Gratitude Is More Than a Practice – Keith Kurlander & Will Van Derveer – HPP 128
In this episode, we explore the connection between presence and gratitude, and how to develop gratitude during challenging experiences. We will also examine how ingratitude affects our mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. Plus, we’ll discuss different practices that can help with maintaining gratitude throughout the day.
Gratitude and Presence – 02:29
If I’m not experiencing gratitude, I don’t, I think it’s a little, it’s hard to be present if I’m not experiencing. If I’m not grateful for my experience, it’s hard to be present to the experience because then I want it to go away.
The Stakes Went Up When I Became a Father – 03:57
So I think I realized that gratitude is a barometer that I’m actually really feeling thankful for the experience. And so I think something about the birth of my daughter sped that up for me, that’s like, well, if I can’t be grateful now, and whatever else, career, success, there’s other factors here but if I can’t be grateful now, I’m never gonna be grateful. Like there’s nothing coming in the future that’s gonna allow me to be grateful. That’s what I think the reality that set in for me in the last few years, nothing new coming in the future that’s going to finally be like now I’m grateful.
An Expensive State – 08:02
Well, what it feels like to me in my system is that an ungrateful state is an expensive state to be in energetically. Because I can feel the stress and the tension in my body, in my mind, and there can be an attachment to complaint or feeling aggrieved, or just generally not appreciating what’s happening.
Control and Gratitude – 13:41
There’s probably an underlying belief that we’re losing control if we become grateful, we’re losing our sense of controlling the experience once we become grateful to it, and we’re, potentially it could happen again if we don’t clap down. So for me, there’s probably an element of control when I’m not grateful, I’m trying to control the course going in a different direction than the experience went in.
The Path is the Goal – 17:35
I think the desire to get somewhere in our lives, wherever that destination is, if our path has been blocked by X, Y, or Z, we’re not going to feel grateful for that, not initially. Not unless we can discover the ways that that challenge benefits us.
Trauma Plays a Role – 21:57
It’s when you realize and appreciate that without having been through that trauma, you wouldn’t be who you are today. And the fact that you love who you are today has to by definition, include how you were changed by that trauma.
Full Episode Transcript
Keith Kurlander, Dr. Will Van Derveer
Dr. Will Van Derveer 00:08
Thank you for joining us for the higher practice Podcast. I’m Dr. Will Van Derveer, with Keith Kurlander, and this is the Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. Hi Keith.
Keith Kurlander 00:27
Dr. Will Van Derveer 00:28
So here we are again.
Keith Kurlander 00:31
We find ourselves here again. Somehow it keeps happening.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 00:36
Yeah. And we thought it would be fun to explore a topic that a lot of people are thinking about this time of year, which is gratitude. And the way we think about it, how we relate to it, some different aspects of it that we find interesting. So I guess my first thought for today is to ask you, how would you describe your relationship to gratitude? And how do you relate to that concept or that experience?
Keith Kurlander 01:09
That’s a great question. So I think that right now for myself, I relate to gratitude differently than I did a long time ago. I would say right now that it’s very important to me to practice returning to the experience of gratitude, and to holding myself accountable as much as I can when I’m not feeling grateful to finding my way back. And I don’t think that that was my practice for most of my life around gratitude. I think that I did some more, I mean, almost like a more religious tone around gratitude. It’s like this thing of bad if you’re not feeling grateful, and it’s like you should be grateful, I should be grateful. So just say you’re grateful. I’ve done that. But like, I don’t think that most of my adult life, I actually, like to hold myself accountable, that it’s actually important to get back to gratitude. So right now, my relationship to gratitude is that I’ve actually elevated, seriously elevated the importance of returning to a state of gratitude when I’m not feeling grateful and recognizing that the experience of gratitude is really the only way I can be present. If I’m not experiencing gratitude, I don’t, I think it’s a little, it’s hard to be present if I’m not experiencing. If I’m not grateful for my experience, it’s hard to be present to the experience because then I want it to go away. I’ll stop, there is a lot to say about presence and gratitude. But how about you? How are you relating to gratitude these days?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 02:49
Well, I have one follow up before I move over.
