This winter solstice seemed darker than most. Maybe it was the lunar eclipse that occurred an hour or so after midnight, or the clouds and incessant rain that cloaked the sky over usually-sunny southern California for days on end. Or maybe it was simply that on the winter solstice, it’s just plain dark… and over the rest of the year I somehow forget this. So as the year turns, as we inch toward longer days, I find myself contemplating what it is like to emerge from the darkness.

As years have seasons, so do our lives. Life flows in cycles, with high points and those less-than-high-ones as well. And at the nadir of each wave, at its lowest point, life might seem pretty dark. Culturally, we have a tendency to see darkness as negativity, to want to fight the shadows (anyone read Lord of the Rings lately?) and to emerge victorious and bathed in light. However, over the past few years a slightly softer approach has made itself apparent in my life… the practice of gratitude.

Most of us take time once or twice a year to look back, look around us, and recognize all that we have, all that we’ve been given. We offer from our hearts sincere gratitude for all the goodness we’ve been gifted in our lives. In contrast, there are also times when it is very difficult to see out of the darkness, difficult to recognize the good, and feeling grateful is far from our minds or hearts. In my experience it is in these times when the power of gratitude is so strong that it can be the first step out of a cycle of negativity, depression, or at times even illness. These difficulties can be heavy weights to bear, and it can be frustrating to hear someone say, “Just try to see the good in the situation.” Sometimes it is simply not that easy; the leap, for example, from severe depression to happiness is a chasm often too large to make in a single bound. Instead, during these times, a first step toward making this leap is finding just one simple thing in life for which we can be grateful. As with the solstice, the cloaking in our lives provides crucial time for planting seeds, which can only be done in the darkness. By recognizing this darkness as a time for setting intention, and allowing ourselves to experience the quietness and introspection that comes with it, we begin to soften and allow the gratitude to arise naturally.

One recommendation I’ve been given that I’d like to pass on is starting a regular gratitude practice. Whether through journaling, voicing it aloud, or simply meditating, take time on a regular basis to tap into a deep appreciation for life. At first it may feel a little contrived, or you may think you have little to be grateful for; however, as you open to it you may be surprised how much pours out of you. My teacher Amy once told me that she journals on 3-5 things for which she is grateful every single night, and after several years, she has never run out of items to write down. As for me, I’ve found that I now experience spontaneous, almost overwhelming, bursts of gratitude in seemingly simple or mundane moments in my life. When I feel this appreciation, it makes me smile, it spills over into other parts of my life, and it affects all of the people around me. The secret behind the power of gratitude is that it works slowly, unraveling the patterns of negativity that can underly our daily thoughts and actions. Working with a gratitude practice over a period of time, you just might find that even on the darkest days of your year, you are able to recognize opportunity, to plant seeds of intention, and to honor the shadow as just one part of the continual cycle of life. And for that, you can truly be thankful.

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