“If you’re going to make a change, you’re going to have to operate from a new belief that says life happens not to me but for me. If we trade our expectations for appreciation, the world changes instantly.” -Tony Robbins
One Friday evening in March of last year, I set off for Port Renfrew to meet a small group of girlfriends for a much-needed, restorative weekend away. My husband had graciously agreed to hold down the fort for two nights. It would be my first weekend away from my baby boy, a bittersweet prospect. I had made the deliberate choice to drive the 2 ½ hour journey on my own, embracing the opportunity of delicious solitude with almost nervous anticipation. The typical wet west coast climate had been replaced by a bone-dry couple of weeks, but as dusk fell, I could smell the imminence of rain in the cool air. Before departing, I had secured our paddleboard onto the roof of the vehicle, programmed my GPS (to Handsome Dan’s Cottages in Port Renfrew) and selected an episode from my favourite podcast to accompany my drive (a two-part Tim Ferriss interview with Tony Robbins). I had just finished watching I am not your Guru on Netflix earlier that week and was interested to learn more about Robbin’s values and principles.
As the suburbs, streetlights, and sidewalks gave way to lush west coast foliage, lumbering cedar trees, and blacktop that stretched endlessly before me, I felt the weight of my shoulders lessen and exhaled deeply. About 2 hours into the trip, as I was listening to the fascinating interview, Robbins invited the audience to do a short, guided gratitude exercise (which is linked here and here). He discussed the scientific benefits of gratitude on our bodies and the way that our heart (EKG) and brain (EEG) literally align when you experience a state of gratitude. I’m guessing he explained this perhaps to convince the skeptics that this is not just some feel-good exercise, but that it has lasting physiological benefits. I was intrigued.
I should mention, by this point in the journey, I was starting to feel a little edgy. It was dark, the road was unfamiliar, and the GPS, which hadn’t spoken to me in over an hour, seemed to be struggling with the lack of consistent service signals. A little voice inside kept wondering if I’d ever make it to my friends and the cozy cabin we’d rented.
Pushing the negative thoughts to the periphery of my mind, I allowed myself to be guided through the exercise. First, we were instructed to identify a stressful situation or conflict in our lives (umm…getting lost in the middle of nowhere with no service, immediately sprung to mind). Then, he encouraged us to think of one, two, then three separate moments or memories for which we are grateful. For each one, Robbins directed the listeners to recall the sensory experience in order to fully immerse ourselves in the memory. Research has shown that when we relive a beautiful experience, it truly transforms our mental state to a more positive, optimistic one.
Finally, he asked us to think of a coincidence in our lives, something that has happened for us which has resulted in a new job, a new connection, or a profound realization.
In that exact moment, two enormous shapes materialized on the road in front of me. Time slowed down, as my foot slammed on the brake pedal and I narrowly avoided hitting what turned out to be two majestic elk, making their way across the road. My heart pounding, the vehicle slightly askew, I took a moment to process what had just happened and lowered my window to gaze at the creatures who had paused to inspect me with their huge, gentle eyes.
Robbin’s voice cut into the silence, as if to punctuate the moment: “Was it a coincidence, or were you guided? What if you believed that life was happening for you, not to you?” A chill raced along the length of my spine. Not a moment later, my GPS kicked in, confirming that I was merely minutes away from my destination. I don’t know if it was the sleep exhaustion, the adrenaline rush of such a close call, or the fateful coincidental timing of the whole experience, but as I sat there in my car, keenly aware of my smallness in this giant universe, I felt a tear roll down my cheek.
About 15 minutes later, I finally entered the cabin, greeted by my friends’ smiling faces, fellow moms seeking to recharge, as well. And recharge, we did! During the course of the weekend, we had unexpected dance parties, we took sopping beach hikes in the torrential rain, we spent hours talking, we cried, we took photos, we ate, and we laughed until our bellies hurt.
Sunday came, and I had one more thing to do. After packing and cleaning up, my friends set off for home. I crammed my body into the wetsuit, loaded the truck, and headed out in search for the perfect spot to go paddle-boarding…by myself. One of my friends had pulled me aside that morning, asking if I wanted company. Kindly, I had declined. For many reasons, heading out solo to go paddle-boarding was something I never would have considered doing when my daughter was an infant. I would have found reasons to avoid going (the discomfort of wriggling into an uncomfortable wetsuit, feeling guilty for taking time to myself, feeling incapable of pulling the heavy board off of the truck). In my life, I have tended to opt for certainty over adventure. But, here I was, as a mom of two, seeking the unknown adventure that stood before me. Going it alone was part of the idyllic uncertainty.
Initially, I had pulled into a spot near the ocean-side of the bay, but pounding surf, powerful wind gusts, and side-ways rain made me swiftly reconsider my choice. After a few minutes of searching, I finally settled on a calm lagoon location on the opposite side of the bay, with no evidence of current or waves. I parked the truck, acutely aware of my seclusion. With no one around for miles and no service signal whatsoever, I was truly on my own. It was thrilling!