Keith Kurlander 02:51
Dr. Will Van Derveer 02:52
I’m happy to speak about it myself but something you said got my attention which is that there was a change in you around your relationship with it. A few years ago, maybe? And I’m wondering if you could speak to that and what happened there.
Keith Kurlander 03:08
You know, it’s probably related to becoming a father when that change happened, because that’s what had happened. And I think it may also be related to my age, 47. I think that at some point, I recently, in the last number of years, I recognize that if I can’t be grateful during my day or an experience, and then I’m missing out on a lot of time in my life where I’m wishing, like the opposite of grateful, which is whatever that is for each person. For me, the opposite of grateful is, I don’t want the thing to be happening. I don’t want my experience to be happening like I’m not thankful and grateful for it, I’m not embracing it. So I think I realized that gratitude is a barometer that I’m actually really feeling thankful for the experience. And so I think something about the birth of my daughter sped that up for me, that’s like, well, if I can’t be grateful now, and whatever else, career, success, there’s other factors here but if I can’t be grateful now, I’m never gonna be grateful. Like there’s nothing coming in the future that’s gonna allow me to be grateful. That’s what I think the reality that set in for me in the last few years, nothing new coming in the future that’s going to finally be like now I’m grateful.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 04:35
Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it makes sense that becoming a father definitely puts you in a different position in that relationship. Well, I think when I was a very young person, gratitude came in waves a lot for me, I remember being and stepping into states of gratitude very easily, especially when I was in wilderness. Growing up in Tennessee and being in the woods, I was instantly grateful. And then things got more complicated as I grew up and I think I was like most people, in a kind of more passive relationship with gratitude and enjoying the experience, but not cultivating it, not committing to it, not generating it, not taking responsibility for it. And that went on for a long time. And then I can’t remember where I came across the teaching about taking responsibility for creating gratitude and actually choosing that and doing practices to increase the time spent in gratitude. But it was a few years ago, and I’m not as disciplined about it, as I would like to be, to be honest. My wife is good at reminding me, hey, let’s do that gratitude practice this morning and I think that happened today, actually, this morning. We were listing off things we’re grateful about and it seems like a really important connection that you were making between presence and gratitude. That if I’m not in a state of gratitude, then I’m subtly or not so subtly rejecting what is already happening. And there’s tension that goes with that. And this bigger sense of missing out on life, missing out on the moment by moment gifts that the present, it’s a corny metaphor but the gift that the present is right? Yeah. What’s your relationship been over whatever your adulthood and then now like, what is it now or about gratitude?
Keith Kurlander 06:24
Yeah, you’re actually pulling something out that I, what I’m thinking here now, as you said that is that there’s sort of, there’s many ways we could talk about this but there’s one distinction, which is there’s sort of gratitude practices, like saying grace, we’ve talked about this earlier today. Saying grace, like a lot of people say grace with that’s a gratitude practice. Like, that’s a part of grace for a lot of people. And that’s a particular thing, like where you do things, and you do practices to exercise gratitude. And that’s interesting but I think something really interesting to me to talk about today is more about well, doing practice when you notice you’re not in gratitude and what do you do, and the practices where you’re not in a state of gratitude? So I’m curious about what the conversation is really going to be like, let me ask you a question about this. So when you’re not in gratitude, there’s some part of you that wants to get back to gratitude? Or is it just gone? It’s not even in your filter at that point, and you’re just like, I’d rather stay ungrateful.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 08:02
Well, what it feels like to me in my system is that an ungrateful state is an expensive state to be in energetically. Because I can feel the stress and the tension in my body, in my mind, and there can be an attachment to complaint or feeling aggrieved, or just generally not appreciating what’s happening. I can feel attached to that but I think to answer your question, deep down, there’s always a desire that I can find, if I look, to get into a lower and less expensive energy state, where there’s less tension and less stress, and more joy, more flow, more fluidity in my system.
