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Practicing Gratitude When the Sh*t Hits the Fan: Plutarch and the Practice of Blending
So much compelling research has been produced on the benefits of gratitude over the last decade or so that it has gotten pretty easy to, well . . . take it all for granted.
Gratitude increases optimism, resilience, and self-worth, while lowering envy, anxiety, and resentment? Sweet! Scroll, swipe, tap.
Gratitude strengthens compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, while decreasing loneliness? Awesome! Scroll, swipe, tap.
Gratitude is identified by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy as one of the three factors that have “the greatest influence on increasing our happiness”? Wow! Scroll, swipe, tap.
Ironically, some of the research on gratitude has revealed why we may tend to take the research on gratitude itself for granted. As it turns out, the more familiar we become with the things we are grateful for, the less positively we feel about them and the more likely it is that our attitude of gratitude will wither into blasé, hand-on-hip indifference.
Which is unfortunate because this means that the practice of gratitude itself can actually deprive us of the many benefits of cultivating gratitude. And it is especially unfortunate if we happen to be experiencing difficult times. After all, a recent line of research has shown that practicing gratitude is particularly helpful and important during periods of adversity. In fact, the pre-eminent researcher on gratitude, Robert Emmons, goes so far as to argue that, “It is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life.” Yet this of course is precisely when we are most likely to drop the practice.
Because, let’s face it: it’s one thing to count your blessings when everything’s going your way. Another, alas, to give thanks when you’re getting suplexed by life. Say you or someone in your family is diagnosed with a disease, or you’re swamped by midterms or renovations, or your kids get pin-worms. Suddenly it’s a bit trickier to hunker down and feel grateful, isn’t it? Which is why I think it’s particularly important to have a specific gratitude practice for when the sh*t hits the fan.
Gratitude in the Buddhist tradition
The general notion of gratitude is found at the very foundations of all the world’s ancient wisdom traditions, including of course Buddhism, where it is woven into the very fabric of the philosophy. After all, the more we increase our capacity for present-moment awareness, the more likely it is that we will experience each moment as a gift, even the difficult ones, which can open our hearts to the suffering of others. Because genuine presence also heightens our awareness of impermanence and contingency, it lends a bittersweet poignancy to all of our flickering experiences, reminding us to be grateful for what we are experiencing while we are experiencing it. Moreover, when we practice not-self and inter-being, simply noticing the idiosyncrasies of our own lives and strengths can become an expression of gratitude that humbly honors everyone and everything that has shaped us as individuals and as a species. Not surprisingly, a number of well-known teachers in the Western Buddhist tradition, including Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach have begun offering guided gratitude practices.
Yet, as far as I’m aware, there are no systematic, in-depth Buddhist practices for cultivating gratitude in difficult times. Which is why I think it may be helpful to turn our attention to two of the best pieces ever written on the subject: the celebrated Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch’s (46-120 CE) letters in In Consolation to His Wife and the more famous essay “On Contentment” (which happens to be one of Eckhart Tolle’s favorite Western texts.)
While this might initially seem like a swerve away from the Buddhist tradition, many figures in the emerging movement known as “secular Buddhism” hold that a crucial step in the process of building a secular or non-religious Buddhist culture is retrieving forgotten works of practical philosophy in the Western tradition. For instance, in “The Practice of Philosophy” Stephen Batchelor says, “I think we find support for this [process of creating a secular Buddhist culture] not just by referring to Buddhism but by returning to the forgotten sources of our own tradition and the ancient [Greek] world.” More specifically, in referring to the ancient Greek philosophical tradition of Skepticism, Batchelor says: “I feel that this is a part of our own tradition that could be very worthwhile, not only to gain a better understanding of but perhaps to restore as part of our own practice of the Dharma.” In this sense, he concludes, “Buddhism might, weirdly, be leading us back to something that our own traditions have forgotten.”
Plutarch, I submit, is precisely one of these “forgotten” practical philosophers in the Western tradition. What’s more, it seems to me that there is virtually nothing in the recent research on practicing gratitude in the midst of adversity that Plutarch did not articulate nearly two millennia ago.
