Understanding Gratitude

Surah An-Nahl, Verse 114:
فَكُلُوا مِمَّا رَزَقَكُمُ اللَّهُ حَلَالًا طَيِّبًا وَاشْكُرُوا نِعْمَتَ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ إِيَّاهُ تَعْبُدُونَ
Therefore eat of what Allah has given you, lawful and good (things), and give thanks for Allah's favor if Him do you serve (16:114)

Surah Az-Zumar, Verse 66:
بَلِ اللَّهَ فَاعْبُدْ وَكُن مِّنَ الشَّاكِرِينَ
Nay! but serve Allah alone and be of the thankful. (39:66)

The Holy Qur'an keeps calling out to us to be grateful. Gratitude is something Allah wants us to cultivate. Therefore let us try to understand gratitude a littler bit better and take a look at how meditation can help with gratitude.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. (1)

The concept of gratitude is found in many practices of meditation and current research identifies it as one of the key factors to happiness.

"It's easy to feel grateful when life is good, " says Robert Emmons Ph.D., ( a leading scientific expert on gratitude.) "But when disaster strikes, gratitude is worth the effort".

The fact of the matter is that it isn't always easy to be grateful when things aren't going your way.

There are 2 scenarios that come to mind with respect to gratitude:

1. When we become used to blessings, we forget to be grateful. That is human nature as we adapt to good things and then after a while expect them to be there .

But isn't that what life is about? To recognize and be aware of our nature and then use the beautiful gift known as will and do something about it. We have been given the ability to create new habits and remake and improve ourselves at every stage in life. We have been gifted with empowerment in this way by Allah.

2. When things seemingly aren't going our way, then feeling grateful doesn't just happen so easily for most of us.

He continues to say, "There is a vital difference between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. "

So what do we do if we are feeling emotions such as anger, sadness or frustration? First we can remind ourselves it is OK if we're not "feeling" grateful (even though at the back of our minds we know we should be , adding another layer of anxiety!!)

We can still "be grateful"

Instead of having "feelings about feelings" as Marzia Hassan puts it so well, if we can accept our feelings along with the awareness that gratitude is due in a particular situation, that is to be kind yourself.

If someone is feeling anxious or angry or sad, irrespective of the validity of the emotion, how would you respond? Would you belittle them for having those emotions or would you hear them out with acceptance and understanding, even if you don't necessarily agree with their point of view? (2)

Gratitude is the next level above acceptance, when you are not just bearing or tolerating a circumstance. You are able to look beyond the pain or discomfort which is the centre of your focus in the moment. You are able to see the good along with the bad, which does not always come naturally.

There was a sign put up in a doctor's waiting room I used to visit when my children were small. And everytime I read it, it gave me that little extra push to try to "be brave" even if I wasn't feeling so brave. It said: 

"Smile! In spite of yourself"

That is a form of "being" grateful, to show your gratitude because you are aware enough to see all the evidence of the positive things around you . You don't let your pain blind you to the blessings and then with all the courage that you can muster you do what must be done, with a smile. That is "being" grateful.

So when you are kind to yourself you are being grateful, you are showing gratitude for yourself, your mind, and body for all that it has done for you. Your mind is having a difficult day. Be kind.

Give your mind that is whirling and racing with thoughts a little stillness. Hear it out with compassion and kindness. Let it know you respect it enough to accept how it is feeling and to unburden itself .

Meditation is one way to give your mind that stillness. One particularly restful mindfulness technique is called Thought-Clouds. You imagine your thoughts to be clouds, let them float by without attaching to them, you simply watch them so they can peacefully make their way across the sky.(3)

Once we have given our mind and thoughts the acceptance they need, we can then choose our actions or responses.

Now that we have shown kindness and compassion to ourselves, maybe we can manage to practice gratitude in our external world, despite the situations around us, despite not feeling grateful.

Let's take a look at how we can perhaps work at this.

If we make gratitude a practice, a habit, then it will be easier to have gratitude in the hard times. The mind has a habit of hinging on negativity, we have to keep practicing looking at the good. And the best time to practice that is when times are good!

This is beautifully summarised by Ali Ibn Abi Talib (AS), in the following quote:

"Look out for your thoughts, for they will become your words.

Look out for your words, for they will become your actions.

Look out for your actions, for they will become your habits.

Look out for your habits, for they will become your character.

Look out for your character, for it will become your fate."

Imam Ali (A.S)

The key is it begins with looking out for your thoughts, perhaps meaning we need to watch our thoughts so we may make the conscious choice as to what we say or do, that we are not just responding to situations unconsciously for that is where the danger lies. Not in the thoughts themselves, but in not being aware of your thought.

If we work on training our mind to focus on the blessings, it inevitably influences our thoughts and as a result we can change the way we experience life .

