If you’re like most people, you notice what goes wrong more often than what goes right. Human beings seem hard-wired to notice how reality fails to meet some idea of how they think things should be. How many times a day do you sink into disappointment, frustration, or sadness because others haven’t met your expectations? If you limit your attention to how life lets you down, you blind yourself to the myriad gifts you receive all the time.
You may, for example, have ideas about the “ideal” holiday visit with your family: where it will take place, who will be there, how everyone will act, what you’ll eat, what kinds of presents you’ll exchange. But the visit surely won’t match that ideal. And that’s when you’re likely to act like a child who has his heart set upon a certain toy for Christmas: As he unwraps one present after another, not finding that one toy, he grows ever more upset and disappointed. Utterly dejected, the presents he has received lie unattended.
You can end this frustrating situation by mindfully shifting your attention. Begin by paying attention to the reality of what is rather than the desires you cling to. For the fact of the matter is, regardless of how dissimilar your holiday gathering (or any other moment in life) might be from what you had imagined, there is much to be grateful for.
Consider the effort it took for your family members to get together; the vehicles that brought you all to the same spot—and all the people who constructed and helped maintain them; the house where you’ve gathered; the trees whose limbs burn in the fireplace. Your food, whether vegetable or animal, was once a living thing and is now providing you with nourishment. And that food did not just magically appear. Before it was cooked, it required the energy of the sun, the minerals of the earth, the rain, the work of farmers, processors, truckers, and retailers—plus the cooks in your family—to bring it to your table.
It is, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, the gift of the whole universe. When you stop and really look, you see that you are supported continuously in literally countless ways. This is the highest wisdom of yoga, the truth of interbeing, of no separation.
To begin to pay attention to how fully and completely you are supported, you have to break out of your constricted cage of Self. Once you have a more balanced view of reality, you are less preoccupied with what’s not meeting your expectations, and more present to what is given. You grow more appreciative of what you have, and seeing how dependent you are on others, you grow in generosity, wishing in some small way to repay at least a part of your debt.
You may even come to see the truth in the exhortation of the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”