What to do when there is ‘nothing’ to be grateful for?

What to do when there is ‘nothing’ to be grateful for?

TLDR: How many of us have heard that we need to be ‘more positive’ and ‘be grateful’, often without much context to this advice? Have we wondered whether it is the most appropriate action for our situation?

A friend suggested that I start a gratitude journal to ‘be happier’. Having heard of the lauded benefits of a gratitude journal but having no urgency to undertake the exercise, I politely said “I’ll ask you more when I want to do it”. 

The second time he mentioned it again, I felt like I was being forced on something I did not need nor want. Nevertheless, I said “okay, tell me more” out of curiosity about his view.

He was probably glad that I was finally open to his suggestion and enthusiastically explained that I need to journal in the following order:

  1. End the day with three amazing things that happened in the day
  2. How could I have made today better?
  3. Start the next day with three things I’m grateful for
  4. What are three things that would make today better?
  5. An affirmation for the day

Be aware of the tunnel-view

Listening to his explanation, I enquired a little more: 

How do you define ‘amazing’? 

Must things always be ‘amazing’ for you to feel grateful?

What if you run out of amazing/good/better ‘things’ to be grateful for?

This friend was probably a little taken aback by my questions and carefully tried to shorten the conversation. I must admit I tend to question certain views/perspectives that seem ‘fixed’ on the surface, something that may not always be appreciated by others.

It is not the intention to challenge people for the sake of it or even to invalidate their views. It is mainly for active discussion on the bigger picture we might have missed by holding tightly to these views.

I do agree there are benefits to looking at (small and big) things in appreciation – like the quote we often hear: ‘What we focus on, becomes our reality.’

At the same time, I caution against whitewashing situations into positivity just because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do.

I see the benefit of honestly assessing feelings/emotions arising and looking deeper to see the source of such emotions and lessons I might find.

What does ‘grateful’ actually mean?

Grateful (adj) is defined in Oxford Learner’s Dictionary as “feeling or showing thanks because someone has done something kind for you or has done as you asked”. 

It makes sense to me that there is a need for a person to be grateful for something, whether or not it results from someone. 

Nevertheless, I’m speaking against forcefully conjuring up positive aspects to be grateful for when it could be more helpful to take a wider-angle approach. 

It was just months ago that I faced this. The old condition of lower back pain returned, in its worst form (yet). Since then, every single step caused a sharp pain in the back, I was unable to sit up or even bend from the waist. 

I joked with my colleagues that I was working horizontally – literally lying down with the laptop on bended knees. The flexibility to work from home was helpful then. 

As the weeks and months developed, the pain spread to the leg, and I was unable to sleep at night due to the almost constant aches. There was not only a worsening physical condition but also the plunging of my mind into darkness – a feeling of helplessness as I was living alone in Singapore. 

The fear crept in: ‘What if I fall, knock my head somewhere and just pass on?’, ‘What if I don’t recover this time?’ 

The familiar treatment cycle returned: specialist visits, scans, physiotherapy visits, chiropractor visits, TCM visits. The pain subsided and returned, sometimes lighter, sometimes stronger. The short period of relief was during deep sittings of meditation. After months of treatment, there was this exhausted air surrounding me.


When ‘gratitude’ takes a back seat, what can happen instead?

One day I decided to stop all treatment and laid with all the pain, fear, and anxiety. The pressure of efforts and expectations had finally got to me. I was burnt out from fixing my pain. I was extinguished before the pain was extinguished.

As soon as I made that decision inside my heart to not strive, a surge of peace arose. 

The pain and aches were still present, but the agitation and frustration surprisingly went away. I moved slowly through the days, physically and emotionally. A clear message surfaced for me: Take it slow. 

Sure, there were many things that I could focus on for gratitude: friends who checked up on me regularly, friends who offered to send food, situations that allowed me to work from home, and an understanding boss who allowed my short-notice days off for treatment visits. 

They were all valid ‘things’ to be grateful for. 

I do agree that we could steer the mind to be more aware of positive aspects of our day; not led astray by emotions into the darker side. 

