12/12/2012 12:49 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Wheelchair Wisdom: Inhale Love, Exhale Gratitude

"My barn having burned to the ground,
I can now see the moon."
-- Japanese folk saying

Now that we're heading into the holiday season, many of us will be facing a modern dilemma. Will we get what we want? And, if we do, will we be happier?

Most people tend to have unrealistic expectations, which often leads to increased disappointment when these expectations are not met. We complain that others have more than we have, that others aren't doing enough for us, that there "won't be enough for me when I get there."

What we too often forget is that each of us has a powerful emotion that is stronger than any of our physical abilities or material gifts, and that we can choose to use to comfort ourselves. That emotion is called gratitude.

When you're in practice, gratitude is literally as easy as breathing.

Right now, for instance, I find I can put aside a whole host of regrets and longings and many other unsettling emotions and just be grateful. Here's an example: I am grateful for the simple action of using my thumbs.

I have always taken my thumbs for granted. But when I am grateful, I am awed by what miracles they can perform. In my present reality, I rely on my thumbs to operate my electric scooter. I use my right thumb to accelerate my scooter (to walk forward), and I use my left thumb to back up my scooter (to walk backward). Have you ever tried to pick up something without using your thumbs?

Now let me extend gratitude to the rest of my fingers -- to the way they extend so I can type (even if, again in my present reality, it's with just one finger), or scratch my nose, or put on my lipstick and struggle with my mascara. That feeling of gratitude has a wonderful, protective quality to it, like a cozy, warm blanket.

Once I begin to feel grateful, it is like a cascade. For instance, I look at my older-model wheelchair with its torn, faded seat covers, and I might start to wonder what it would be like to have a brand-new one.

But let gratitude take over, and now I am thinking what it would be like to have no wheelchair at all, and I feel enormously blessed and privileged to have the one that I have, even with its unsightly tears and its faded seat covers.

Can I learn to appreciate everything in my life -- even my irritation and frustration? If I could, then no matter what happened, I would be a grateful person.

I don't know whether that's really possible. But I do know that the inner and outer expressions of gratitude grow easier with practice. In its purest form, this is very like "giving thanks" all the time. Who or what we thank doesn't really matter -- it could be to God, nature, the universe, the goodness of a neighbor, or the inventiveness of a clever scientist. But once we get in the practice, it starts to come easily -- when we hear the haunting coo of the mourning dove, the sound of a gentle rain on the roof, see the brilliant colors of an autumn day, or experience the intimate support of friends and loved ones.

Even the discomfort associated with our bodies can win gratitude if we respect the amazingly complex organisms, donated to us at birth, that survive so much adversity.

I am grateful for my five senses. It never ceases to amaze me that my body produces and destroys blood cells every second, and that my heart needs only one minute to pump all of my blood through my body's network of cells and tissues and back again. How can it do this minute by minute, day by day, for over 63 years?

Gratitude reminds us to find our happiness in exceptional things, mundane things, the good things, the so-so things -- even the terrible things.

Rather than focusing on what might be more, better, or different, why not start being grateful for what is in front of you right now?

Some people like to make a "gratitude list" at the end of the day of at least three things that they are grateful for. Others keep a journal or Post-It notes around their home or office as a reminder of what is good in their lives.

To get into this mindset quickly, try this experiment:

  • Think of someone you are profoundly grateful for. Let your gratitude expand until you can see all the ways in which this person is meaningful to you.
  • Be grateful for the way your body has supported you throughout the years (walking, running, dancing, biking, resting, getting you to school or work, helping you to cook, clean, study, perform)
  • Be grateful for a material treasure that you own; a nurturing and supportive relationship you are in; or a pet or a child you love very much.
  • Be grateful for something that you experienced and survived -- an accident from which you have recovered, a debt crisis that you have faced without shame, or the way you or your loved ones help each other while experiencing or recovering from a serious illness.

When our hearts are open, gratitude has a chance to evolve spontaneously, with each glance at our universe and each breath that sustains us.

If gratitude still eludes you, try closing your eyes when you think about what you are grateful for, and see if you can experience a feeling of gratitude. Notice the relief and release in your body, mind, and emotions that coincide with the feeling of gratitude. Also notice that no muscle strength is required -- just the power to focus, for a moment, on what is really important to you.

In quiet moments, I recognize that I have a choice; and I can look with gratitude upon the information about my life that comes to me in so many different forms, ranging (in my case) from muscle spasms, headache, and lower back pain to disappointment, anger, grief, fear, confusion, doubt, and self-judgment. In all of these experiences, I can find reasons for gratitude -- and appreciate all that is so magnificent in my life that I sometimes forget or take for granted.

I know that when I take the time to be grateful, I naturally become more loving, forgiving, and respectful toward the wonder of the human body. I find that I can more easily look for only the good in people and events. It is then that I truly cease to judge myself and my own life. And it is then that I can better see that my adverse circumstances, my sense of loss, and the pain or hurt feelings I experience are my teachers.

Gratitude is ultimately the work of the heart.

Spread the joy of the season,


Contact Linda for practical spiritual counseling, and transform adversity into a spiritual awakening. Visit for more information.

Linda Noble Topf is author of You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Wheelchair Wisdom: Awaken Your Spirit through Adversity, will be published in 2013 by Berrett-Koehler & iUniverse.

For more by Linda Noble Topf, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.