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Taking Care of Ourselves & Each Other

Health & Well-Being

How is Life Tree(ting) You?: The Power of Gratitude

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The Buddha told this parable, A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

The Wild Strawberry, A Zen Tale


Gratitude is powerful. Often underestimated and overlooked, the practice of gratitude has transformative potential, even in the most perilous (or dismal) circumstances. The parable of the wild strawberry comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition, and locates the practice of gratitude within the challenging reality of our lives. As we read we may ask ourselves, how is it that the protagonist in the story is able to notice and enjoy the sweetness of the strawberry with a grateful heart in the midst of such difficult circumstances? 

The truth of our lives is this: too often we find ourselves caught between one crisis and another. Accessing gratitude at such times is difficult, but integrating accessible and consistent gratitude practices can form and transform our mindset, emotional regulation, and relationships. Science tells us that cultivating gratitude in our lives leads to greater health, happiness, and resilience, but how on earth is it possible to practice gratitude when the circumstances of our lives make it difficult to feel grateful?
Faith traditions have offered many answers to this question through rituals and practices, but as James Clear outlines in his 2018 book Atomic Habits, one does not need a religious or spiritual frame to cultivate a formative practice of gratitude integrated into our daily lives. Consistent daily practices as simple as sharing ‘one thing’ for which you are grateful at dinner, or spending five minutes gratitude journaling in the morning or evening can positively impact your mental health and wellbeing. 

For more ideas about accessible gratitude practices to integrate into your daily life this season, student Fellows in the Meeting the Moment program have been exploring the power of gratitude by developing practices for their peers. Examples of this work include practicing gratitude through poetry and practicing gratitude through joy. Each of these resources offers concrete practices and perspectives on how students might locate and practice gratitude as intersectional humans living in a complex world. 

Written by: The Rev. Dr. Colleen Hallagan Preuninger, Associate Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life and Director of Student Engagement, Office for Religious and Spiritual Life