A typical torment most people must endure is a sense of wasted time. It’s not a feeling of regret for experiences that happened, but rather a feeling that you paid attention to the wrong things. The things that don’t matter.
The things that take away from the fullness of life rather than highlight it. The challenge is those things make a lot of noise. They’re better than valuable things at claiming your attention. They’re the Sirens of shallow matters that distract us from the beauty beneath. Life is incredibly precious and short, so spending time on superficial, meaningless bits doesn’t serve well, yet, the Sirens still call. The mundaneness of daily routines and seesawing emotional states inevitably leads back to focusing on the wrong things.
As the famous Greek myth goes, Odysseus used beeswax to plug his crew’s ears and ignore the Sirens’ alluring calls as they sailed by safely. Your beeswax is gratitude. Gratitude is an inextinguishable source of energy. It grounds you in the present moment and forces your attention to what truly matters. It’s well-studied and is proven to elevate self-esteem, mental performance, overall mood, and perspective on life while reducing stress, anxiety, and depression without harmful side effects. Imagine how popular this would be if it were an oral medication.
A proper practice doesn’t require pen or paper; it’s easy, short, and only needs 3 minutes of thoughtful imagination. I’ve practiced gratitude in many forms for many years, and the 3 exercises below outline the most powerful ones I’ve ever come across.
Set a timer for 3 minutes every day and thoughtfully play out one of the scenarios below. An active imagination is vital. If you run through the routine automatically without conscious intention, the exercises stop provoking emotions which are critical. Some of the scenarios are difficult and dark but remember—knowing the darkest parts of life is the best way to appreciate the light. If you’re doing it right, the situations should tug at your heart and disrupt your comfort. They’re real.
I recently read Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, a collection of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair while undergoing treatment for throat cancer. Each essay describes his thoughts and experiences as his health spirals until the last chapter, which is only a few notes he took about the next essay he planned to write. He never finished the piece because he passed shortly after those notes. It’s a powerful book. Hitchens is considered one of the great writers of our age, so his descriptions of enduring treatment are both beautiful and horrific. It forces you to count your blessings as you read; in comfort and health.
“I do remember lying there and looking down at my naked torso, which was covered almost from throat to navel by a vivid red radiation rash…
To say the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish ride of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back.”
Hitchens continues in a later essay on the silliness of the phrase, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As if anything he was going through left a lasting resistance to further illnesses. He brings up the example;
“A tube delivers all my nourishment. All of this, and the childish resentment that goes with it, constitutes a weakening. So does the amazing weight loss that the tube seems unable to combat. I have now lost almost a third of my body mass since the cancer was diagnosed.”
In some cases, what doesn’t kill you leaves you feeble and frail. However, Hitchens stays indomitable in spirit; he continues in another essay.
“So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable declines… This is no more than what a healthy person has to do in a slower motion.”
The final sentence lies at the heart of this exercise. Many people will, or have, faced a severe illness. If not life-threatening, most have experienced a terrible fever, flu, or another virus that has violently halted their life. And what do you desire when these times arrive? Nothing but health. Not a flashy car or a bigger raise. Simply, health. This exercise requests 3 minutes to imagine the worst illness or infirmity that could happen to you. If you live without chronic disease or pain, you have something incredible to be thankful for. People are losing their sight, cancer patients are going through chemo, and victims of ALS are watching powerlessly as control over their bodies whithers like that of Stephen Hawking.
All these nightmares and many more are taking place to somebody every instant. Use this exercise to imagine how things change when illness strikes. Identify the unimportant things that dissolve first and the cream that rises in its place: health, which you take for granted daily.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
~ M. Aurielius
Imagine you’ve passed, and your friends and family are gathering to celebrate your life. The people close to you are heartbroken; you’ve left far too young. All that remains of you are memories. Everybody knows how fickle memories can be, but not to worry, yours are now frozen in time, and your loved ones will cling to the most impactful of them. Each individual will have a different definition of who you were. After all, they can only draw from their perspective and experiences with you. The question is, how will they define you? Who are you in their eyes? What values did you stand for? Will the memories be positive, or are they crowded with mixed emotions and challenging times?
The outcome of this exercise is that thinking about the end highlights what is essential now. What behavior and values do you want to be remembered for? Those should lie at the core of your decisions and goals, but they’re often drowned out by unimportant demands of the day. Interestingly, this epiphany will occur to you at some point, no matter what. Death is one of the few things guaranteed in life, yet you walk through life without, and in some cases avoiding, the thought of it. Facing your death will ground you in the present moment and clarify your core priorities in life.
Who do you eat dinner with most often? If you live alone, which family members or friends do you wish were present tonight? As you have them in mind, imagine if they were in a tragic accident and did not make it to dinner. A mom, father, son, daughter, friend, or spouse has just passed, and the remaining dinner patrons, including yourself, eat with one less. How badly would you wish for their presence one last time so that you could have one last conversation and a final embrace? But, instead, the room is quiet, and your planning the next few days, thinking of what life will be like without them. What if your final conversation with that individual ended in anger? With a resentful comment? How meaningless would it feel now?
If done correctly, this 3-minute session is all you need to realize who and how important the people in your life are and how insignificant your quarries with them happen to be. As difficult as it is, imagining your loved ones’ death is a powerful tool to appreciate them. It eliminates the absurd things you hold against them and highlights what you love about them.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
~ John Milton
All these nightmares are someone else’s reality, and they might even be in your future. Living with thoughtful reminders of life’s horrific possibilities will fill you with appreciation, presence, and gratitude. It’s your most robust source of inspiration. It also adds a little bit of meaning to all the suffering worldwide by empathizing with sufferers and using their reality to appreciate your own. A daily 3 minutes of imagination will allow you to enjoy the day while generating a powerful sense of urgency, not to delay, and to act in your highest and kindest interests right now.
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