When I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with video games. It was the time when console wars were about to begin, the Play Station 2 had peaked in popularity and it was on the road to becoming the best selling video game console of all time. Microsoft Xbox had just entered the market and most of my friends had at least one or another. To a 19-year-old kid, a PS2 held all the status in the world.
But despite my obsession I never could have it, neither I nor my parents could afford it. Silently I cursed myself for having been born in a predicament where I couldn't be rich enough to buy one. A PlayStation was the solution to all my problems, the holy grail of achievement*.
17 years later, I have a Play Station 4. I bought it to play 1 game and now it is sitting idle for 6 months. The 19-year-old me would be horrified to see that. He would give me a good right kick and then settle on my couch to have a video game marathon.
But no matter how much we think we are the same, we change, and perhaps more importantly we change in ways we never thought we could.
Growing up has been with its revelations, one such revelation is that everyone has their own demons. I have one as well. He looks like Mushu from Mulan except he is its evil twin. As far back as I can remember, he has lived in the back of my head, doing his nagging. Constantly judging me and comparing me to others. I would be reading about a young entrepreneur and he would rear his little snout and tell me this could have been me if I had worked harder when I was 17 (seriously?). He is especially brutal when he sees someone from a similar background (Pakistani/ Asian). He grits his teeth and generally just glares at me.
My little Wushu isn't entirely without his merits, he gives me a drive and ambition to go ahead and work hard. It becomes a problem only when instead of me of having a drive, the drive possesses me. So that's why I have been trying to become friends with Wushu, to have a conversation and see how we both can be happier. **.
It was during one such conversation when I had a sudden epiphany, I looked around and I thought: 'Wait a minute, all of this that I have right now, this was just a wish in my head at one time. It all came because I wished and prayed for it. There must have been some New Year eve's where I had wished to have this kind of freedom and independence, The kind where I have my place to live, where I have the freedom to choose my activities and spend my money, where I had wished to be healthier, stronger and more mindful?'
That epiphany led me to think about gratitude. Gratitude is said to be the number 1 predictor of a happy and fulfilling life. But gratitude just by itself feels empty. Its benefits are largely shaped by how you practice it. That epiphany made me realize that the most powerful way of feeling gratitude is envisioning the absence of something. It is only when we experience the lack of something that we truly experience its value, and only when we experience the value of something we can experience the gratitude of having it.
Think about Toothache ; we don't express gratitude every second for the amazing blessing that we have in healthy teeth, it is only when we experience a toothache that we realize what we have been ignoring for so long.
Moreover, envisioning that lack has the added benefit of putting it in a hierarchy of values where we can experience what really matters to us. For example, If the 19-year-old me who craved video games had suddenly been ill and bedridden for months, you could have imagined what would be at the top of my mind, my health or a play station?
Similarly the 32-year-old me who has a Playstation but does not have his family living with him now knows truly what family means to him.
How do we practice gratitude?
This is a good time to start. The new year is coming and there will be a flurry of new year resolutions, a chance to start over and go to the next thing that will make us happy and fulfilled. But before you write down anything about what more you want, do a little mindfulness exercise, sit down and look across everything that you do have.
Start with your body:
Your head: If you have ever had piercing headaches, then you know what it feels to have a healthy unaching head
Your throat and your nose: I am a magnet for flu, having a healthy nose and throat where I am not coughing every other second is a blessing I cannot be thankful enough for.
And so forth...
Then if you are done with it, (and not bored, horrified or tired) start with the intangibles. A good way to envision that is to imagine your normal day:
You wake up and you go to a job: Was there a time when you did not have a job, how desperately did you want one?
You turn on the tap and there is hot water: Was there a time when you had to wait 15 minutes or half an hour for the water to warm up so you could take a shower? How did you feel then? How do you feel now when you have it?
You drive to your work: Was there a time when you did not have a car or a very shitty car, how badly you wanted this?
And you can go on and on, silently counting and remembering objects, people and activities that you craved and now you have them. There might be things where you aren't completely satisfied with them, maybe you could lose a bit more weight and get into shape, but then imagine the very absence of it, imagine if you are bedridden and ill and you will see that even having a choice, a choice to lose your weight, is a blessing in itself.
This exercise has two immediate benefits
First is of course gratitude. It fills you up, frees you from craving so that when you do sit down to write your aims, it is not coming from a place of desperation but wholesomeness.
Second is a slight joy of encouragement and accomplishment. When we look around and see that what we wished turned into reality, we become more confident and hopeful in ourselves, the existential anxiety that keeps ticking at the back of our mind becomes soft and gentle.
We are living in a truly connected world, this connected world shows us all the highs that we can have, that we feel we should have. It's a constant ticker, running in the back of our minds. But before we take the next step, we should look back and see how far we have come, like the reverse of a new year resolution, where we see something and then trace it back to its origin, when it was just an idea in our heads, perhaps a silent wish.
Then you can wish for something more, with gratitude in your heart and faith in your Self.
*Eventually, I did get a one as a gift but as luck would have it, it ran into some issues that made games impossible to play.
** Major part of that is cultivating a regular meditation practice.