Gratitude is a practice of giving thanks, appreciating others, and acknowledging the wonders of life. It's time to make a gratitude adjustment and carry out random acts of art - a commitment to compassion in action through creative imagination.
In Buddhism, a powerful expression of compassion in action is given by the bodhisattva, a person who has dedicated his or her life to the service of others and vowed to ease suffering of others whenever possible. The Dalai Lama points out that taking the bodhisattva vow doesn't force one into a life of service to others, but it does set a life path for offering acts of charity. It can also involve "random acts of kindness," simple actions on behalf of others, often performed anonymously. To me, these are also acts of gratitude -- the belief in both the goodness of others and yourself.
Since childhood, I have been engaged in what I now call "random acts of art." My mother started me on this path by encouraging me to make artistic creations for others, including the homeless, residents of nursing homes, and patients in hospitals. She was not an artist by nature, but she taught me that sharing the creative spirit with others is a random act of art that lifts one's own spirit in the process. I myself have been the delighted recipient of many random acts of art from others over the years. A dear friend who makes beautiful decorated gourds embellished with African designs surprised me with one of her creations in the mail; other friends send a cartoon on a Post-It Note, a collage of photos, or a treasured painting, altered book, or handmade object commemorating events in our lives.
The gratitude we extend to others through these random acts of art reminds me of the standard operating procedures of guardian angels. According to religion, guardian angels are beings who appear on the scene, give assistance, and then disappear as mysteriously as they arrived. The anonymity of angels has inspired my own random acts of art on behalf of others over the years. Once a month for a year, I sent hand-painted and collaged postcards anonymously to an old college friend who lived out of state. At the time of his retirement from teaching, I wanted to thank him for his friendship and help during graduate school. Those simple handmade postcards carried my gratitude-and he was baffled but pleased to keep finding the mysterious art pieces in his mailbox that I sent from different cities to keep him guessing. To this day, we still surprise each other with little pieces of art, keeping up the guardian angel tradition.
Jazz musician Lionel Hampton once said, "Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind." Neuroscience might argue about the actual storage, but a growing body of research on positive psychology tells us that "gratitude is good" for body and mind. Random acts of art are examples of the true purpose of imagination-making day-to-day life special through creativity and in doing so, sharing our thanks. In making art for others, I am also doing a service to myself because it gives me the grace to find forgiveness and understanding and let go. And move forward in gratitude.
Cathy Malchiodi is an art therapist, visual artist, independent scholar, and author of 13 books on arts therapies, including The Art Therapy Sourcebook. See full bio
© 2008 Cathy Malchiodi