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Practicing The Art of Gratitude

October 21, 2015
Practicing The Art of Gratitude

Working as an author and blogger, grinding each day in hopes of creating material that inspires and enhances the lives of my tribe, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of honing my craft. When I wrote my first book Grizzlies On My Mind I did so over the course of a five-year period, writing when I felt like it or when something inspired me to do so. There’s nothing wrong with this process, but I’ve learned it’s not the way to sustained success.

When I set out on the adventure of writing my new book, Be Audacious, I did so with the knowledge that I had six months. This deadline motivated me to get very serious and, dare I say, intentional about my craft. Having been an athlete most of my life and a coach for much of the last decade, I recognized that establishing a routine for my writing would be essential and serve as a foundation. Most creative endeavors aren’t that different than preparing for a summer in the saddle of your road bike or getting your kids ready for the daily grind of school, followed by soccer, gymnastics or basketball practice. Regardless of what muscle you’re striving to strengthen, dedication and practice is the key.

I’m going to take a little Spokane, Washington, detour here. Whether you’re my boy Matty Q (https://twitter.com/MattQsack) crushing it on the Pacific Northwest cyclocross scene with top finish after top finish, the audacious Jessie Seppa Thompson (https://www.facebook.com/barreclassesbyjessithompson) taking the fitness world by storm, inspiring women to be their fittest, bravest and boldest self, or architectural maestro Otmar Trattler bringing a stunning and visionary style to his designs, the results may be different, but the ingredients leading to their success is very much the same: A commitment to practicing consistency.

So what does this all have to do with gratitude? Let me explain. I’ve been exploring the topic of vulnerability a lot over the course of the last two years. This has less to do with the copy of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly sitting on my nightstand and more to do with the change that has ravaged my legs over the course of the last few years. Going from nightly time trials on my road bike up the five-mile, 1,000 foot+ elevation climb to Mammoth Hot Springs, routine ascents of 10,000-foot peaks on foot, whitewater descents of the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 on a paddle board and fall races (and crashes) on my cross bike to a vastly different three-times-a-week full body blast in the confined comfort of a gym and every other day 1,600 meter freestyle swimming sessions at the local pool represents a dramatic shift for me. I’ve been through a lot of change of late.

From twenty-mile day hikes with clients to sitting in my truck, doing the heavy mental lifting required to accept that I’m going to limp my way through the grocery store, it’s been a transformation I couldn’t have imagined. And change, especially in the form of unwelcome physical change, can create a cascade of undesirable emotions.

 While there’s always the risk of flare-ups, at least once a week I rebel against the gym and concrete pool, and venture into the mountains for two-wheeled adventure. This past Friday night, I journeyed up Sourdough Canyon on my mountain bike. It was a glorious autumn evening for a ride. Fading light, crisp skin-tingling temperatures and brilliant fall colors. After a steady five-mile climb, the aching of my chronic Achilles and sharpening pain in my surgical hip forced me into what I call my “wise mind.”

The physical therapist I rehabbed with after my hip surgery has been harping on me to stop thinking like an athlete in training (i.e., relish the pain and keep on pushing) and start thinking of my training as rehabilitation, operating from the mindset of a physiotherapist rather than a competitor. Old habits are hard to break, but my desire to fully participate in activities with my seven year old is more than enough motivation to spark transforming to the approach endorsed by my PT.

Friday evening, looking out over a meadow in hopes of spotting a black bear browsing rosehips, it took me a few seconds to recognize how hard my heart was pounding. This simple observation—a racing heart—brought a spontaneous, toothy smile to my face, the kind inspired by running into an old friend. But almost as quickly as the dopamine rush flooded my system, my emotions shifted from the abundance and gratitude to feelings of deficiency and sadness. Here I was, on a magnificent ride and my mind had turned to how these rides used to be a nightly occurrence, a beloved ritual and norm. Now they represented acts of defiance, breaks from the static environments that have become my training grounds.

In that moment I caught myself. What the fuck was I doing? In spiraling to a place of loss, I was allowing my mind to rip me away from the very moment for which I yearned. That’s when it hit me. We get to choose whether or not we are going to practice gratitude.

When we are in the eye of the storm, sometimes the best we can do is tread water, and wait for the worst to pass. But the storm weathering approach should be saved for the hurricanes, or when we’re running on empty. Sometimes a mini-vacation, like the one I took Friday evening, is in order to re-energize our sense of hopeful optimism and dedication to practicing the art of gratitude.

My moment on that trail certainly wasn’t a hurricane or raging tempest. I may have been running low, but there was still fuel in my tank. I’d been given the opportunity to turn my focus from deficiency to prosperity.

Realizing as much, smile on my face and hand over my heart, intentionally, I returned to the moment and practiced the art of gratitude. For the entire ride out, bombing downhill in fading light, adrenaline rushing and arms shaking, the whites of my teeth beamed like headlights.

Adversity can inspire us to embrace vulnerability. And vulnerability gives us the opportunity to take our gratitude capabilities to the next level.

Just like writing, training, or any other creative endeavor, gratitude is an art for us to practice. And it’s a practice that has unmatched potential to shape and change our world.

~Michael W. Leach

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