Keith Kurlander 08:56
It would be interesting, and there’s probably no data on this, but it’d be very interesting to know, the average person, let’s just call us the average person for a moment, like, how often do we go into experiences throughout any given day where we’re not grateful? And how often is that happening? And how often does that happen for many people? And I mean, I would say for myself, it’s happening probably daily. Do I go through a full day where I’m just full of feeling grateful every single second of the day? Probably not. That’s probably not happening. And then how often is it happening for me, I don’t know, I think I have waves or it’s happening often in waves where it’s not. What about you? Do you feel like it’s a daily thing where you could probably find a moment where you’re not grateful?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 09:20
I just spend way too much time outside of gratitude.
Keith Kurlander 09:54
Alright. Are you grateful right now?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 09:57
I am grateful right now.
Keith Kurlander 09:59
Yeah. I think I am too.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 10:00
Yeah and there’s this kind of weird baseline, it’s not weird, really, because I know mostly where it comes from, but this overlay or this personality pattern of stress that is, I know it’s not like primordial or part of awareness itself, but it is definitely a part of a lens where I find myself scanning for stressful data that I can get my teeth bitten down into.
Keith Kurlander 10:36
Yeah, it’s like the mind, the psyche, the ego believes not being grateful is a very effective attitude.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 10:46
Keith Kurlander 10:46
And it’s like, we go into the states all the time. And there’s some belief and a nervous system overwhelm that it’s almost like not even always discursive thinking but when there is that thinking, there’s sort of like an unconscious thought pattern of like, this is effective, gratitude would not be effective right now. Gratitude, we won’t get what we want if we become grateful in this moment. I mean, I probably have many, many fights with my wife where probably hundreds or thousands, where I go into this attitude and myself, where it’s like, if I get grateful in this moment, I won’t get what I want. If I stay ungrateful for this exchange, if I just take the example of my wife, maybe she’ll see that I’m right and I’ll get what I want. Or something primitive like that. Like I don’t even know if that’s a one example of a fight with my partner but there’s sort of an attitude when we’re not grateful that staying ungrateful is a faster path to getting what we want and going into gratitude.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 11:57
For me, it feels similar but a little different. It’s like, I feel more vulnerable if I’m in a state of gratitude, like I’m more open, more receptive and less defensive. I think some part of my ego feels safer in a mild state of stress all the time. And obviously, I’m working on my therapy to overcome that pattern. But it’s still alive in me for sure.
Keith Kurlander 12:26
Yeah, I liked it when you said that it’s expensive to be energetic to be in a state that’s not grateful. It’s a contraction of some sort. Typically agitation in the nervous system, or even a collapse in the nervous system, right. It’s not typically a relaxed, open nervous system that’s not grateful. So it’s expensive on the body.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 12:49
Yeah. And, for me, it’s also connected with perceiving more drawbacks than benefits to begin with and to quoting one of our teachers, John Demartini, this issue about emotions coming from imbalanced perceptions. And for me, the security of paying attention to threats in the environment more than paying attention to support in the environment, or resources in the environment, creates this imbalance, which is stressful.
Keith Kurlander 13:24
Yeah, there’s this drawback benefit thing. There’s also this element with that of when we’re, I think there’s a perception that if we become grateful in a challenging experience, encounter externally, and we become grateful for that experience. There’s probably an underlying belief that we’re losing control if we become grateful, we’re losing our sense of controlling the experience once we become grateful to it, and we’re, potentially it could happen again if we don’t clap down. So for me, there’s probably an element of control when I’m not grateful, I’m trying to control the course going in a different direction than the experience went in. I mean, that could be like you’re not grateful for the flat tire you got on the road right? That could be even more dramatic would be like you get a fender bender, and you’re not grateful for that. You’re like, I can’t believe that happened. And you’re now in a mild road rage incident with the other driver. I mean, obviously, there’s so many experiences all day long that people have challenges, rightfully so becoming grateful for, but there’s some element of control in there. When I think about it for myself. When I’m not grateful, I feel like I need to control and clamp down to make sure this doesn’t happen in the same way again.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 14:49
Yeah, there’s a quality of submission to the moment or what’s being presented to our senses. That word submission, I think, kind of explains a little bit of what my ego is, how my ego relates to these more open states, there’s a fear of annihilation or threat or something that comes from letting go of trying to control the moment.
