One morning a few years ago, my good friend Amandine was driving me to the Googleplex, where I work. On the Silicon Valley artery of Highway 101, keeping pace with the techies and business-people racing to their desks and heavy schedules, I asked her, "What are you grateful for?" Amandine was used to me blurting out questions like this one, and without missing a beat, she said, "I'm grateful that I'm here in San Francisco and sitting in the car right next to you." She glanced at me. "What are you grateful for?"
For a moment, I was quiet, considering my answer, and then I said, "I'm grateful for the fact that we lucked our way onto the path of yoga and meditation and wanted to use it as tools for transforming our respective worlds." (For me, that world is business, for her, at that time, war-torn Afghanistan, where she spent part of her 14-year career of working on various UN projects.) We continued taking turns, fueling each other's gratitude until we pulled into the parking lot of my building at Google. As I entered the building, I was in that place of appreciation, that place of Wow, I'm so lucky. I felt as though I were one of the most blessed people on the planet.
I have to confess, I got the idea of practicing gratitude from self-help author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. One night at 3 a.m., I was sitting in the living room of my apartment, watching TV infomercials, and there he was, Tony, advertising his 30-day Personal Power program. Personal power sounded good to me, so I picked up the phone, dialed in, and gave the operator "standing by" my credit card number. This was during an era when you picked up a phone, dialed it, and talked to people on the other end instead of sending a text or checking your status updates. The fact that the sole purpose of these devices was to use your voice to communicate with another human and there was actually someone on the other end was the most interesting aspect of these phones.
I couldn't wait for the package to arrive in the mail, and when it did, I listened to the course constantly -- driving in the car, at home. Everywhere. On one of his modules, Tony suggested taking ten minutes each day to focus on everything you're grateful for.
I gave the exercise a try. I was hooked. And for the past 15 to 20 years, pretty much every day, I've taken five minutes to focus on my gratitude. As I'm cycling to work in the morning, or running, or waiting for a conference call to begin, I try to think of the things I'm grateful for, and if I'm near a pen and paper, I jot them down. I know this exercise might seem simple, trivial, New-Agey, or woo-woo, and that's why some people may dismiss it, but it works. Like magic. Once I get started, my brain takes off, churning out the most creative thoughts, both playful and serious, taking me in all kinds of different directions. It's amazing what comes up. On some days, Sundays and Thanksgiving, say, I might list up to 100.
Sometimes people ask me if they need to come up with a list of completely new things every day. Not necessarily. I could build a list of new items every single day for 100 days without duplicating any of them, but I do tend to repeat certain items. There's nothing wrong with being even more grateful today for something you were grateful for yesterday.
Focusing on gratitude shifts my mind and heart away from seeing areas of my life as problematic, worrisome, or lacking and toward acknowledging the abundance, what is working well. I try to bring this sense of appreciation to all the events in my day. Eating meals, for example. We have a tendency in our busy lives to eat meals while looking at a computer screen or talking on the phone or watching TV or driving. At home or at work, I often leave my laptop at my desk, find a comfortable place to eat, and take time to enjoy my meal. I reflect on all the people it took for the meal to appear in front of me -- the farmers who grew the food, the truckers who transported it, and the chefs who prepared it, people I will probably never be able to thank. Then I enjoy the food with a heightened sense of appreciation. Through reflection and appreciation, I try to use daily events to help establish a greater sense of gratitude in my life.
Almost every day, I feel deeply grateful for my spiritual teachers and for the doors they opened in my thinking and my consciousness. We came together completely by luck when I was a teenager and, in my mind, undeserving of their gift to me. Their teachings have changed the way I live, increasing my gratitude for all things, especially for my parents and the life they gave me, the unconditional love they have for me, and all they taught me: To treat everyone with grace and dignity. To operate as a tight-knit family unit that circled the wagons when anyone was in distress. To always remember the humble village roots where their lives had started. And to be grateful for the social mobility we experienced. I could repeat the list of all that my parents gave me every day and still not tire of it.
Of course the one thing I'm most grateful for, which will make most people think, That's it?, the one thing I could list each and every day without fail -- my cup of masala chai. Cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, fennel (to name just a few of the spices), honey, and warm milk. Amazing. Delicious. It tastes like home. People may criticize me for drinking caffeine, but I don't care. I won't give up my masala chai.
I'm also completely addicted to the daily exercise of gratitude. It's like breathing for me, and for pretty much everyone I've recommended it to. I've always said that gratitude is very powerful and one of the easiest, simplest, and most affordable forms of internal practice, prayer, and meditation. No matter our faith, our beliefs, our circumstances, we can practice giving gratitude. Anyone can point to any of us and challenge us to name ten things we are grateful for, and each and every one of us can be grateful for this one thing -- that we have life itself. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, they say that if you're born in a human body, you have to be enormously grateful, be- cause in the human body, through the human experience, you find the pathway for the personal evolution of your consciousness. So we can all be grateful for our human bodies and the opportunity we've been given to raise our consciousness. When we don't have that sense of gratitude -- and I say this without judgment, because I do mean we, because I have been there, and I still go there -- when we don't practice gratitude, I believe we lower the quality of our lives and the quality of our being.
Amandine and I still exchange lists of things we're grateful for using instant messaging in Google Hangouts. For ten years, Amandine worked in Afghanistan and Nepal for the United Nations. For a while she monitored the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan, which was mired in controversy and conflict. She worked in the most potentially dangerous place she could be -- the ballot recount center in Kabul, heavily observed by international representatives and U.S. government officials, the number one target for the Taliban. One night, when she'd finished work and was back at the briefing center, she noticed I was online. There I was, answering email, and suddenly a message popped up, What are you grateful for? And off we went, back and forth. Sitting in the midst of war, all that violence, she was calmly going through this gratitude exercise with a friend more than 7,000 miles away, both of us finding a moment of great respite and shifting of mental energy. Through the Internet, Amandine and I were able -- in the midst of unrest -- to connect with ourselves and with each other.
With our technology today, we can connect with almost anyone to do this exercise. We can talk about what we're grateful for on a cell phone or in a text message. If you have older children, you can check in by texting. You can pick up your phone or text your daughter in college, who's not contacted you for three days, and ask, "What are you grateful for today?" Isn't that a much better way to connect than asking, "Why haven't you called me?"