A Brief, Imperfect Guide to Cultivating Gratitude When Nothing Is Going Right

A Brief, Imperfect Guide to Cultivating Gratitude

When Nothing Is Going Right

Three months on the road changes a person. That’s fine. That’s expected. What I didn’t know when I packed my bike, Voodoo—the world’s fastest production bike—and headed off into the unknown for three months, was just how much it would change me.

Only a week into my epic journey, Voodoo and I were getting more and more comfortable with each other. Every bike has their own personality, and I was learning to love hers. She loved to push the limits, to power into corners and accelerate out of them. She loved the challenge of tight, torturous switchbacks and was never happier than when she was traveling at full throttle. Kind of like her owner.

My relationship with Voodoo was settling into a rhythm. However, my relationship with myself was still erratic. I was looking forward to this journey to heal the emptiness I was feeling inside. But the journey wasn’t making my healing easy, exactly.  It was often a journey of contrasts—one day I felt high on freedom and adrenaline, the next I dived deep into frustration and confusion. My emotions were a continual roller coaster as I tried to make sense of everything I was learning.

Maintaining my hard-won serenity was like trying to hold custard. I could hold it for a moment, but before I knew what was happening, it would slip through my fingers.  

On day six, I rolled into Banff National Park and felt a precious sense of serenity. But by the next morning I was restless, disoriented, and more than a little petulant. The start of my day hadn’t gone to plan—I’d had a latte spilled on me (vegans hate smelling of milk!), my meditation had been rained out, and my run had been nixed because of the threat of bears. And so, in one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful places in the world, I was sulky, sullen and surly.  How had that change happened so quickly?

Nursing a cup of black hot water which vaguely passed for coffee, I opened the notebook of quotes and affirmations I’d written before I’d left, hoping they’d inspire me on my journey of change. My journal fell open to just what I needed to see— a gem I had heard from my favorite Zen master, WuDe:

A lot of suffering comes from wanting to be what is not, and wanting not to be what is.

Now that was a slap, and it was just what this miserable, grouchy diva needed to hear—although I had to read it a few times to really work it out. To me, it meant that we spend so much of our lives wanting things to be different instead of truly appreciating the joy and beauty we already have.

The message struck me to my core, as did the realization that my frustration had mainly been caused by my inability to control situations. It was shocking to realize I actually couldn’t control everything that happened around me. However, I could control how I reacted to it. I could choose to be bad-tempered in the face of first-world adversity, or I could choose to accept the situation and still find joy in the day.

There are lightning-bolt moments in your life where messages are shocked into you, and there are other moments where the knowledge just seeps in. Like an intravenous drip, the lessons were slowly starting to trickle through. About time!

Consciously Finding Gratitude Through Journaling

In this place of incredible beauty, I thought about gratitude; instead of complaining, how about I be thankful? I’d heard that even your worst day changes with gratitude. It was worth a shot. So I started to write.

It was hard at first, but after about ten minutes—once I’d been grateful for the obvious—the faucet opened and everything flowed out. I couldn’t stop with just writing. The power and emotion were so strong that I texted my family and friends, thanking them for being in my life and telling them how much they mean to me. I poured my heart out and got beautiful messages back from all of them—including one from my business coach. His reply read, “Thanks. That’s great…but who is this?” I’d forgotten I was unidentifiable on my cheap Canadian SIM card. Even better! There’s nothing like the power of anonymous gratitude.

In an unusual place of deep peace, I loaded a feisty Voodoo, and together we made the short, lazy 60 km ride to Lake Louise, which was perfectly timed for me to squeeze in a hike up into the glacier before nightfall.

Without a doubt, Lake Louise is another one of the most beautiful places in the world. With its impossibly serene turquoise lake encased by proud, imposing mountains and spectacular glaciers, it literally takes your breath away. And that was just what I needed—to be completely immersed in spectacular nature so my happy heart could continue singing.

That was the plan. Sadly, the old competitive warrior in me had other ideas. Despite hiking amidst incredible forest beauty—crystal blue waterfalls, sparkling streams, tiny, brightly colored wildflowers—I saw virtually none of it.

Old Competitive Habits Die Hard… But They Do Die

I couldn’t be content with a peaceful, gentle walk. Instead, I needed to turn my hike into a speed march where the biggest competition was myself. I powered up the side of the glacier—never missing a beat, pushing at breakneck speed, overtaking everyone in my way to get to the top as fast as I could. I saw nothing but my own feet all the way up.

With a lemongrass tea warming my hands, I sat in the sun on the veranda of a tiny wooden tea house perched at the top of the ridge. I’d annihilated everything and everyone in my path. As the cool breeze started to dry the sweat on my back and chill my bones, I sat in bewilderment. What the hell was that all about? What is wrong with me? I couldn’t even hike in one of the most beautiful places in the world without it becoming a competition. It’s bad enough that I need validation from other people to feel good. But why the continual need to compete with myself? What was I trying to prove?

I had no answers. I decided I wasn’t going to leave the tea house until I’d found them. Eventually, the cold and the realization that mentally smacking myself wasn’t a good option either forced me back down the glacier.

Still, five cups of tea had shown me something: I might not have the answers, but the first step in finding them was to see myself as I truly was. I didn’t necessarily like who I saw at that tea house. But in recognizing that competitive warrior, I knew I could change her. Gradually, with time, patience, and kindness.

I had plenty of time left in my helmet to make those changes, but today, the self-judgment had to stop. Heading down the glacier was a very different story. I slowed to a crawl. I stood mesmerized by the intricate beauty of tiny flowers. I smelt the richness of the damp, moist earth. I felt the cool breeze on my skin. I listened to the small gurgling stream as I walked slowly beside it. And I remembered—as I’d forgotten so many times already on this trip—it’s about the journey, not the destination.

It wouldn’t be the last reminder I’d need, but at that moment, it was enough. As I tucked Voodoo up for the night, I smiled.  I was getting better at holding on to the custard!

Sue Hollis

Sue was a successful executive, leading national sales for Quantas Australia, when she realized that she was being pressured into flexing her masculinity in order to thrive in the workplace. Riding Raw is Sue’s story of an 83-day solo motorcycle trip in which she reconnected with her authentic form of leadership. A decade later, she’s running her own multimillion-dollar travel company, with 120 employees, and has been named a Top 10 Entrepreneur in Australia.

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