“When you look down, your brain shifts to an egocentric point of view, centered only on you and yourself,” Omar Brownson responds when asked if he believes technology is hindering our capacity to be present. “Alternatively, when you look up at the sky, your brain automatically turns to what's called an allocentric point of view — ‘allo’ meaning other — which causes you to think about your relationship to the world and others. For thousands of years, we’ve navigated by looking up at the stars and noticing our location in the world. Today, we’re often looking down, glued to our phones, not paying attention to what’s around us.”
Prior to the pandemic, Omar’s reflections on technology’s pull and narrowing effect on our perspective would likely have felt timely and true. After a year of physical isolation, however, the observation carries a different, more complicated resonance. For many, technology has been a vital tool in remaining connected to other people and the outside world. Looking down at my computer screen, it’s not lost on me that my conversation with Omar was only possible because of Zoom.
But Omar’s comments are not an indictment of technology as much as a gentle reminder to be aware of ourselves and how we navigate the world. Omar himself has spent the last few years leveraging digital platforms to spread mindfulness at scale. In 2019, he created gthx, an app to help people notice the good within and around themselves. He also launched a virtual Thankful Thursday series during the pandemic to help folks combat fear, isolation, and loneliness by connecting them with mindfulness experts.
Like many other of Omar’s observations, the lesson is consistent: sometimes, the most profound action we can take is simply to notice. Any tool that facilitates awareness — of ourselves, our relationships, of our world — becomes necessary to building a culture of wellness, particularly as the boundaries of personal and professional spaces are being redefined.
Today, Omar continues his virtual mindfulness work via a Gratitude Circle series in partnership with Belinda Liu, Founder of Gratitude Blooming, and evolve, SCG’s suite of programming championing transformational leadership. The Circles seek to foster self-awareness and shared connections by practicing gratitude in a community. With disrupted work and home boundaries, Gratitude Circles offer a new and intentional approach for bridging personal self-care and community culture building. As we approach our next Gratitude Circles, SCG connected with Omar Brownson to discuss the multifaceted nature of gratitude and its unique potential to help us grow personally and collectively.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you arrive at gratitude as the focus of your work?
Seven years ago, I received the Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship, an award given to Angelenos to help them think differently about tackling the city’s most intractable problems, for a project I was leading on the Los Angeles River. I knew I wanted to begin the process by going inward, so I used the fellowship’s travel stipend to visit a silent retreat center in Big Sur. I spent six days in silence searching for answers, but all I encountered was my impatience. At the end of the sixth day, I shared my findings with a monk who laughed and simply said, “The root word for impatience is ‘patis,’ which means to suffer. So that is your burden.”
His words flipped a switch in my brain, and I sought to become more patient by meditating every day for six months. But, of course, incorporating a practice on top of being a husband and father only added additional stress to my life. It wasn’t until I heard Harvard Professor Ellen Langer claim that “you can meditate or you can just be mindful” that my entire orientation to mindfulness changed. Instead of adding to my day, I realized I could practice awareness at any time of the day. Gradually, I began prioritizing noticing the good in my life, which brought me to gratitude.
In your work, you draw a distinction between mindfulness and gratitude. Can you elaborate on how these practices are different?
I distinguish them in this way: the practice of meditation begins with noticing each breath; the practice of mindfulness begins with noticing change; the practice of gratitude begins with noticing good. These practices all require you to train your brain to bring awareness to your noticing. But, gratitude is distinct in that it’s both a practice and an actual emotion. We’re born with the capacity to feel gratitude; all we have to do is notice it. And in many ways, what we notice is who we are.
You also call for a reframing of gratitude as a social emotion. What opportunities does this shift provide?
Gratitude is inherently relational; it involves us and our relationship to others, making it a social emotion. And, as a social emotion, it has two wings: self-care and shared connection. I like to imagine that practicing gratitude is like learning to fly with both wings. In our Western culture, we view self-care as an individual and often isolated practice, when in reality, we heal best with other people. As the saying goes, “the only difference between wellness and illness is ‘we’ versus ‘i’.” When self-care happens in a community, it has a compounding effect.
Turning inward is challenging for many people. Even you struggled to adopt a practice. What internal barriers must we overcome to arrive at gratitude?
The brain has a biological bias to see the negative. Adopting a new practice involves learning to have self-compassion and moving away from a right or wrong mindset. I practice gratitude with my daughters every night before bed, and I remind them that “practice makes progress.” I’ve never used the term “practice makes perfect” because perfection is not present in self-compassion. What’s more important is maintaining a practice. It’s about taking lots of small steps and not worrying about giant leaps.
I also always remember the monk who told me that impatience means to suffer. My impatience was born out of a need for control. And my need for control was born from fear. Facing my fears of uncertainty helped me to let go of trying to control everything and become more present. Gratitude helped me to learn to appreciate what is happening and worry less about what is not happening.
What inspired the first Gratitude Circle, and what are these spaces designed to do?
During the pandemic, I started hosting a virtual Thankful Thursday series. I partnered with an array of mindfulness experts, including Belinda Liu, founder of Gratitude Blooming and the creator of a 39-card deck designed to inspire insights through nature-based illustrations and prompts. Belinda and I decided to incorporate her card deck and previous circle practices with my Thankful Thursday series, and this eventually became our innovative virtual Gratitude Circle with first-of-its-kind digital tools. We have held Gratitude Circles with SCG, foundations, social impact leaders, healthcare workers, and others who seek to accelerate their self-care and build healthier relationships.
Gratitude Circles were inspired by nature, and in nature, everything is connected. We like to say that a flower needs the soil, the water, and the sun to bloom. Gratitude Circles work similarly. We believe in the power of participants experiencing self-care, shared connection, and synchronicity. None of those things work in isolation; they work best together. Participants co-create the conditions for openness where they can embrace not having all the answers, where they can heal, and where they can listen to and experience the beauty of serendipity. Gratitude Circles are the space where these conditions can be created and where people can bloom.
You’ve mentioned previously that Gratitude Circles are an invitation to bravery. How can these spaces help guide the work of personal transformation and the broader efforts for social change?
Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Gratitude exists at the intersection of how we show up in the world and how we show up for ourselves. I realized that if we want to take care of our communities and this planet, we must begin by taking care of ourselves. These conditions are inextricably linked — we can’t change the world if we are not aware of what’s hurting within ourselves.
Gratitude Circles are an invitation to bravery because they require us to be vulnerable, to be comfortable not having all the answers, and to have the courage to examine ourselves fully. Internal, anti-racist work requires learning from different perspectives and realizing that we hold and perpetuate biases that fuel racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. We must have the humility to become aware of our biases before we can erase them. I’ve come to believe that the scale of equity and justice we seek only proceeds at the pace of our own inner transformation. Change starts within.
Any final reflections on gratitude?
For thousands of years, people across many cultures have counted their blessings with prayer, mala, or worry beads. Science is finally catching up and realizing the benefits of gratitude. I've been practicing gratitude for five years, and I’m still learning how to listen and pay more attention to my relationship with both nature and my inner nature. There’s also so much we can learn from one another. The beauty of gratitude is finding folks who think differently about doing the work and learning from them. I appreciate working with Kameron Green at Southern California Grantmakers because of the deep recognition that our personal leadership is part and parcel of creating the change we want to see in the world.