Plutarch and the practice of blending
After Plutarch and his wife Timoxena had had four boys, they finally had a baby daughter. Timoxena was so overjoyed that Plutarch insisted on naming their baby Timoxena. With a father’s beaming pride, he delighted in how “easy to please and undemanding” their baby girl was, but what he adored the most about her was her selflessness and her generosity. In a touching anecdote, he recalls how “she used to encourage her wet-nurse to offer and present her breast not only to other babies, but also to her favorite playthings and toys.”
Then, when she was just over two years old, little Timoxena died.
Plutarch was traveling when the tragedy struck. When he received the news he immediately penned his wife a letter that he hoped would offer them both some consolation before they could comfort one another in person.
Now I sincerely hope that you haven’t lost a child. Thankfully, I haven’t. But I have watched my wife moan in agony as she gave birth to a child we both knew in advance would be stillborn. And I did cry my eyes out as I built a tiny wooden coffin for the baby. Despite the fact that it’s incredibly common, miscarriages and stillbirths still aren’t something we talk about much, certainly not enough. But they’re just one example of the kind of adversity that can, as Robert Emmons puts it, “rob us of easy gratitude.”
Maybe you’re balding or your muffin-top is starting to spill over the top of your jeans. Maybe your boyfriend just left you, or you’ve gotten caught in some golden handcuffs. Whatever the case may be, adversity can threaten to deprive us of the benefits of gratitude.
This was something Plutarch knew a thing or two about. As a renowned writer and practical philosopher who spent the last 30 years of his life serving as a counselor at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, he was accustomed to shepherding people through difficult times. This is why, after expressing his love and grief to his wife, he gives voice to his heartfelt hope that “the arguments we have often deployed on others will help us in our hour of need.” It is also why the words of consolation he offers his wife are almost identical to those he offers all human beings in his much-loved essay “On Contentment.”
So how exactly might we remain grateful when the sh*t hits the fan?
Plutarch gives us a helicopter overview of the process in his letter to Timoxena: “Anyone who, in a situation like ours, makes a particular point of highlighting the memory of good things and turning his mind away from the dark and disturbing aspects of his life toward the bright and brilliant ones instead either completely extinguishes whatever it is that is causing him pain, or at least decreases and obscures it by blending it with its opposite.”
1. Notice when your attention is drawn to the dark and disturbing aspects of life
The most urgent concern Plutarch expresses in his letter to his wife is that their misfortune might prompt them to focus on “the bad features of [their] life, and gloss over the good points in a vague and sweeping fashion.” This is the exact same habit of mind he also identifies in “On Contentment” as the greatest impediment to remaining cheerful, namely that “most people . . . bypass what is good and refreshing in their lives, and make straight for the unpleasant, bad elements.”
To capture this habitual tendency-of-mind, he introduces a number of vivid and evocative metaphors. For instance, he compares the “unwelcome incidents” that occasionally occur in our daily lives to those times “when our eyes are harmed by excessively brilliant things.” Think, for example, of the last time you turned onto a bright street and the sun shone directly into your eyes.
What did you do?
According to Plutarch, in ancient Greece the natural response was to instinctively “look away and soothe them with the colors that flowers and grasses provide.” Yet when we’re blinded by the sharp glare of “unwelcome incidents” in daily life, he observes that “we treat the mind differently.” Instead of shifting our attention away from the painful incidents, we generally “strain it to glimpse the aspects that hurt it, and we force it to occupy itself with thoughts of the things that irritate it, by tearing it almost violently away from the better aspects.”
He spins a number of other striking analogies to drive home the perversity of this tendency and permanently lodge it in our minds. For instance, he asks, “You know how when flies settle on mirrors, they skid off the smooth parts but cling on to places which are rough and scratched?” Just like flies, he says, “People slide away from happy, congenial matters,” or the smooth parts of the mirror, and “get caught up in their memories of unpleasant things,” the parts of their lives that are “rough and scratched” like old mirrors.
