There are four portals—or entryways—to the experience of gratitude. Recognizing these portals at the time when they appear in our lives is key to developing the capacity to cultivate gratitude. Blessings are the primary, cross-cultural portal through which we experience gratitude. Learnings, mercies,and protections are three other portals attributed with fostering gratitude in various worldwide cultures.


Blessings are those experiences we hold as “the good” in our lives. The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth. To bless is to sanctify; to recognize the presence of grace; to confer well-being or prosperity upon others; to endow; or invoke divine favor upon others or ourselves. Giving gratitude for our blessings is a way to recognize and honor them. John O’Donohue writes in his book To Bless the Space Between Us, “The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in raiment of spirit that secretly links it to everything else. Though suffering and chaos befall us, they can never quench that inner light of providence.” Blessings are gifts that open doors to healing, connection, meaning, and transformation. Essentially, the world itself cannot exist without blessings.


Whenever we are learning, we are growing. Often, what we are learning challenges us to stretch, to reexamine, and to rise to a new standard of excellence or skill level. We do not develop without learning. Our curiosity motivates exploration, risk, and facing the new or unfamiliar—all challenges that lead to learning. The meaning of the word “challenge,” from a cross-cultural point of view, is an invitation to grow or extend beyond what is presently knowable or familiar. It is interesting to note that in hindsight, we often refer to our challenges or learnings as blessings in disguise or wake-up calls.

We are continually learning about ourselves, each other, our immediate environments, our communities, and the world. “What did I learn today?” is a profound question. It is from our learnings that we are able to bring forward and understand what is meaningful for us. The poet and novelist Marge Piercy sums up the crucible of learning this way: “Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding is the third.” Our learnings and the understandings we derive from them form a universal portal that engenders gratitude for all the ways we learn, including initiation rituals or rites of passage that occur worldwide.


To be merciful is to have a disposition of kindness and compassion that bestows unexpected forgiveness or clemency. Mercy alleviates distress through acts of charity or benevolence. Merciful acts generate thankfulness, both in those who have initiated the acts and those who have benefited from them.

Mercy and forgiveness are closely tied; forgiveness is an act of generosity and compassion that fosters mercy. When we extend acts of kindness and compassion to ourselves and others, we cultivate mercy and open more easily to our own forgiveness work––forgiving ourselves for the harm we have caused and forgiving those who have harmed us. Making amends and extending a genuine apology foster the experience of atonement, “at-one-ment.” Anyone who has ever received the gift of forgiveness knows that it is one of the greatest gifts they can receive, and their gratitude emerges spontaneously.


Inherent in all humans is the instinct to protect ourselves and others, especially those we love—to keep ourselves and others safe from harm, injury, or attack. Every culture has practices, prayers, rituals, and invocations for protection. Housewarmings are blessing and protection rituals, as are ribbon-cutting ceremonies: in cutting the ribbon before walking into a new workplace, we ask for blessings and protections to cut away the old and open to the new. Worldwide, parents bless their children to keep them safe, and remain vigilant in their efforts to keep them from harm. Feeling protected always engenders gratitude, and this is not limited to those who protect us in the seen world such as our elders, or others who may choose to watch out for us. We also call on the help of ancestors, the Mystery, and spiritual figures such as saints and angels for protection.

These universal portals of blessings, learnings, mercies, and protections offer the human spirit the gift of awareness,the ability to recognize all those things that can inspire gratitude amid the paradox of life’s happiness and suffering. As Robert Emmons reminds us in his book, Thanks!, whether we are happy or suffering, “Gratitude is the way the heart remembers––remembers kindnesses, cherished interactions with others, compassionate actions of strangers, surprise gifts, and everyday blessings. By remembering we honor and acknowledge the many ways in which who and what we are has been shaped by others, both living and dead.”  We can understand the magnitude of gratitude’s power when we consider how the intention of thankfulness corresponds with the deepest human realities of connection, creativity, healing, and wholesomeness.

All Articles in the Series:

Part 1: What is Gratitude?
Part 2: Four Universal Portals to Gratitude: Blessings, Learnings, Mercies, and Protections
Part 3: The Benefits of Gratitude in the Four Quadrants of Life
Part 4:  Obstacles to Gratitude

Angeles Arrien, PhD, worked nationally and internationally as a professional and personal consultant with organizations, groups, communities, professionals and individuals. Drawing upon her bi-cultural background and lifelong work as a cultural anthropologist, educator, mediator, and award-winning author, Angeles was known for her deep commitment, integrity and her skills for facilitating positive and sustainable changes with individuals and organizations. She always looked for what was possible, beyond the knowable, to serve the individual and collective greater good. Angeles passed away unexpectedly on April 24, 2014.

Her book – Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life (Sounds True, Inc., Boulder, CO, ©2011) – integrates the latest teachings from social science with stories, prayers, and practices from cultures and traditions spanning the globe, and presents a 12-month plan for making gratitude your foundation for daily living.

The above excerpt is posted with the author’s kind permission. 

In Grateful Memory of Angeles Arrien