But what if we just can’t? 

Not immediately or maybe not for this situation. We, perhaps, can just be with the pain and see it as it is. Pain is something not to be ‘treated quickly’ but something to be ‘embraced’. That opens us up to opportunities beyond ‘just’ being grateful for ‘things’ that the mind is mechanically forced to churn out.

Contemplate feelings within feelings

Even gratitude is also a variation of feeling, which ebbs and flows according to the situation. Rather than forcing myself to be grateful no matter what and making it an obligation to list things I’m grateful for, it was more helpful for me to watch the situation as it is. 

Frustrating time, grateful time, anxious time, angry time, happy time – they are part of human experiences. It is okay to feel them; see the temporary nature and let them be.

One emotion is not better or worse than the other, I can acknowledge all and not repress those I judge as ‘bad’ emotions. This is what I understood when I recently read Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta 10 (MN 10) which explains “contemplation of feelings within feelings”. I realised I was resisting the situation and feeling frustrated when my efforts didn’t bear my expected results.

Ajahn Brahm, a famous monk, mentioned that we sometimes feel guilty at ourselves for feeling guilty as we are ‘not supposed’ to feel that way as a ‘practising’ Buddhist. An unrealistic & painful way to live our lives.

This teaching echoes the Buddha who eloquently explained it:

Herein, monks, a monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, “I experience a pleasant feeling”;

when experiencing a painful feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful feeling”;

when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling,” he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.”

I was feeling physical pain, which resulted in wanting to remove the pain and frustration when I was unable to do so. I had unknowingly amplified the physical pain with unnecessary mental pain. When awareness of this situation arose and I was able to drop the mental pain, only physical pain remained – which wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t that bad either. 

My back’s condition has gotten better; I’m back to light treatment and a more physically active lifestyle since then. 

This experience taught me that the absence of gratitude does not automatically mean ingratitude or taking things for granted. 

Sometimes we may need to see things as they are, even when they do not fit in the ‘positive outlook’ that is repeatedly pushed on us. 

I am keeping my journaling practice, though it’s not reserved exclusively only for ‘gratitude journal’. But rather a blank space to document all kinds of experiences, reflections, and learnings. It brings about a wider life outlook for me than ‘just’ gratitude. 

Wise Steps:

  • Intentionally setting time and space for gratitude is generally a good habit. However, be careful of whitewashing situations with just ‘anything’ to be grateful for
  • Human experiences are rich and varied, encompassing positive and negative emotions – this is the nature of human experience
  • We do not have to force for ‘something’ to be grateful for, it’s okay to allow what we are feeling and see them as they are 
What makes a “Happy New Year”?

What makes a “Happy New Year”?

TLDR: A “Happy New Year” comes not from external conditions, but from appreciating the little blessings in life. The key is to adopt “gratitude as our attitude”.

During this festive season, we often wish our relatives and friends “Happy Chinese New Year”, or “恭喜发财“. In recent years, I started questioning – where does happiness (喜) in a new year come from?

For the young me, this was easily answered. Happiness came from playing with firecrackers, enjoying sumptuous dinners and sinful goodies, meeting my cousins to sing KTV/play cards, and watching TV shows till late.

As I grew up, my views changed. More than seeking pleasures derived from “consumption”, I saw the potential of seeking happiness through “appreciation”. In other words, gratitude.  

Gratitude to Parents (父母恩)

In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, there are 4 objects worthy of great gratitude (四重恩). The first object is none other than our parents.

Leading up to each Chinese New Year, my dad would busy himself around the house. Cleaning the fan, wiping the windows, changing cushion covers, hanging up decorations – the work seemed never-ending.

Typical Chinese New Year decorations at my house – spot the “福禄寿” bears?

I didn’t always appreciate these. The loud vacuum noises and the buckets laying around were a nuisance to me who was trying to study at home.

Mum was also busy during the Chinese New Year when my sister and I were young. She would pack our bags for our 3-day stay in Malaysia (our Grandmother’s house), tend to our daily needs away from home, and deal with any contingencies. I recall once when I fell ill with a stomachache – Mum’s Chinese New Year was spent with me visiting the doctor instead of relatives.

