Life Challenges and Discouragement: Gratitude, Appreciation, and Wonder – 2023

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

We are frequently confronted with challenging circumstances in our lives—difficulty in our relationships, conflict at work, social or political events, and even larger catastrophic or traumatic events. These challenges all cause emotional upheaval and distress. Even with the smaller, more brief, setbacks or roadblocks we can be discouraged and disheartened. In addition, depending on our personal and family history, we may be especially sensitive to life’s negative events.

In psychotherapy, we explore family history, early childhood and educational experiences, work and relationship history, and personality development. With every area of exploration, we work with both the emotional and cognitive aspects of your experience. Through it all, though, sometimes you can get caught in a place of discouragement – a place where you feel stuck and blocked by hindrances. In Buddhist teaching, hindrances obstruct and impede our progress. Some of the hindrances that we most often confront today are anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking tendencies, negative and self critical thinking, and general discouragement. In addition to therapy, discouragement is a serious hindrance that you can work with on a regular basis on your own.

Discouragement is literally to lose courage in the face of life’s challenges. I find efforts with discouragement can be divided into three categories: (1) practical efforts, (2)psychological aspects and self care needs, and (3) spiritual effort and pursuits. I want to address these three to see if these considerations might be helpful.

Discouragement leads to a kind of malaise or lack of energy and motivation. Many people add another cup of coffee to help jumpstart the inertia. In addition to your choice about a healthy amount of coffee, you can gain energy yourself with an action plan. That is always my own first step. When we are confronted with a challenge, problem, or hindrance, we can move ourselves into action by the simple act of writing down our plan. What needs to be done with that particular problem? What part is most urgent? What are the priorities? What is the follow-up? What contacts need to be made? What correspondence? What is the most difficult or emotional part of the problem? When we have discouragement and low motivation, it’s surprisingly difficult to implement an action plan, even for those who normally breeze through work projects. It seems simple enough, and maybe even obvious, but when you are discouraged, you don’t feel like you have the energy or motivation to begin. The action plan (and perhaps the cup of coffee) will help you begin and face the problems at hand.

When we have personal aspects that are making the situation more challenging, then it may be necessary to address them in therapy. Some of these more complex circumstances might be more severe anxiety, depression, or other more complex emotional factors. Self care, too is an important consideration. Part of the action plan can be your self care efforts: being careful about hydration, nutrition, sleep, and exercise. It’s when we are overwhelmed or discouraged, that we forget these essentials.

I have been surprised to realize how important it is to do the simple act of consciously refocusing attention. Many, if not all, of the recommendations for self critical or negative thinking and obsessive thinking tendencies that I have seen and made use of in psychotherapy, begin with refocusing. If you realize that you are not motivated, have low energy, or are discouraged, then the first thing you can make an effort to do is refocus your attention. A good first step is to refocus onto your action plan. And you can refocus on self care. However, in addition to those practical and healthy options, there are three possibilities that don’t usually come to mind when we are discouraged: gratitude, appreciation and wonder.

There has been a variety of psychological research on the effects of gratitude in recent years. Gratitude can be defined as nurturing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. Like with meditation, a gratitude practice has been shown to actually change your brain. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and promote well being. In an American Psychological Association study in 2015, Mills, Redwine and others found that gratitude has theological origins, and the importance of its practice is emphasized in the majority of world religions. According to Mills and Redwine, gratitude may serve as a pathway through which spirituality exerts its positive effects on physical and mental health. Gratitude is shown to help people connect with something larger than themselves. It can help us to perceive and remember what is meaningful, and to experience a spiritual dimension in life. And spiritual well being is strongly associated with fewer depressive symptoms.

Practicing gratitude on a regular basis increases hope. If we can learn to see negative circumstances as situations that include both negative and positive aspects, and we remember and appreciate the positive aspects in our current situation and in our life in general, then the practice of remembering gratitude may increase the tolerance of life’s challenges. It may decrease despair or discouragement. The practice of gratitude will likely influence your perception of your life circumstances, and also influence your self perception. It will affect your energy and motivation level. When dealing with our daily life challenges, in addition to implementing an action plan and self care, refocusing on gratitude is the perfect antidote to discouragement.

It’s clear that gratitude is a choice and an attitude that needs to be practiced in an ongoing way. There are two effective methods of practicing gratitude: a gratitude journal and meditation. A gratitude journal and meditation will both help facilitate positive effects. Keeping a daily record of gratitude is a special and significant practice just like meditation, and one way to practice gratitude is to combine it with your meditation practice. A review of current circumstances while intentionally bringing in your current thoughts of appreciation and gratitude could be done at the beginning of your daily meditation.

In order to develop gratitude, and also appreciation, a special journal is invaluable, and may even be necessary. I suggest that you put careful effort into choosing a journal. One journal that has been developed to maximize focus on gratitude while also providing a daily work and goal sheet is the Empowered Life Planner. Keeping a daily record in your journal will keep your attention on gratitude and enhance your understanding of the aspects of life that you value. Considering appreciation is a good way to begin. You can start to become aware of the various things in your life that are interesting, that are rewarding, that bring out your creativity, and are joyful. Tracking these will be an important part of developing appreciation and filling your gratitude journal.

A practice of meditation is going to facilitate gratitude. In addition, meditation will be the most direct path to spiritual connection and experience. There are many methods of meditation, and they can be seen as appropriate for different levels of ability. A sitting posture with a straight spine is recommended in all classical meditation instructions. My own teacher, Robert Aitken, was a world renowned Zen Master. He said if you consider breath and posture with regard to meditation, the most important one is posture. This is because the posture facilitates the practice both for duration of sitting, and also for focus and concentration. Although one can go through a variety of experiences with meditation practice, inevitably three of the effects will be gratitude, appreciation, and wonder. They can be cultivated with your practice, and also they can develop unintended as a passive effect of meditation. These three can be outcomes of a serious longterm practice of meditation, and according to Buddhist literature we know that four other extreme qualities are also the possible results of meditation: the four great wisdoms – loving kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion, and equanimity.

Wonder is taking gratitude and appreciation many steps further, and the extreme extent of wonder is realization. The ultimate purpose of meditation is enlightenment or realization. Realization can be seen as a profound experience with particular insight related to Buddhist teaching. Buddhist practitioners go to great lengths to attain this highest level of spiritual experience – rigorous daily meditation, study, and participation in special eight day, month, three month or even 3 year retreats.

When we are able to see the beauty of the sun rise above a snowcapped mountain. Or watch a hummingbird flit and circle and dive in our garden. Or listen to the wind in the trees on a winter night. Then our practice with appreciation and gratitude can provide great wonder – great wonder and joy in the beauty in life. And then our concerns with our own day to day circumstances can be just part of our focus and attention each day. In the book, Morning Star, and in the chapter, The Morning Star, Robert Aitken describes the significance of appreciating and experiencing each thing as it is. He states that Zen practice is a process of purifying the human mind in order to reach a certain condition where a sense experience such as hearing a stone strike a stalk of bamboo will trigger realization. Referring to the chapter title, he asks, “What is the star? He answers that the star’s beauty and mystery are obscured by our self imposed human limitations. He explains that when a single thing advances and actualizes the self, then all things are realized.

We can conquer discouragement if we develop an action plan, remember self care, keep a journal and practice meditation, and remember three qualities. Realization in the Buddhist sense is to have a deeply profound spiritual experience. We can learn to have profound experiences even in our daily life if we focus our attention on gratitude, beauty, and the wonder of life.