Keith Kurlander 15:17
Right and gratitude is trust. There is a yielding to go into a state of gratitude when there’s a challenging experience in front of us. There’s sort of like yielding and it’s not necessarily submission. But there’s a trust that if we appreciate our life the moment we get the flat tire, there’s a trust that living in this place is not right or wrong, and living in a different space of appreciation. But it doesn’t mean we become apathetic, we’re just sort of going through life as a passive bystander and getting beaten and we’re just like, give me another one.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 16:08
Yeah. It’s interesting to think about ambition and drive and trying to accomplish goals from a place of gratitude and from a place of trusting the process.
Keith Kurlander 16:22
Well, I think about, when I think about practices, I started talking about this with the example of saying grace, and that there’s often gratitude, essentially, gratitude rituals in that practice, and there’s gratitude rituals with thanksgiving coming up for a lot of people, there’s gratitude rituals embedded in different places in culture. And when you think about the practice of having gratitude in a moment that’s very challenging. That for me is about when we’re grateful for a challenge, often, the thing that I have to go to, to get back into gratitude is looking at how the challenge is still supporting my life in some way. And where I see myself going, and I have to find that in the challenge, or else, I feel like it’s not supporting the direction of my life, and it’s actually stopping the where I want my life to go. And then you can’t be grateful for that. It’s not, you can’t be grateful for an experience that you feel like it’s stopping you from achieving what you want. It’s really hard to be grateful for that because you don’t find meaning in that.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 17:32
I think you’re so right about that. I think the desire to get somewhere in our lives, wherever that destination is, if our path has been blocked by X, Y, or Z, we’re not going to feel grateful for that, not initially. Not unless we can discover the ways that that challenge benefits us. It reminds me of this Duggan quote that’s well known in the 2012 century Buddhist monk, he said the path is the goal. Parenthetically, the destination is not the goal. So the practice of dropping the story that this thing is in the way and getting back into the perspective, this is on the way, is something that helps me quite a bit when, when I get stuck in those moments.
Keith Kurlander 18:21
Yeah, so there’s a cognitive practice that does sometimes help me, which is what we’re talking about. And it’s cognitive exercise. And if I take the example of traffic, to stick with the sort of flat tire example, it is very common, you get unexpected traffic. Many people don’t relax in that situation, many people immediately see that, as this is slowing me down from where I was supposed to be. That’s a very common thing with traffic. It’s like, okay, this is actually this just slowed me down on my path to fulfillment on where I’m supposed to be. Traffic is slowing me down in a way where it actually is slowing me down from achieving my goal for that moment. And I’ve definitely used some cognitive, more cognitive based practices there of like, well, how is it actually getting me closer to my goal? How’s the traffic getting me closer to my goal? And let’s say my goal is, I’m with my wife, and we’re going out on a date. And this happens to me, she’s in traffic. She doesn’t think anything of it. And I’m like, damn it, like, what’s going on here? And as soon as she pointed out to me like, well, it just slowed us down. We get to connect without the noise of the restaurant. The more time for that. I’m like, oh, like, the more part of the goal is connection and And sometimes traffic slows us down and we can have contemplation about something. So there’s the cognitive exercise of looking for how the challenge that we perceive, or sometimes it’s not just a perception, sometimes we’re getting very painful situations and stimuli at us, that are really painful physically, how that is on the way to our vision for our life. And so there’s the simple cognitive exercise of asking that question. Some certain situations are much harder to find the answer to.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 20:36
Right, I’m reminded of this concept of post traumatic growth and how many people I’ve seen who I worked with got to a place in their passage through a difficult situation, a traumatic event, were on the other side of it, they came into a state of gratitude for the event. And it was needed that the work was finished with the integration process. Yeah, so many of us, I think, and I’m one of the people missing those moments, missing those opportunities.