As I grew up, I had to take over some spring-cleaning tasks from my dad. With baby nieces and nephews around, I had to babysit them as well. These made me realise how much I have overlooked the contributions of my parents in giving me a “normal” Chinese New Year to enjoy.

I realised that the “normalcy” I enjoyed during Chinese New Year when I was young was built on their sacrifice.

Gratitude to Country (国土恩)

It was a challenge going into Malaysia each year with traffic jams at the immigration customs lasting up to 3 hours. There were even times when my family was delayed and had to have reunion “suppers” instead!

As a youth, I was often frustrated at the other cars. “Why do all of you have to leave at the same time?”, I would wonder. Also, couldn’t the customs officers work faster?  

One year, I realised, “I was not stuck in traffic. I WAS the traffic”. I realised that the customs officers were part of the solution, while I was part of the problem.

Traffic jams at the customs during Chinese New Years can last up to 3 hours
Source: The Straits Times 

Frustration gave way to appreciation to the customs officers. Thanks to them, our immigration system is working smoothly and our national borders are kept safe.

Thus, the second object of gratitude is to our country (e.g. public service; national infrastructure; healthcare/immigration/security system). These blessings are not always visible, but they provide the foundation for us to lead our normal lives.

Gratitude to All Beings (众生恩)

Many beings bring convenience to our lives. We may not know most of their names and faces, but we have benefited from their contributions. They form the third object for gratitude.   

Chinese New Year offers many opportunities for us to observe how people have helped us.

In recent years, I started noticing the waiters who serve our food at reunion dinners, the chefs who prepare the food, the entertainers who perform in celebratory “countdown” shows for us, the cleaners who clean up the mess made after New Year events, and many more.

I realised that things are easy and pleasant only because people help one another. We influence one another, living in a community and society, and our lives are deeply interwoven.

Recollecting the debt of gratitude we have for fellow sentient beings, I feel connected to others around me. This brings much comfort and warmth.

Gratitude to the Triple Gem (三宝恩)

The final object for recollection is to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) – our safe and secure refuge.

Reflecting on my life, I discovered that I was constantly seeking things to invest my faith/time/effort in return for some happiness. This can take the form of relationships, wealth, fame, job, or even rituals.

We are all seeking a “refuge” to seek comfort from. For example, a popular “tradition” in Singapore is to pray at a temple upon the turn of the Lunar New Year. Some even make efforts to be the first person to offer prayers (插头香) in the belief that it is an auspicious act.

Typical scene of temple-goers rushing offer incense (插头香) during Lunar New Year
Source: The Straits Times 

 Lunar New Year can help us to consider what we choose to invest our faith in. For me, the New Year encourages me to reaffirm my faith in the Triple Gem.

This reminds me that true happiness is a function of my efforts, and not from external conditions. For that, I am grateful.

What makes a “Happy New Year”?

A “Happy New Year” need not just be a cursory greeting we repeat during the 15 days of New Year festivals during house visits. It can also be a sincere aim to strive towards for the entire year.

Things will never be totally smooth in life. If we depend on favourable external conditions to bring us happiness, we will never be able to find much stability.  

However, with gratitude as our attitude, we can learn to observe the little blessings around us. Through patient and consistent effort, we can gradually learn to see challenges as opportunities for growth and to find the silver lining in dire situations.

This would be the true cause for happiness in our lives, and allow us to enjoy a “Happy New Year”. 

Wise Steps

  • Keep a gratitude journal. This can be a physical notebook, a virtual word document, or even a private instagram page. Be disciplined in writing down something everyday. 
  • When idle, play a game with yourself – note down 10 things around you to be grateful for. Challenge yourself to identify blessings you have taken for granted. 
  • Train your mind to see problems as challenges, and as opportunities for growth. Be grateful for the tough times in life, and be worthy of your sufferings. 

Lockdown In Paris: How I Stayed Connected During The Pandemic

Lockdown In Paris: How I Stayed Connected During The Pandemic

TLDR: Sometimes, a crisis does not always have to be doom and gloom, if we have some innovation and a willingness to experiment!  

