When my youngest child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I was not initially grateful. When medical bills, losing medical insurance and the inability to buy health insurance for my children due to existing conditions led to a medical bankruptcy and the foreclosure of my first and last home ownership experiment, I was not initially feeling gratitude as my dominant emotion.
However, having a daily gratitude practice can open up new rooms in consciousness. Have you ever heard the saying, "When one door closes, another door opens"? I don't feel another door opens on its own; gratitude is the force that opens doors.
What is instrumental for change? The Taoists don't see anger as a negative emotion, instead they simply see it as a necessary energy. What is the energy of the sprout who needs to burst out of the seed? The Taoists define that sprout's energy as anger. Anger is only a negative energy if it's not used properly, if the sprout fails to use the anger to burst forth into a new world. And it's not so different with people: These seemingly negative experiences may be the necessary motivation for positive change, for bursting forth into new worlds of existence, growth and freedom.
While my initial feelings toward hard events in my life were somewhere along the lines of rage at the injustice of the legalities in existence in the United States, disgust at the apathy of the medical establishment and sadness for my family's life situation, I did not stay stuck in these feelings, simmering in darkness. After my initial feelings, I was able to look at what was still good in life. The sun still rises. The earth still turns. Gravity keeps everything anchored down and in proper order. I can still sing a song and laugh at a joke. I can still love. By shifting into a positive frame of mind, I revisit my issues and see more than just their bleak challenges. I am able to see the cracks in the problems, the light of hope, change and possibility shining through. I don't deny my anger, but I use it as an energy toward problem solving and positive outcomes.
It may sound strange at first to have gratitude, even in darkness. But if you think it over carefully for just a moment, in makes perfect sense. Why do seemingly bad things happen? The duality of this universe exists as a means to help one truly experience it; how would you know blackness without white? There would be no need to define it; it would simply BE. How could you know hot without cold? There would be no need for a word to describe temperature; it would just BE. The same is true of pain: It defines joy, for how could you experience joy truly without its opposite?
My daughter's diagnosis, while difficult initially to hear, didn't change who she is, it only gave her personal set of challenges a name. She is challenged, yes, but everyone on this planet has some challenge at some point. She is not less lovable, she is still adorable and she is still herself. The mortgage and financial crisis of this country, in which my house was involved, was undoubtedly a negative experience globally, the implications of which still remain to be seen. But I am grateful for the necessary change that it has inspired and continues to inspire. My experience with the medical establishment of the United States, while infuriating, motivated me to change my life, and to seek change in the functioning of that system, or perhaps a new country of residence. When it comes to darkness, the defining question is, "Will you use your darkness effectively, or will you let it use you toward self-destruction?"
Be sure I'm not encouraging being a "Pollyanna" (everything is perfect, always be happy, deny difficulty). I am encouraging the full feeling and facing of darkness, thereby going through it and seeking the necessary change that it can inspire. Gratitude is like a neutralizer for anger and negativity, transforming it from a self-destructive force into a productive energy. Don't be a sprout trapped inside a seed. Burst through your shell. Even in the darkest moments, keep seeking the light.
Consider keeping a gratitude journal, where you devote at least one page per day to focusing on gratitude. If you already journal about your life, set aside a portion of your journal entry to the focus of gratitude. Most of the study of gratitude at UC Davis has used gratitude journaling as their practice. The benefits are astounding and positive.