Keith Kurlander 21:08
Well, trauma is an interesting thing to bring into this because when we’re traumatized, we’re not grateful for the event that happened. You can’t be grateful and traumatized. Like, in some ways, an aspect of trauma is being ungrateful and not wanting the event to have happened. And feeling like the event has now ruined your life in some way, or slowed you down. And then what we do see in post traumatic growth, is people who integrate the experiences tend to be grateful, not wishing the experience happened or happens again, but they tend to be grateful for their life. And that this was an aspect of their life and something comes out of it for them. This is a very common experience in the integration of trauma.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 21:57
Right. It’s when you realize and appreciate that without having been through that trauma, you wouldn’t be who you are today. And the fact that you love who you are today has to by definition, include how you were changed by that trauma.
Keith Kurlander 22:12
Yeah, and this opens up when we talk about trauma, it opens up the more extreme end of the types of challenging experiences that we would be ungrateful for in our life. But if we can’t extend gratitude to all of our life, and all of our experiences, then the whole concept falls apart, then it’s like when are you going to pick and choose that, there’s a reason to be grateful, the whole thing falls apart, if you can extend the concept to your entire life, then the practice will never hold into the future. Because your future will not, we’ll have all kinds of related associations and all kinds of things that you’re not grateful for. So for me, the gratitude practice, I think I did a lot of my therapy was first appreciating my life and then looking for the challenging experiences where I didn’t and trying and trying and to get to the result of therapy for me was appreciating that experience over time. My life had very challenging, complex experiences, but different than a lot of people the form was different, but it had plenty of trauma in it. And I think that, when you have a lot of, let’s just call it internal trauma, let’s not talk about the actual experience and the events of what those are when you have a lot of internal trauma. And as you work through those, gratitude becomes more important, because you’re very acutely aware, when you’ve had a lot of trauma, and you’ve worked through it when you’re not grateful, because people have had a lot of trauma before they worked through it lived a lot of their time, not grateful. And then in a state of confusion, and agitation and anxiety. Even if there’s some gratitude there. It’s not my experience of what gratitude is, it is a deeply relaxing state of trust that this life is the biggest blessing you can have in the moment. That’s gratitude for me, like, Thank you for being able to just say thank you for the moment.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 24:15
Yeah, I mean, there’s no alternative moment happening in parallel with the one that we’re in. There’s no better one.
Keith Kurlander 24:24
And then there’s the moments where we can say thank you. And we have a lot of those as humans. And, again, I just go into this, it’s so interesting that we believe that the path to freedom is holding on to not being able to say thank you. Maybe that’s a path of freedom for somebody. But it’s not the path to saying thank you. It’s not the path of saying thank you for this moment at some other path if we hold on to that and never want to get to thank you.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 24:53
I don’t know that it’s a path to freedom. I mean, it’s a path to security and familiarity. And holding on to your guns and building your walls.
Keith Kurlander 25:05
yeah, which is totally a valid place to be sometimes. Sure. In fact, sometimes it’s probably valid to not be thankful. And when you’re fighting for survival, where you feel like you’re fighting for survival. One of those two experiences, like protection, self preservation and protection. Does it make sense?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 25:32
Of course. I mean, the context really matters. In that regard.
Keith Kurlander 25:38
The problem is within us.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 25:40
Yeah, I mean, so many of us are walking around in that state of self defense on some subtle, unconscious level that isn’t accurate to the current context.
