Feedback And Attitude Of Gratitude

by David B. Wolf, Ph. D.

Personal and interpersonal development is founded on effective communication, and much of communication assumes the form of what we sometimes call “feedback”. In listening with empathy we implicitly send feedback that says “You matter. I am interested in you.” Our non-verbal communication is feedback for people around us. When we share an immediacy statement, such as “I feel very respected by the way you’ve listened to me just now,” or “I’m feeling uneasy and tense with you, like maybe I said something that offended you,” we convey valuable feedback while exploring our relationship with another person. Being assertive and utilizing the WIN (What happened; Inside feelings and thoughts; Needs and wants) strategy of communication sends feedback about acceptable boundaries. Sometimes we share feedback about what we experience may be hindering persons in their growth.

As we may experience in sharing feedback, creating fulfilling, satisfying relationships requires permitting the expression of lots of dissatisfaction. Consider the example of a water faucet that has not been used for years. When we first open the faucet, the stuff that comes out may be dirty and contaminated. After a while, though, clean, clear, tasty water flows. If we continued to block the muddy fluid, we would also block the desirable liquid. Similarly, preventing the expression of emotions that may be unpleasant, also impedes our experience of joy, power, connection and other qualities of the spiritual self.

Sometimes we may resist sharing our honest impressions due to concern or fear that persons will think we are criticizing them, and will be angry or reject us. In some circles it is believed that spiritualists do not criticize. When we picture a saintly person we certainly do not imagine a bitter faultfinder, gossiping and constantly maligning others. At the same time a policy claiming that good, humble, spiritually-minded people never criticize can be used to stifle honest, authentic expression, and to engender a culture of fear and repression in the name of spirituality.

The Nectar of Instruction, a book from 16th Century India, provides an interesting perspective on this subject. It explains that an advanced spiritualist is “completely devoid of the propensity to criticize others.” In material consciousness we have a tendency to want to criticize others, to minimize them so that we feel better about ourselves. This is the principle of envy. A true spiritualist has no such inclination. At the same time, a self-realized person is awake, alert, conscious. He does not deny his perceptions. He is keen to differentiate between reality and illusion, internally, interpersonally, and societally. If he chooses to share his perceptions, he does so assertively, with compassion, for the purpose of illumination and personal growth.

Of course, feedback is not necessarily criticism, though it could be received in that way. Suppose we hear comments from another person about ourself. Even if these comments seem completely inaccurate to us, we can appreciate the value in knowing that someone, perhaps representing many people, perceives us that way. With such information we can adjust our presentation, which is different than compromising our genuineness, so that the perception people have of us is consistent with what is inside. If the feedback we hear does strike a chord, perhaps causing us to react, then that may be an indication of an area for our personal growth. Even if the delivery of the feedback was not as caring and compassionate as we might have preferred, and even if we suspect that the comments significantly reflect on the other person’s issues, still we can use the observations about us for self-realization.

For example, suppose I receive feedback that I am cold, aloof, and distant. Maybe I experience myself as warm, close, and connected. Still, it is very helpful to discover what I am acting in such a way that I am perceived as cold, distant, and aloof. With this information I get the opportunity to adjust my presentation so that people experience me in a way that is authentic and consistent with who I am. Or, perhaps such feedback resonates with me, and touches on an area where I know that I want to focus for self-improvement. This might involve identifying relationships in my life where I know I am being remote and withdrawn, recognizing that I want to change this, and committing to do so.

Accepting constructive feedback with an appreciative spirit, we are grateful that this person cared enough about us to be honest. Similarly, by our willingness to share honestly with people in our life, we give them the opportunity to respond honestly to us, to who we actually are. Otherwise, relationships degenerate to a pretentious exchange designed to maintain shallow, false facades, at the expense of vitality and the spiritual fulfillment that results from genuine reciprocation.

There is also directly appreciative feedback, where we share with each other about qualities and behaviors that inspire and move us. In sharing appreciative comments it is especially enriching to be concrete, to specifically state what it is about the other person that we value and admire. For example, “You gave a good class” is not particularly concrete. In fact, it could be considered to be a judgment. Although it may be regarded as a positive judgment, it still may be a barrier to communication, just as negative judgments often are. This sort of compliment does not provide the receiver with as full an experience and understanding of thankfulness as a statement such as “When you spoke about and demonstrated empathy, and about people not caring what we know till they know that we care, and about the power of completely entering the world of another person, I sensed possibilities open up for me, and felt so hopeful and grateful to be alive. I teach high school students, and this workshop has provided me so many exciting tools and principles to enhance my service to my students.” With such a statement the receiver clearly knows what he did that was appreciated, and how the person felt as a result.

Expressing appreciation in sattva guna means that our intention is to celebrate the life-enriching qualities of others, with no motive to manipulate or coerce, or fulfill some personal agenda. Genuine thankfulness is never superficial flattery, as it emanates from a truly compassionate heart. Such sattvic gratitude is a cornerstone of spiritual life. Research has demonstrated that an attitude of gratitude is a key element of a fulfilled life. Philosopher Sam Keen wrote, “The more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are the victim of resentment, depression, and despair… The sense of gratitude produces true spiritual alchemy, makes us magnanimous- large souled.” Practicing gratitude, intentionally being thankful, transforms how we view and experience the world. It infuses us with power to convert our most challenging times into sources of meaning and inspiration. Consciously being grateful and expressing thankfulness connects us moment-to-moment with the spiritual self’s sense of vitality and discovery. In giving thanks we responsibly participate in the celebration and experience of life.

Receiving appreciation is also a wonderful opportunity to give to people. It is a chance to recognize that we contribute to joy and well-being, that we can be an instrument for the supreme spirit to nurture the lives of others. To receive gratitude in a sattvic manner entails that we avoid snares such as feeling superior and arrogant, or denying that we are deserving, thereby depriving others of the fulfillment of having their appreciation gracefully received.

Here are some exercises for cultivating gratitude.

Exercise 1: Each day for the next month, list three blessings in your life.

Exercise 2: Using principles of responsible and concrete communication, express appreciation to three persons for whom you are grateful, and from whom you have been withholding your feelings of thankfulness.

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