He also compares this habitual pattern of thought to a place in the ancient Greek world called “Beetle-death” where beetles would fall into a hole that they were unable to escape and would go round and round in circles until they died. Like these beetles, he says, “Without noticing it, people slip into recalling their bad times and are unwilling to revive or resuscitate themselves.”
Plutarch also observes that we respond similarly to our own perceived weaknesses and shortcomings. Just as people often point out that “busybodies” are “quick to notice others’ weaknesses while overlooking their own,” so he asks, “Why, my friend, do you obsessively contemplate your own weakness and constantly clarify it and revivify it, but fail to apply your mind to the good things you have?”
He then likens this tendency to the way that “cupping glasses extract from flesh anything particularly bad.” Just so, when we fail to let our minds rest upon our strengths and allow them to “obsessively contemplate our own weaknesses,” we are selectively extracting only our “bad” qualities and characteristics, just like cupping glasses extract toxins.
These are exactly the sorts of things that he’s afraid he and Timoxena will do in the days and weeks after their daughter’s death: behave like blinded people or flies or beetles or busybodies or cupping glasses. In other words, he worries they will become so preoccupied with their tragedy that they will forget to soothe themselves by bearing in mind the many things in their lives they still have to be grateful for.
2. Fully acknowledge negative events without trying to get rid of them
Okay, but wait. It’s all well and good to urge people to notice when they’ve fallen prey to negativity bias and encourage them to invite their attention back to the positive aspects of their lives. But after losing a baby daughter? Isn’t that a tall order? Who on earth wouldn’t bypass the good aspects of their lives and focus on the unpleasant elements?
By today’s standards, Plutarch could certainly be accused of emotional avoidance. While he does acknowledge “the instability and emotional disturbance which grief entails” and openly admits that he “was not born ‘from oak or rock’” he does at times come across as cold, even insensitive. And yet, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, I think his basic position bears a strong resemblance to the one Rick Hanson articulates in Resilient: “Gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring difficulties, losses, or injustice. It just means also paying attention to the offerings that have come your way. Alongside whatever is difficult in a person’s life, there is always already so much to be thankful for.” For Plutarch, as we’ll see, it is particularly important to attend to such “offerings” when one is in the midst of “difficulties” or “losses.” Again, gratitude researcher Robert Emmons concurs. Indeed, he points to various research studies to support his somewhat controversial claim that the following sentiment is one of the top five myths about gratitude: “gratitude isn’t possible—or appropriate—in the midst of adversity or suffering.”
But even if Plutarch and Emmons are both wrong, it still seems worthwhile to explore the possibility that it’s beneficial to cultivate gratitude in the worst of times, if only because it raises the bar for the rest of us in the best (or the most neutral) of times. After all, just knowing that people like Plutarch and Timoxena, among many others, are able to remain grateful in the aftermath of heartbreaking tragedies ups the ante on the rest of us, doesn’t it?
It’s also worth emphasizing that although Plutarch does mention to Timoxena that turning their minds toward the “bright and brilliant” aspects of their lives might “completely extinguish” the pain caused by their daughter’s death, elsewhere he explicitly cautions against trying to eliminate so-called negative events. In fact, in “On Contentment” he emphasizes that “it is impossible to eradicate and exclude the gloomy aspects [of life] altogether.” Indeed, to hammer home his point, he compares the ups and downs of life to the way we naturally mix notes in music or sounds in grammar. Just as in music “there are low notes and high notes” and in grammar “there are vowels and consonants,” in life there are positive and negative experiences. And as Plutarch writes, “musicianship and literacy do not come from disliking and avoiding one or the other extreme, but from knowing how to make use of them all, and how to blend them into an appropriate mixture.”
To dislike or avoid negative experiences is, in Plutarch’s opinion, about as productive as trying to avoid low notes when playing an instrument, or omitting all consonants when trying to speak. It just doesn’t work. What does work—what does produce intelligible speech and beautiful music—is, first and foremost, an honest acceptance that negative experiences are as natural as consonants in speech or low notes in music. As Plutarch puts it, “Nothing in human life is pure or unalloyed.”