Recently, a good friend forwarded me a Zoom meditation retreat led by Venerable Canda and Ajahn Brahm of the Anukampa Bhikkkhuni project. I rolled my eyes in my sockets a little (because my friend knew I was under lockdown in Paris and didn’t have anywhere else to go), but was enthused by the idea of attending a retreat. The last one I attended had been over 3 years ago (even before moving to Paris)!

Immediately after that, however, I was accosted by scepticism that retreats need to be conducted in person. Online retreats would not be any good.

Indeed, the absence of any interaction with a teacher who could read retreatants’ body language and signals to guide retreatants was slightly worrying. Being in the physical presence of a teacher was psychologically important for me.

Nevertheless, the lack of an opportunity to attend a retreat for the past 3 years pushed me to sign up. I am very glad I did, as my preconceived notions were pushed out of the window.

Zooming out of the lockdown and into my heart

From the very first time I tuned in, I could feel waves of authenticity coming from Venerable Canda and Ajahn Brahm, who were conducting the retreat together. Their faces, as they looked at us in our little screens, radiated compassion and warmth that was no different from being there  in person.

The only difference? This time we could see them up close!

Because it was happening in real-time, there was no feeling of artificiality or forcedness. Indeed, both venerable admitted halfway through the retreat that they were also slightly apprehensive about whether people would be receptive to  an extended online retreat. It had gone even better than they had expected!

Somehow, as Venerable Canda put it, they managed to intuitively gauge the audience and “pitch to the middle” as they would have done in person.

When words speak to the heart and the person at the other end is speaking from theirs whilst tailoring it to you, it doesn’t matter whether it is done in person or online.

Is ‘community’ missing from online zoom retreats?

Another pleasant surprise that I had underestimated was the presence of community at the retreat. Again, I had assumed that any sense of community would have been obliterated by our inability to be together in person. I was happy to be proved spectacularly wrong.

I discovered that encouraging retreatants to turn their video on placed faces to names, and sometimes facial expressions during the talk.

This created a palpable sense of community – we were all experiencing something together at the same time.

What helped even more at the end of the retreat was an opportunity to interact with fellow retreatants who shared on their retreat experience. While it was put in place to help ease retreatants back into everyday life, it also allowed us to connect more deeply with others.

In the two minutes per person that we were given, people turned from faces on a screen to living, breathing beings with their own problems, aspirations and thoughts. Such beautiful sharings forged an inexplicable sense of togetherness.

Do we need retreat centres to disconnect?

Having the retreat at home made me rethink my assumption that retreats always needed to be in retreat centres or temples, lest  we “just cannot disconnect”!

While my room as a psychological place of safety had taken a beating after working from home commenced, retooling the room for the meditation retreat made me view my room in a positive way that I had never seen before.

While I had done meditation in my room before, it was always peripheral to the function of my room, in my mind at least. With the meditation retreat being conducted at home, I needed to go beyond my usual meditation spot to find different spaces that could allow me to change around a bit. A small achievement! I managed to clear a small path for walking within my small room!

It does sound cliché, but the retreat was an opportunity to show me that sometimes we are constrained by our views and supposed knowledge. A fresh and happy mind is very conducive to creatively develop things of value.

This online Zoom retreat was an immensely positive experience for me. I am very grateful for the organisers’ kindness and also willingness to experiment. I had so much joy hearing from other participants on how they were able to let go of their various negativities of depression, anger or anxiety. With that letting go, they gently develop contentment with the moment during the retreat.

By the end I had tears bursting out from my eyes! With the right intention and some wisdom and creativity, it was a great demonstration for me. A demonstration that truly meaningful solutions can be developed that are beneficial to others. I hope to take this inspiration and apply it in my own life as well.

Wishing everyone good thoughts and safety through this pandemic.

Wise Steps:

  • Be open to trying online retreats, it will reshape the way you think!
  • Find joy in the sharing of others, lessening the importance on the story of ‘Me’

Help us spread more goodness to the world