rise to all present and future circumstances.
I began to ask myself, were my excessive “Thank you for this…” and “I appreciate that” comments grounded in virtue? Or were they emanating from a place of selfishness—a desire to stifle my own feelings of vulnerability or dependency on others. While my thank you’s may not have been causing direct harm to the individuals I was speaking with, they certainly weren’t making life better for anyone. If anything, my compulsive thanking served to diminish the joy that others derived in giving, in sharing and spreading their light in the world. In a sudden moment of humble recognition, I realized I was falling woefully short in living my practice of gratitude.
So I started playing with the idea of radical gratitude. Drawing from the lessons I’d learned in regulating and channeling my energy during my asana practice, I began to wonder about whether those same lessons could apply in this context. What if I could harness the energy I experienced when I received something (whether it be in the form of joy, angst, anxiety, or elation) to fuel conscious, loving action in my world? What if I accepted that stranger’s offer to change my flat tire with joy and appreciation, and then in turn spent an hour the next week using my car to volunteer for Meals on Wheels? Maybe, just maybe, I could become a channel through which gifts could flow in and out with ease.
When I started looking at gratitude as a practice in action rather than a personal sentiment, the very fabric of my life began to change. My priorities shifted; things that were once very important to me took backseat to those activities that tapped me into a greater sense of purpose and engagement with the world. I started using the energy of my gratitude as fuel for seva (selfless service) and became involved in conscious, loving service activities to keep that great cycle of giving and receiving awhirl. Now, when I feel grateful, I schedule time to take my little brother (from Big Brothers and Big Sisters) out for ice cream, I smile at the stranger walking down the street, and use my energy to raise funds for my brothers and sisters getting by on much less in other parts of the world.
As my heart opened to fully receive the gifts bestowed on me by others, I also found that my sense of self began to change as well. When I allowed myself to receive, that isolated every-(wo)man-is-an-island feeling began to dissolve and my relationships with others became deeper and more fulfilling. More and more often, I was overwhelmed with the joy of recognizing myself as a fluid, ever-changing entity interwoven with all other beings in the great web of life.
Think about the places of stagnancy and inactivity in your life; where are you holding back, withdrawing from the world out of fear and uncertainty? What would it mean to look at your experience of receiving as an opportunity for action in and of itself, and how might that change the way you say thank you?
“The yogis, abandoning attachment, act with body, mind, intelligence, and even with the senses, only for the purpose of purification.”—BG, 5.11
As yogis, we are challenged to develop a keen awareness of each and every one of our actions—internal and external alike. To live a practice of radical gratitude is to deliberately choose those that serve not our own selfish interests but the welfare of all sentient beings on this planet. We are called to be alchemists, catalyzing the wave of vitality we feel when we receive into a wave of action that creates a better world. Radical gratitude is a practice of using our bodies, minds, and hearts to keep the cycle of giving and receiving moving, so that we may lift up others as well as ourselves.
As they say, we’re all in this together.