In one of his talks, the American Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal wryly observes:
Most people do not appreciate as much as there is to appreciate in their lives. There’s much more to appreciate than most people realize.
Very occasionally, I meet people that appreciate too much.
I’ve never met anyone who appreciates too much. Have you?
Neither has Fronsdal’s audience. They burst into laughter at the suggestion. Even Fronsdal can’t help himself, chuckling as he continues his talk.
I think he’s on to something. It’s hard for me to remember the last time I bothered to appreciate anything, except in the most overwhelmingly positive circumstances. (I mean outside of formal practices, such as mettā meditation.) His joke led me to wonder how I could become more appreciative.
So I began asking myself throughout the day: What haven’t I appreciated?
The answer, it turned out, is lots.
How about you? When was the last time you took a moment to consciously appreciate something in your life?
You can try now, if you like. Bring something to mind that you failed to appreciate.
Is your mind racing? Mine was, the first time I tried to do this. Part of my mind spewed forth recent memories of people and events, while another part evaluated whether they were deserving of my appreciation.
A cup of coffee. Something she said. Something he did. What they didn’t say. Or didn’t do. A piece of fruit. Can you appreciate fruit? Is fruit appreciable?
My mind churned up mental images of my day, only to circle back to the present moment and rest there. It turned out I didn’t have to stray beyond what was already happening around me. Something or someone is always there to appreciate. It felt good to settle into this awareness, which had been there all the time, but that was also somehow new.
But how to maintain such a practice during a hectic day? A simple trick is to use your phone or watch to gently prod you to take a moment and appreciate what’s happening.
Far from being a 21st century hack, this practice has illustrious pedigree. In the monasteries of some Buddhist traditions, they ring a bell periodically to remind the monks to be mindful. While being mindful and being appreciative are not the same, they are tethered. The more I do the one, the more the other happens.
Fronsdal’s joke suggests a more skilful approach than mechanical reminders: try to appreciate too much, to overappreciate.
My first hunch was to look for situations that deserved appreciation, though I couldn’t tell you what I meant by that. But I soon let that notion go. There’s no need to mentally filter for deserving objects. Even when a situation is uncomfortable or unpleasant, you’ll find something to appreciate.
There’s lots to appreciate. … There’ll be something. If you take your time you can learn to appreciate something about everyone.
Banging your foot on a cabinet might make you appreciate the cabinet’s craftsmanship, or how little you think of your foot when it doesn’t hurt. You might recall the last time you had injured it and had to limp around. How helpful people were. You might appreciate how intensely pain arises, how gently it recedes.
When someone is rude or even insulting to you, you might try to appreciate how they are coping with a stressful situation in their life. You might become aware that they’re tired or running late or fed up, as you too are sometimes. That perhaps there’s something you can do to help. There often is.
Some other things are harder, some people also, and I’m not discounting myself. Sometimes all I can muster is to appreciate how good other things are in comparison.
And I’ll admit that more often than not, I fail to do any of this, instead blundering along reactively, unmindfully.
But the trick, such as it is, is that by trying to appreciate more, you become more mindful, and vice-versa. The more you do it, the more it happens.
Fronsdal suggests that eventually even our most dogged failures can become objects of appreciation.
There’s no shortage of suffering in this world. There’s no shortage of suffering in you. There’s layers and layers of suffering. Part of the tremendous powerful insight that comes with deepening mindfulness practice is to begin to appreciate the depth of suffering within ourselves.
Such deeper insights are very far from me. I’m happy just taking the time to appreciate more throughout the day. This attitude seems to make me more aware of how much there is to appreciate in my life and in the world around me, which in turn makes it easier to be appreciative.
Have I sold you on the idea? I hope you try to be even more appreciative than you already are. Perhaps even to overappreciate. You might even find that taking a moment out of your day to appreciate what is happening is itself something to appreciate.