“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” ~Willie Nelson
Few things have the power to totally transform one’s life as gratitude. Gratitude is the wellspring of happiness and the foundation of love. It is also the anchor of true faith and genuine humility. Without gratitude, the toxic stew of bitterness, jealousy, and regret boils over inside each of us.
I would know. As a teenager and as a young man, I lived life without gratitude and experienced the terrible pain of doing so.
Outwardly, I appeared to be a friendly, happy, and gracious person. I could make any person laugh and I was loyal to my friends through thick and thin. However, beneath the surface an intense fire raged within me.
Despite receiving boundless love and attention from my wonderful family, I was inwardly resentful about my adoption as a child. For many years, three bitter questions ran on repeat in my mind:
- Why did my birth mother give me up for adoption when I was only months old?
- Why did I try so desperately hard to win acceptance from others when it was clear that I just didn’t fit in anywhere?
- Why did I have to experience the pain and confusion of not truly belonging?
As I allowed these questions to dominate my thoughts, I began to experience a range of negative and unpleasant emotions as a result. Among the worst of these feelings was that I came to see myself as a victim of circumstance. Of course, as I would later realize, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Far from being a victim of circumstance, I was a blessed recipient of grace. But at the time I couldn’t see that.
Eventually, my sense of resentment at being adopted contributed to destructive behaviors like heavy drinking.
Throughout the entirety of my early adulthood, I filled my desperate need for belonging with endless partying and a hedonistic lifestyle. During those years, I found myself in many unhealthy romantic relationships with women, partook in too many destructive nights of drinking to count, and frequently got into brushes with police.
During that difficult time in my life, I also seriously contemplated suicide. I even got to the point where I meticulously planned how I would carry it out: through overdosing on pills and alcohol. And I even purchased both the bottle of booze and pills for the act.
Had it not been for the last-second torturous thoughts of inflicting such an emotional toll on my family, I am quite certain that I would have followed through on taking my own life.
On into adulthood, my own refusal to put in the long hours on myself and address my adoption led me in a downward spiral. I was fired from several full-time teaching jobs, continued to battle with alcohol abuse, frequently lashed out in fits of anger at others, and I restlessly moved from one place or another every year or two believing that a change in location would somehow translate into my finally finding a semblance of inner peace.
For the better part of my twenties and early thirties, my mind’s demons continued to get the best of me. This cycle of discontent persisted until a dramatic turning point happened in my life. While on a trip to Maui, Hawaii, with family, I experienced an unforgettable moment of healing while hiking in the transcendent beauty of that mystical island.
On the third or fourth day of the trip, I found myself wandering alone on a little trail that unexpectedly led to the edge of a breathtaking cliff overlooking the crystal blue ocean. While standing there, I felt so overwhelmed with joy that I instantly tore off all my clothes and let out a great big primal yell! For the first time since childhood, I felt undulating waves of peace wash over me.
Today, when I reflect on what I truly felt in that moment, I recognize it was gratitude. I felt pure gratitude to be alive. And I felt pure gratitude to finally know that I was a part of something infinitely greater than my mind could ever comprehend. While standing there in awe of the Earth’s glorious wonder, I also experienced overflowing feelings of gratitude for my adoption.
Suddenly, everything about my adoption made perfect sense.
It was my destiny to be adopted into the family I was. It was also an incomprehensibly high and selfless act of love for my birth mother to give me up for adoption, knowing that I would have more doors opened to me in America. And of course, it was also an incomprehensibly high and selfless act of love for my adoptive mother to endure horrific physical abuse and an exhausting legal battle just to get me out of Greece.
In that moment, I feel like I was catapulted into a higher realm of consciousness, where the boundary dissolved between who it was that thought they were the knower and the subject they thought was being known. In that moment, there was no me. There was no birth mother. There was no adoptive mother and father. We were all just one perfect expression of love.
The point of this somewhat long-winded story is that no spiritual breakthrough for me would have even been possible without the power of gratitude. For it was at the root of that profound glimpse of reality I experienced in that indescribably perfect moment. Since that life-altering day, I have tried to make gratitude the cornerstone of the inner walk that I do on myself.
Each evening just before going to bed I make it a point to write down at least two things that I was grateful for from that day. The idea of starting a gratitude journal may sound cliché to some, but it has helped me navigate life with more gratitude. Since starting the journal, I also feel like I am starting to have greater appreciation for those blessings that I used to take for granted, like good health and access to clean water, air, and food.
From my own experience with the adoption, I have come to believe that one of the greatest benefits from starting a gratitude journal is that it helps pull us out of our own egoic way of thinking that sees ourselves as victims of circumstance.
When we consciously set out to cultivate gratitude in our day-to-day lives, we come to see the ample opportunities for personal growth that emerge out of our trying life experiences.
Now, whenever I hear someone complain that they are a victim of this or that circumstance, I listen quietly with an open heart to their predicament. But when they finish telling their story and ask me for my thoughts and advice, I reply with the following questions:
But what are you grateful for? And what are the lessons that you learned through your adversity?
Gratitude profoundly transforms our relationship with suffering. When we acknowledge the feelings of gratitude within us, we come to re-perceive even the worst events in our lives as grist for the mill.
It is not at all necessary for you to travel to some faraway paradise like Hawaii to cultivate gratitude. We all have the innate capacity to experience this same profound sense of gratitude where we are now in this moment.
About Forrest Rivers
Forrest Rivers is a seeker and lover of the earth who enjoys hiking with his dog, Abbie. He has appeared on over 55 consciousness-themed podcasts and radio shows. He is the author of The Hippie Revival and Collected Writings, and his forthcoming book, Humanity’s Spiritual Rebirth, is set to be published in 2024. You can reach Forrest through Facebook and his website (forrestrivers.com) and follow his new YouTube channel, Mystic Soul Revival with Forrest Rivers.