I can never forget the last twenty minutes of my final graduate course. My professor asked us to pull out a piece of paper and pencil in seven descriptions of how we would like to be remembered this lifetime. Not only did he share his list, but he also left us with some thoughtful encouragement. He reminded us to turn on our blinkers and be mindful of the times where we may drive ahead. Most importantly, acknowledging those allowing us to pass through - our family, friends, coworkers, and those with whom we come into contact.

November is a time of giving thanks and it prompts us to ask, “Who or what am I grateful for?” The challenge in deepening our gratitude is that we are often busy. The distractions and worries of daily life can consume us and leave us possibly asleep to the real riches of our lives. To cultivate an engaged and grateful heart, we are asked to create intentional time and space. As a photographer, this thought illustrates and reminds me of one of the basic principles of every single art form, which has not to do with what is there, but with what is not. In visual arts, this is called negative space. The blank space allows us to see the nonnegative space in all its hues, shadows, color, mystery and light. What is not there gives what is there meaning.

"I don't have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness. It's right in front of me if I'm paying attention and practicing gratitude." - Brené Brown

What if cultivating time for reflection is our negative space to experience a living, breathing encounter in our daily interactions? What if we allowed gratefulness to exist in simple words of compassion others offer to us? What if love is the way it feels to lay our hand on a dear one’s shoulder? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of morning light? By seeing with our eyes, listening with our ears, and receiving with an open heart, there becomes a simplification and familiarity with gratitude as an orientation and attitude towards life.

For the last five years, I have adopted a ‘gratitude training’ into my evening routine. I spend five minutes to ask myself, “What am I grateful for today?” To deepen my reflection, I ask the following questions:

  • What inspired me today?
  • What do I take for granted?
  • What advantages have I received in my life?
  • Who has supported me along the way?

By integrating these questions into my everyday life, I am able to observe a situation from another perspective, one that is more generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, and big-hearted. It trains the heart and mind to another set of eyes and creates space for a sense of wonder. It reminds us to not take for granted the simplest pleasures, our health, senses, the love and friendship that surround us, and the gift of life itself. In my experience, those sorts of revelations help. It is the consciousness we bring to our lives which constructs meaning and how we choose to respond in any given situation.

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Tam Lontok is a lifestyle photographer based in Southern California. She enjoys writing and coordinating retreats to empower young adults in remembering they are loved and created whole. Her superpower lies in her compassion, but Trader Joe’s Chocolate Coconut Almonds continues to be her daily kryptonite.

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