I retrieved the step-ladder from the trunk and hauled the bulky board off of the roof awkwardly, making sure not to damage it. I felt a little jolt of pride, quickly retrieved the paddle, set it beside the board, and returned the step-ladder. Carefully, I tucked my purse and phone under the back seat and locked the door.
As I stood at the edge of a bank overlooking the lagoon, my eyes were drawn to the fluid movements of a heron, the colour of steel blue, in the distance, observing as he skimmed the water before rising into the sky and disappearing against its white backdrop. The silence was almost deafening juxtaposed against the comfortable commotion to which I had grown accustomed at home. A thin, wispy fog hung just above and veiled the glassy expanse of water, from which darkened logs and deteriorated bulkheads rose like alligators. Droplets of falling rain broke the water’s surface, creating ever-expanding hypnotic concentric circles.
I turned back to the truck and placed my keys above the tire in the wheel well of the car; I didn’t want to run the risk of soaking my fob and rendering it useless. Almost immediately, I removed them. Too obvious! I certainly didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere without a vehicle, either.
Then, in a moment of infinite wisdom, I rested them just inside the front fender. I know… I KNOW!! In slow motion, I watched motionless as the keys tipped from their stationary resting place and slipped down under the engine compartment. Hoping that they had miraculously fallen to the ground, I dashed under the truck only to discover that they were tucked between the engine and its protective metal casing…completely out of sight and reach.
Under normal circumstances, I would have completely panicked. I would have cried. I would have started the downward spiral of hopeless thinking: no keys, no phone, NO SOLUTION! Then, my mind would have given way to all of the worst-case scenarios possible. That being said, I’d be lying if I didn’t have momentary visions of desperate hitch-hiking, serial killers, and being chased by bears.
But, the truth is, I had come to this very place to prove my independence, strength, and to challenge my fears. I had asked and the universe had delivered. Perhaps, this could be a lesson, for which I might be grateful one day. I remembered Robbins asserting,
“You can’t be fearful and grateful simultaneously. Gratitude is the antidote to fear.”
The instant I stopped resisting my current reality, the fear and panic dissipated. Time passed sluggishly, as I calmly lay down under the truck, tried every possible method to blindly reach the keys. I completely filthied my wetsuit, hands, and hair in the process. Finally, after twenty minutes of fruitless searching, I decided to change my approach.
I peered inside the engine compartment, through a tiny slit near the wheel well. A glint of gleaming metal caught my eye. The KEYS! Carefully, I squeezed my hand past the sharp metal encasement to reach them. After several suspenseful, painful, and frustrating minutes, I managed to finally grasp the keys between two fingers and retrieve them.
My heart pounding, pure elation and gratitude emanated from my soul. Covered from head to toe in mud and engine oil and my hand scratched-up and slightly bloodied from the sharp metal edges, I couldn’t help the enormous smile that spread over my face and my exclamations of joy that soon followed. I quickly recovered my phone from the truck and took a quick picture, proof of my incredible experience. Then, tucking the keys into one of the wetsuit pockets, I headed out onto the water, my heart genuinely full of gratitude and appreciation.
Want to bring gratitude part of your daily practice? Here are 7 ways you can bring gratitude into your life, in meaningful, authentic ways:
- Actively cultivate moments of gratitude : Use your 5 senses to take a mental picture or video of the moment. Put your phone down. Be present. It’ll make the memory unforgettable and forever locked in your mind, something you can bring forth whenever you want.
- Limit your gratitude practice to listing three things: PhD researcher Adam Grant explains in his book, Option B, that a regular gratitude practice, involving listing three things for which you are grateful daily, can help you nurture your resilience after loss or during adversity. But, when you try to list more than three, it can become overwhelming and counteract any benefits.
- Be specific and authentic: Don’t just say the same 3 things you think you should be saying…that doesn’t enter the realm of authenticity, your brain will check out, and you won’t be connecting. Instead, keep it fresh and exciting by looking for opportunities –One person, one memory, something right in front of you-keeps you grounded no matter how bad or overwhelming your life might feel.
- Give yourself a timeline: If you’re a skeptic, you don’t feel like you have time, or you plain just don’t want to…make a declaration to try it for 7 days and see if your outlook changes.
- Do twist on Gratitude: If you’ve done gratitude work before and you want to do something different, think about reflecting on your contributions that day. Dr. Adam Grant asserts that gratitude is passive, but contribution is about action. What three things have you done today to contribute to your home, work, school, or community to make it better?
- Zoom in: Marie Forleo talks about focusing on one person or moment for which you are grateful. She encourages her listeners to zero- in with a macro lens on 3-5 qualities you appreciate about them or how that situation improved your life.
- Write your gratitude down! When we write things down, our brain processes it more completely on a subconscious level. When it comes to goals, for example, we are 42% more likely to achieve them when we’ve written them down. I think we’re kept accountable, and it also serves as proof that good stuff really is happening in our lives.
Comment below to share your gratitude practice!