Once the desire to eradicate and eliminate has given way to honest acceptance, something else becomes possible: “knowing how to make use of them all, knowing how to blend them into an appropriate mixture.”
3. Turn the mind toward the good things the negativity bias has excluded
So rather than remaining captivated by the negativity bias, once we have recognized that it has kicked in and acknowledged the negative event, what Plutarch recommends we do is “make a point” of intentionally “turning” the mind away from the glare of “unwelcome incidents” toward all the things we have to be grateful for, including as Plutarch emphasizes the “memory of good things.”
For instance, in his letter to Timoxena, Plutarch invites them both to consider that “the book of our life has a single smudge while every other page is perfectly clean.” By placing their recent loss in the broader context of the many clean pages in the book of their life, and by deliberately redirecting their attention toward those clean pages, he is bringing a realistic sense of proportion to their recent tragedy.
Let’s be clear: he is not advocating positive thinking; he’s advocating realistic thinking. But he isn’t just advocating realistic thinking either; he’s advocating realistic thinking with feeling. After all, he points out, “To be upset about what one has lost and not feel happy about what one has kept” is akin to “behaving like little children who, when deprived of just one of their many toys, wail and scream and throw all the rest of their toys away.”
Rather than throwing all of our “toys” away when we lose one, Plutarch invites us to pay extra attention to the many “toys” we still have and notice how this makes us “feel happy.” To this end, despite their recent loss, he reminds Timoxena that “there are others who would gladly choose [our] fate, even including our present upset” and then he points out that many people continue to envy them for their four healthy children, their home, and their way of life. At the same time, he also makes it clear that these sorts of things are not the necessary accoutrements of a life worthy of gratitude. Indeed, in “On Contentment” he includes in his catalogue of blessings worth counting the simple, earthy facts that “we have life and health and that we walk the Earth.”
He also specifically implores us to “apply our attention” to another important aspect of our experience that we tend to forget when we are transfixed by adverse circumstances: good memories. In his view, our positive memories are among the most valuable resources we have at our disposal when it comes to counteracting the negativity bias and bringing a realistic sense of proportion to difficult times. For this reason, after the death of their daughter, Plutarch specifically writes to his wife, “I worry . . . that we might consign the memory of her to oblivion along with our distress.” If they were to do this, they would in his view be no wiser than the “foolish” people he frowns on in “On Contentment” who “don’t use memory to protect or recover what has gone before” but instead “succumb to blind, ungrateful oblivion, which consumes them and leaves no trace of any event, any moment of success, pleasant relaxation, interaction, or delight.”
In contrast, he wants them to use their minds “as a vehicle” to keep their pleasant memories of their daughter alive so that they may remain grateful for all the time they did have with her, as brief as it was. If they do not, Plutarch fears, “We will seem to regret that our child was ever born.” To ensure this doesn’t happen, they must savor the sweet memories of their daughter’s life. For this reason, he insists, “Our daughter was the sweetest thing in the world to hug and watch and listen to, and by the same token she must remain and live on in our thoughts, and bring not just more, but a great deal more pleasure.” And just as Plutarch and Timoxena dilute the bitterness of their loss by relishing their many fond memories of their daughter, he encourages everyone to counterbalance the stresses and strains of daily life with memories of “success, pleasant relaxation, interaction or delight.”
3. Blend the good with the bad, making sure to highlight the good
The name Plutarch gives to this simple, simple practice is “blending.” In his view, the most effective way to “decrease and obscure” a negative incident is “by blending it with its opposite” or, as he says, by using “a process of blending to make the better aspects of our lives obscure the glare of the worse ones.” Again, Plutarch presents a number of evocative analogies to illustrate this process.
In his letter to Timoxena, he compares it to the effect that perfume has on unpleasant odors: “Perfume is always nice to smell, but it is also an antidote to unpleasant odors; likewise, bearing good things in mind serves the extra purpose of essential support, in times of trouble, for people who are not afraid to recall good times.”