In Surah Rahman the Qur'an repeatedly calls out:
فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?
(55:13)(English - Shakir)

Denial is like the opposite of gratitude. If you cannot consciously be aware of your blessings and be grateful for them, those very same blessings may not even feel like blessings. Look at the blessings, be aware of them . Keep reminding yourself of them so that you can "be grateful" and eventually "feel grateful".

Marzia Hassan in one of her posts in her daily wisdom series says to ask yourself

these gratitude-based questions such as :

What is going well in my life right now?

What went well today?

What did I do well today?

"Questions like these re-route our brain circuitry and strengthen our gratitude muscles and positive mindset both in the moment and in the long term." (3)

Gratitude meditations provide an opportunity to ask ourselves such questions on a regular basis and bring to mind the aspects in life we can be grateful for.

He has blessed us with countless blessings we generally take for granted, if we were able to bring even some to mind then maybe we would be able to reframe a bad situation or be able to expand our awareness so that we can see that there is good even in the bad moments. All the good around us has not vanished, we are just unable to focus on it because of the pain of the present moment.

He also reminds us to be grateful to our parents to remember the favours done for us.

Surah Luqman, Verse 14:
أَنِ اشكُر لي وَلِوالِدَيكَ إِلَيَّ المَصيرُ
Be grateful to Me and to both your parents; to Me is the eventual coming"(31:14)

The Qur'an teaches us that gratitude is actually something you do for your own soul.

Surah Luqman, Verse 12:
وَلَقَدْ آتَيْنَا لُقْمَانَ الْحِكْمَةَ أَنِ اشْكُرْ لِلَّهِ وَمَن يَشْكُرْ فَإِنَّمَا يَشْكُرُ لِنَفْسِهِ وَمَن كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَنِيٌّ حَمِيدٌ
And certainly We gave wisdom to Luqman, saying: Be grateful to Allah. And whoever is grateful, he is only grateful for his own soul; and whoever is ungrateful, then surely Allah is Self-sufficient, Praised (31:12)

This 9 minute gratitude meditation brings your awareness to things in your life you can be thankful for , one of the first being the breath. A gift from Allah , that gives us life. We simply breathe without effort, without thought. The breath is also the tool used in meditation to calm and centre ourselves.

Jaffar Sadiq (AS) says:

"With every breath you take, a thanksgiving is incumbent upon you, indeed, a thousand thanks or more."
"Allah is not in need of the obedience of His bondsmen, for He has the power to increase blessings forever. Therefore be a grateful bondsman to Allah, and in this manner you will see wonders."(4)

How beautiful is that! If we can be grateful by being aware of our blessings and then use them as He desires, we will see wonders. Our experience of life will change.

When we are lost at times, when we cannot see anything to be grateful for, our breath can perhaps remind us that the one who has enabled us to breathe, is there managing everything. We are not managing even our own body, our lungs as they expand and contract, the heart pumps, the blood courses through our veins and all the complex functions in our body continue without our intervention.

We are breathing by His grace and mercy, which is with us in every moment.What greater gift than the knowledge that He is there for us, there taking care of us?

This gratitude to our Creator and Sustainer can help pull us up and out. It can pull us away from despair.

And finally the master key gifted to every believer:  Prayer. We can pray to Allah to help us develop gratitude. To both be and feel grateful. Whether we are moving forward in our journey to Him or when none of the techniques or methods we try seem to resonate or work, we can always pray. And the best part is He has asked us to pray, He wants us to pray and has said He will respond. (As mentioned in Surah Ghafir(40), Verse 60)

Then armed with tawakkul (trust and reliance on Him ) we can attempt to "be grateful." The best way to do so is the conscious use of his gifts in the way He would prefer.

There is a beautiful sense of safety in the knowledge that when we attempt to do as He desires, He handles the outcomes for us.

There is a prayer in the Qur'an, where Allah teaches us how to pray for gratitude.

"My Lord! grant me that I may give thanks for Thy favor which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may do good which pleases Thee and do good to me in respect of my offspring; surely I turn to Thee, and surely I am of those who submit."
Surah Al-Ahqaf(46), Verse 15 (English - Shakir)

Happiness is a choice and a byproduct of developing positive traits such as gratitude. When you choose to be grateful you are actually choosing happiness and contentment. Happiness isn't in itself the goal for life, but it is a mindset that can help us develop a peaceful soul which is pleased with Allah with whatever situation it is in.

That is a goal worth working towards, that is one of the qualities that is described in the Qur'an of the people who are truly successful.

Key point summary

- Allah wants us to develop gratitude

- Gratitude leads to contentment and happiness

- We have to practice gratitude, it is a habit we can cultivate

- Meditation

- Awareness of blessings

- Remembering favours

- "Being grateful" is a choice, act of will.

- Show your gratitude with actions

- Use blessings in the way Allah would like

- Be kind to yourself and others

- Pray for the ability to be grateful

By Saleha Haji

1. How gratitude can help you through hard times -

2-Antidote to worrying (Marzia Hassan Daily Wisdom) -

3-Thought Clouds -

4- Lantern of the Path

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