Keith Kurlander 25:54
That’s right. Yeah. And a lot of people are walking around not being able to say thank you for the moment. And it’s interesting like, well, what’s required to be able to say, thank you for a moment. Like, is basic needs required to be able to say, thank you, maybe. We’re probably if we’re probably too overwhelmed and not having basic needs met, that pain stimuli is probably too high for almost anyone to be able to say, thank you for that moment. If it’s too high.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 26:26
Yeah, it depends, I guess, on the person’s background and training reminds me again of another Buddhist story about monks coming out of Chinese prison and meeting with the Dalai Lama. And he said, What was your biggest fear and the prison said, losing my gratitude for the Chinese wisdom and compassion for the Chinese was my biggest challenge. As I was being electrocuted. It’s my biggest fear. So kind of an extreme example of someone who maybe was able to stay at times anyway, in a state of gratitude while in extreme.
Keith Kurlander 27:06
I think it’s totally possible for anyone anywhere to enter a state of gratitude. I mean, we see that in Victor Frankel’s Holocaust account of how he was able to go into that place. And I think that is harder to do. When pain stimuli and deprivation is going on, it’s harder to get there, for many people. But the thing is that many people are not in that level of the situation. And we still have trouble getting there. So it’s not necessarily like basic survival for many people like, I’m not going to dunno, where I’m gonna get my water, there’s that going on on the planet. I don’t know where I’m ever gonna get food again. Can we have some of that going on a planet too, there’s still a lot of people that don’t have food. But then there’s all these people that are going to get their meal, and they’re going to have water. And many people who even have shelter, and they still, so basic needs are met, physically. And then there’s all other layers that are a threat to survival in ourselves of systems of oppression and all kinds of things. And we have a lot of reasons for going into a state of gratitude. Either we don’t deserve it. Or it’s unsafe to go into a state of gratitude.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 27:43
Yeah, we don’t deserve it. It’s unsafe. It could also not be fair or just, it could be unconscious. Yeah, it’s not fair programming from our childhood around what it means to be grateful. What the associations are, there can be a lot of unconscious procedural memory, just kind of like driving our daily experience without much awareness.
Keith Kurlander 28:58
Yeah. And the thing is, I mean, I know we’re gonna wrap up here in a minute. My experience for him for at this point is the most, the greatest gift you could ever give yourself, is to get back into a state of gratitude. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can ever give yourself, no matter what’s going on. Because the state of gratitude floods you with self love and feeling just internal pleasure comes from gratitude. And it’s a big openness versus feeling small and close. So a state of entering into a state of gratitude is a gift that you can give yourself even when people are trying to take that from you.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 29:40
Yeah, and it’s a balancing of signaling in the body as well. It’s a huge gift to yourself, your being, but it’s also a huge gift to your physical body. And I think it’s also a relational gift that you can give to the people around you who are much more generous to be in a state of gratitude. I think so.
Keith Kurlander 30:05
Yeah. And I think just as we wrap up, being in a state of gratitude for ourselves, it doesn’t mean we don’t have boundaries, it doesn’t mean, we don’t have preferences. It doesn’t mean we can’t say no in a state of gratitude. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means that we’re actually grateful to have that moment of life. We might be grateful at the moment of life while we’re like, no, don’t do this to me, whatever it is, but that we’re grateful we get to be alive in that moment and take the experience even though the experience might be challenging. So I think that’s where some people can sometimes get confused that somehow gratitude means you have no boundaries or.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 30:50
Yeah, that you’re gonna allow somebody with bad intentions for you to do whatever they want to you.
Keith Kurlander 30:55
Right, because you’re grateful for them. Yeah, I think the important thing is that it’s about being grateful for the experience and what the experience showed you. Should we wrap up there?
Dr. Will Van Derveer 31:09
Well, thank you.
Keith Kurlander 31:10
Dr. Will Van Derveer 31:16
We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of the higher practice podcast, where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.