In other words, bearing good things in mind is, on its own, pleasurable, just as smelling perfume is pleasant. However, just as perfume serves as an antidote to unpleasant smells, so bearing good things in mind serves the second purpose of “essential support in times of trouble.”
The source of Plutarch’s metaphor of blending is the art of painting, where the bright and colorful elements of a composition are often “blended” with darker and more somber tones. Indeed, he explicitly recommends that we “treat the mind like a painting,” encouraging us to “give prominence” to the “bright and vivid” aspects of our lives by placing them in the foregrounds of our minds, just as a painter might choose to place a bright and vivid feature in the foreground of a painting. He then recommends that we “push into the obscurity of the background” all of our negative or “gloomy” experiences. In this way, rather than allowing them to predominate, we can blend them in with a greater proportion of positive experiences and give those positive experiences pride of place.
As a visual example of this process, consider Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting Landscape with The Fall of Icarus (1558).
The standard interpretation of the painting (popularized by W. H. Auden in his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”) is that it depicts the world’s indifference to private tragedies. If you look closely in the dark water behind the stern of the ship at the lower right of the painting, you will see the flailing white legs of Icarus, a young man who according to Greek myth was given wings made of feathers and wax by his inventor-father Daedalus. Although Daedalus explicitly cautioned him against it, Icarus flew too close to the sun and plummeted to his death.
Earlier painters of the myth, like Herbert Draper and Jacob Gowy, had foregrounded the figure of Icarus and dramatized the tragic consequences of his over-ambition. In contrast, Breughel deliberately and comically reduces Icarus to a pair of barely visible legs in a vast and expansive landscape. Meanwhile, the rest of the people in the painting—the plough man, shepherd, fisherman, sailors, even the animals—casually look away from him and simply continue on with their lives, working hard to get where they want to go.
But if we alter our perspective slightly and view the painting as a representation of the many events in the life of a single person, with the fall of Icarus being one negative event among many other positives, the painting serves as a good example of Plutarch’s practice of blending. Just as Plutarch recommends, Breughel “gives prominence to what is bright and vivid” by deliberately foregrounding the hardworking plough man, whose red shirt commands our attention in the front and center of the painting. In contrast, the “gloomy” events of life—like the death of Icarus—are “pushed” into the “obscurity” not of the background in this case but the side ground. In other words, rather than emphasizing Icarus’s grand failure and giving it center stage as the negativity bias might have us do, Breughel blends the event into a landscape so vast and a scale so great that the negative event is rendered almost insignificant. While this process of blending does not “extinguish” the negative event, it certainly “decreases and obscures” it. And with a bit of practice, we might do likewise with the paintings of our own lives.
Blending: A summary of the practice
The message in a nutshell: The heart can respond to adversity the way a pupil responds to darkness—by letting in more light.
1. Make a “particular point” of noticing when your mind’s negativity bias draws your attention toward the “dark and disturbing” aspects of life.
2. Rather than trying to get rid of the negative events, fully acknowledge them.
3. Then deliberately turn your mind toward the many good things, past and present, for which you can be grateful.
4. Now blend the good things in with the recent negative events, making sure to foreground and highlight the good things.
5. Notice how this process of blending the good with the bad “decreases and obscures” the negativity bias and increases your sense of gratitude and overall well-being.
The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams. 2016. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. New York City: Penguin Random House.
Plutarch. 1993. “On Contentment.” Essays. Trans. Robin Waterfield. London: Penguin Classics.
Plutarch. 1993. “In Consolation to his Wife.” Essays. Trans. Robin Waterfield. London: Penguin Classics.
Emmons, Robert A. 2008. Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Boston, MA. Mariner Books.
Hanson, Rick. 2009. Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts (US National Library of Medicine)
How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times (Greater Good Magazine)
Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life (Greater Good Magazine)
Five Myths about Gratitude (Greater Good Magazine)
Bad is Stronger than Good (University of Minnesota)
Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories (Taylor & Francis Online)
Author’s Personal Forecast: Not Always Sunny, but Pleasantly Skeptical (The New York Times)
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