“Gratitude is the best attitude.” ~Author Unknown
A few years ago, I visited North America’s largest lake while attending the Lake Superior Traditional Ways Gathering on the Bad-River Indian Reservation. Walking along the shore, I picked up a small smooth stone and put it in my pocket.
That stone has been with me ever since. It is my number one survival tool — the most important tool I carry. Even more important to me than the pocketknife that usually sits next to it.
This stone has had a highly mobile life — it’s traveled with me to the Brooks Range of Alaska and to Aboriginal towns in the Outback of Australia. While working in Antarctica, it even accompanied me to the South Pole. I carry it when I go out into the woods and when I venture into the inner city. It’s an especially useful survival tool whenever I’m in the suburbs.
Simply put, it’s a “gratitude stone”. It helps me practice being thankful.
Whenever I reach into my pocket and feel this stone, I take it between my thumb and forefingers and rub it. I feel it’s smoothness, it’s hardness — it’s solid physical reality in my hand. Then I take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and look for something to be thankful for. I don’t think of something abstract, or far away in time or space, instead I perceive something to be thankful for right here, right now. Sometimes I’m thankful for feeling the earth under my feet. Sometimes for the warmth of the sun on my skin. Sometimes the air that gives my next breath, as my chest rises to receive it.
Then I try to hold on to that thankfulness a moment until I feel it in my body. Usually this produces warmth and a smile, if just for a moment.
Sometimes it helps to be thankful for the hunger in my belly, or (especially if I happen to be in the suburbs) for the hunger in my heart. If, before touching the stone, my brain was lost in thought working over some “problem”, I’ll practice being thankful for the challenge the problem gives — for the skill at life I may hope to gain from encountering it, accepting it, and maybe even solving it. This little rock helps me be thankful for rain and mosquitoes — for sweltering desert heat and icy north country cold. I hope it may someday even help me greet death with a smile.
The first person to present me with this lesson was an Abenaki man I’ve never actually met. But while staying at a hermitage in the San Louis Valley of Colorado I listened to a cassette-recorded lecture he had given. I remember him talking about two things:
The first was the time he spent in jail for shooting arrows into the tires of logging trucks. At the time, the trucks were carrying logs which had been clear-cut from his ancestral lands.
The second was the deep need he had identified in this modern world for people to connect with what he called an “attitude of gratitude” — gratitude to the Creator for one’s life, and for one’s relations in the created world — all those many beings (both human and non-human) that make one’s life possible. I remember him saying that the excesses of “modern civilization” and the damage done to the land which make such excesses possible, stem from a sense of entitlement we’ve developed in relation to the natural world. Because we now think the world owes us something. We take it. And usually without asking.
Instead, he said, we should practice being grateful for everything we are given in nature — both the “good” and the “bad”.
The second person to present me with this lesson was an old buddy of mine. A friend I met while doing a year-long primitive wilderness intensive in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. It took him all of ten seconds to present me with the secret of the “gratitude stone”. All he said was: “I carry this rock in my pocket, and whenever I touch it I look for something to be grateful for…you might want to try it.” Sometimes profound teachings are like that. They can be easy to miss at the time. Or, at least, easy to miss their profound nature.
In nearly every survival course I’ve ever been through, the instructor usually starts off by listing priorities. And if the instructor is worth his salt, the first priority listed is always a mental one — you might even say a “spiritual” one: keep your head. Relax. Breathe. Don’t let fear get the best of you.
And in my experience, it’s nearly impossible to freak out and be grateful at the same time. I find that gratitude tends to cast out fear, or at least, put it in proper perspective.
So that’s why I say the gratitude stone is the #1 survival tool in my pocket. I reach for it even before I reach for my knife.
Oh, and the other handy thing is, it doubles as a sharpening stone.