Sometimes, you need to leave the things you love the most to better appreciate them. And oftentimes, being immersed in a place where the money is scarce but the joy is abundant will shake out your petty anxieties like a dusty rug, leaving only a thick layer of gratitude and contentment to settle deep at the bottom of your heart.
I have said here before that if there is a single before and after in my life up until this point, it would be the moment I started practicing yoga. That was how I laid the foundations for what I’m about to describe.
But if there is a second, it would be when I moved away from my home town to pursue my studies in Toronto for a year, and then moved to Mexico for three months. I was doing an internship there three days a week while staying with a host family, and used the other four to travel the country staying with locals I’d met through the Couchsurfing website. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
How I Found Gratitude and Learned to Love Life
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.
When I came back, I’d changed so completely that my friends’ jaws were left dragging on the floor. From the weight in the room who struggled with feelings of inadequacy, I became the boy with a bounce in his step that others looked to for energy and encouragement. From an anxious type whose mental wheels would spin in the ditch of imagined offenses, I became the clear-eyed comfort who would remind friends of the sun over the horizon.
What happened to me? To put it simply: I found gratitude, and it changed everything.
The view from outside your comfort zones
Nothing builds confidence like a self-imposed exile from your comfort zones, where you learn that you not only find your footing quickly, but can sail with ease through a foreign land where your language skills are rough at best, navigating by the smiles of strangers to discover a whole new world of human connections.
With each new encounter and each new sight or sound, smell or taste, you breathe in gratitude with every breath — thankful not only for the awesome beauty of the world we inhabit; not only for the treasure of all of humanity’s open hearts and open arms; but perhaps most important of all, for the deep wells of capacity and intuition within yourself that steered you there, and that will propel you towards continuous growth and learning throughout your life.
The grateful harvest: returning home
It was after returning home that I noticed the true transformation begin to take flight.
Coming home from Mexico, the juxtaposition with the North American lifestyle was stark. All around me, I saw the faces of stress and worry, signs of tensed hearts and foggy eyes, and a society of sleep-deprived sprinters on a frantic race to find “success” and happiness around the bend. Yet in our noble hunt for the horizon, so many of us forget to appreciate the flowers that blossom at our feet.
It’s a tragic irony that in the countries where we have the most, you’ll find the people who seem to cherish life’s gifts the least. We have safety, security, and food on our tables. We have life in our veins, and, for most of us, love in our lives.
Yet we forget to feel it, and seem to try our hardest to make life and happiness as complicated as we can.
There’s life in your veins. Feel it.
Though it certainly helps, you don’t need to travel the world to open your eyes to the wonders of its beauty. Humans are sentient, after all. We’re the only beings on the planet that don’t just see the lush green of foliage and crisp blue of the sky, but can actually pause to enjoy the great gift of consciousness that allows us to soak it all in.
Remember that next time you savor a delicious meal, touch the warmth of a lover’s skin, or soar to the sounds of your favorite musician. You have five glorious senses that let you connect to the world, and you’re alive.
There’s love in your life. Cherish it.
Every day I was away from home made me look longingly towards my friends back home, and realize just how fortunate I was. When I returned to them after what felt like an eternity, my relationship to them and myself had been profoundly transformed. It spelled the end of my perpetual search for insatisfaction, and my instinctive drive to find ways to always want more. Four years later, I remain permanently in awe of the incredible souls I’ve surrounded myself with, and the gratitude and acceptance of them that’s flowed from this has further deepened and strengthened our bonds over time.
Who built this beauty? You did.
It always astounds me to hear the things people tell themselves in their worse moments – or to remember the things I used to tell myself! Write them down the next time you judge or criticize yourself harshly, and then read them imagining that it were a message written to you by your closest friend. What would you think?
When you learn to be grateful for your life and loved ones, you also learn to love the artist of all the beauty – yourself. Perhaps the most important part of learning to be grateful is how it transforms us from our own worst enemy into our own best friend. And if you can learn to love your own company, happiness is always a breath away.
You’ve come a long way.
When I think back to all the connections I made on my couchsurfing adventures, and then remember the shy and nervous youth who struggled years earlier to break the ice with strangers at youth hostels in Europe, I’m astounded. Just like when I conjure the smaller me who once felt like an impostor among a social group that inspired him, and then look with bewilderment at the person today who can channel the comfort he found in his own skin to guide those near him towards theirs. This is how I capture the incredible distance I’ve come in tackling my own insecurities. For you, it may be in overcoming other personal, mental or emotional obstacles, or perhaps in your professional accomplishments. Look to your life, and you’ll find your own progress story.
When you learn to appreciate progress over a longer time span, it helps calm the stress and anxieties related to daily (often self-imposed) pressures. I found this new sense of perspective to be essential for another reason too, in that it nurtured the crucial virtue of patience.
Now imagine what’s to come.
This newfound gratitude I felt for life, my loved ones, myself, and the progress I’d made had laid the seeds for a surging sense of self-love, confidence, patience and perspective that remains with me today.
These qualities have enabled me to trust my own instincts and listen to my heart, in order to learn from it rather than judging it. This encouraged me to set goals that flowed from my true passions and desires, which in turn fuelled my motivation and determination to pursue them. It helped steel me against setbacks too, allowing me to be nimble and compassionate towards myself when I hit the inevitable bumps along the road.
Gratitude, then, is about much more than an occasional thought for the riches in your life. It is a process, which once begun, can transform your relationship to yourself, your life and others. Open your eyes a little wider, and find yours.