Zach's PEN #17: How I Do Gratitude Lists

2020 Week 47

Gratitude lists, like affirmations or power poses, are conventions that I typically find to be pretty corny.

Side note:

I think it’s because I don’t like the idea of psyching myself up to feel better. It feels fake, forced, coercive, at least in the way the idea is usually presented. But there’s a different approach to gratitude lists that changes the way I write them.

To me, 100% of spiritual/emotional practices come back to Awareness. Gratitude lists are just one of a billion ways of becoming more aware of your larger Awareness, which importantly is not something instead of the negative feelings you’re experiencing right now, but which is vastly larger and includes those negative feelings you’re experiencing right now.

Because it’s an animal tendency to protect oneself from uncomfortable feelings, and because our culture has been intentionally cultivated to push us to the absurd extreme of this tendency (stalk and shoot remotely uncomfortable feelings on sight), a gratitude list can feel like just another way to do that: “Hey, it’s not so bad… You have a lot to be grateful for. Let’s count the ways.”

Counting the ways is great. A totally valid gratitude list is one that reminds you that, yes, you appreciate your family, food, shelter, and security. But since writing down a list is itself an intentional act of awareness, I like to try and emphasize details:

Today, I am grateful—

—for the way Louisa’s and Wendell’s faces look right when they wake up in the morning, all desiccated and misshapen, and their little tired smiles.

—for the ability to recognize that I’m putting undue pressure on myself moment to moment and that there is a physical manifestation of this pressure that can be noticed/felt without thought.

—for the way a griddle allows me to cook the elusive perfect egg.

—to feel safe and comfortable in my home, which has everything we need and pretty much everything we want.

—for a call from an old friend last night with some exciting news and the word vomit that comes whenever I’m catching up with someone I like but don’t get to talk to very often.

—that my company has been able to keep 90+% of us employed through this utter disaster.

—that, even though so many people are suffering terribly, and so many dying, the reaction I see and feel all around me, sometimes obscured by anger, is one of great desire to reduce the collective suffering.

—that I was able to come up with some good solutions to problems this week, and that they came not through effort but through openness.

—for 16 straight weeks sending out this little PEN, and for absolutely anyone taking the time to read it.

Yes, my foot still hurts, I’m not Doing Enough™️, I’m pretty unhealthy, this virus and this mismanaged economy are treacherous and terrifying… I’m not joyfully greeting every experience in my life at the moment, but every statement above is also true.

Thank you PENpals,



P. S. Yesterday I took some pictures for the annual fundraiser of a nonprofit I’m on the board of, Challenge Program. This is a shot of a few of the program’s trainees standing behind a table they built for a restaurant I used to frequent in Wilmington, now updated with a fancy new name and chef:

P. P. S. There was a brief period of time where I played a talk show host on YouTube and we did a segment on the restaurant. Secretly, one of the reasons I did that show was to force myself to be on camera and see how it went.