“ No duty is more urgent than that of giving thanks.”
I’m in uncharted territory, in a strange time, looking on…. A young boy is standing nearby, holding a wooden yacht in full sail. He’s neatly dressed with dark, combed hair. Fine looking, with radiance to his smile, he seems unaware of my presence. As I look on in curiosity, he suddenly seems startled by my presence and moves away. In confusion and bewilderment I find that I’m overcome with sadness -a feeling of loss pervades. “ I wished I had a son,” I find myself thinking. “ But it’s too late, my life as slipped away and I have missed the opportunity of this gift.” Sinking deeper into despair I reflect on my loss….Suddenly I bolt upright in my bed to gaze around me. Strange objects quickly become familiar and then I realize, with sweat poring off my chest, that I had been dreaming. “ I DO have a son,” I thought and in a moment of almost panic I phoned him to say how much I loved him and appreciated all that he had given me. It took many days for me to think deeply on this incident but I did eventually arrive at some tentative conclusions. I believe the core issue here was one of loss, loss of my close attachment to my son in childhood, and loss of my own childhood. But despite (or because of) these feelings of grief I was taken into a landscape of deep appreciation for the very gift of our shared lives……
Thoughts and feelings around the issue of loss can often open us up to encounters with a deep-seated gratitude that I certainly felt towards my son. This appears to be a natural process of recognition and acknowledgement that we all need to enter in order to give our identities meaning and value. Too often we place ourselves in the world with a taken-for-granted attitude, seeing everything in terms of rights and expectancy. But in contemplative mood we soon realize that uncertainty, fate and impermanence follow us throughout our days therefore shouldn’t we be more appreciative of what we do have, here and now, rather than what isn’t here?
Gratitude wakes us up and shakes off the cloak of expectancy. It is a spiritual gift that flows from a positive mental state that has, at its heart, humility. And humility is a primary spiritual faculty that is highly regarded and respected in all the world religions.
We live in a post-modern world, in an age of unprecedented abundance where so much is available yet there seems to be no real expression for gratitude. In pre-industrial times people were much more grounded in nature and realized that the productivity of the earth (the very crops they gathered in) could not be just taken away without some form of acknowledgement, some form of thanking. I remember reading a story once about a painting that G K Chesterton was viewing. It depicted a scene of rural life, a crop field with peasants harvesting the fruits of their labour. Chesterton was looking intently at the picture and was wondering why the artist had painted all the peasants with their mouths open. This seemed strange to Chesterton until it was pointed out that the peasants were singing, rejoicing and giving thanks for the crop. As a child (I recall with warm affection) I use to attend annual services of Thanksgiving in my primary school and local church. It was a time for us to learn about, and celebrate, the gathering in of the harvest. To give thanks for the richness of nature and the very food that it provided to feed and sustain us.
And this festival of celebration has found expression in many world cultures and religions, not just Christianity. It even goes back to a pre- religious age of Paganism where feelings of awe, wonderment and gratitude towards nature were widespread and there was an inherent need to celebrate and give thanks.
It seems to me that appreciation and gratitude are not qualities that we are encouraged to cultivate, to any real extent, in our cold, competitive, consumer led society. In fact they may be seen as signs of weakness and dependency, causing us feelings of embarrassment and discomfort. But the stepping outside of this perspective, this attachment to constant expectancy, can release within us a spiritually enriching feeling that recognizes the merits of all that is given.
CULTIVATING A GRATITUDE PRACTICE
Shifts in our thinking, from dull expectancy to joyful appreciation, can occur if we regularly and mindfully draw our attention to everything, however small, that brings us joy and happiness. One way of systematically chronicling this is the adoption of a gratitude journal – just a simple inventory of what comes to us with joy and delight. It could be a phone call from a good friend, an unexpected but welcomed letter, a lovely warm summer’s day or a smile on the face of an endearing child. It not always the bigger issues that need recording, although they do seem to grab our attention, but the very minutiae of life that often go by unnoticed. Our thoughts in these pages could always be embraced and utilized in our meditation practice and prayers to reinforce what positive feelings have surfaced within us. However, one word of warning – we must endeavour to undertake this practice in a genuine, authentic way as a natural expression of our heart-felt desire to recognise the joy of gifts. We cannot enforce this feeling upon ourselves because of guilt or the need to demonstrate, to significant others, a projected image that is, in reality misleading and wrong. Best be true to ourselves, our innermost feelings, rather than pretend otherwise, then we can start to address what it is that is holding us back, stopping us from experiencing a deep appreciation of a life that is given.
The traditional Zen story of the Ten Bulls shows that feelings of gratitude do not always come easily….It’s the tale of a discontented young man who leaves his village in search of enlightenment, only to find it in the very place that he had left. It’s the story of homecoming, or to be more precise re-discovery. Our young man embarks on a spiritual quest that leads him off to adventure. He eventually attains his goal of insight and in the process is filled with gratitude but it happens in the very place he had left. But without the journey, without the struggle he would have never discovered it. The journey itself was essential for him to find it.
Context can very much influence our perception and feeling for gratitude. I recall a number of years ago taking a walk, with a friend, along a local riverbank. The day had started out fine but gradually the sky grew darker and we found ourselves in torrential rain. Unable to seek shelter, we journeyed on – saturated. I passed some comment about our ‘ wetness ‘ when she said: “ If we were in Africa now we would be dancing. “ Rapidly my perceptual field of view shifted, quite dramatically, and I fully realized the value of what she had said. Fully drenched, but laughing we journeyed on somehow less concerned about the rain. Re-framing the experience had brought me joy and taught me that one person’s grief is another’s gratitude.
The full-bodied experience of feeling deep thankfulness can enliven and invigorate us beyond measure. It’s the best medicine we can give ourselves, and it has no negative side effects.
RECOGNITION OF SUFFERING
Although we should openly cultivate the practice of gratitude, to enhance our physical and psychological health, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of becoming blind to the negative. The unwelcome visitors that can decisively descend upon us bringing with them pain and anguish. The reality of suffering is undeniable and we must recognize and acknowledge this whenever it surfaces. But we mustn’t become attached to it, preoccupied with its presence to the exclusion of the positive. Being present and mindful, relaxed and calm, allowing everything in and not ‘ labelling ‘ in a judgemental, measured way, is the path that leads to liberation…..
In looking back at my life I can see now, how many ‘ negative ‘ events were judged too quickly, too harshly in the heat of the moment. I did not have the full view, only ‘ snapshots ‘ and on these I based my subsequent actions, which were sometimes wrong. Even when my evaluation of the negative seemed to be fairly accurate I was unable to see the inherent challenge of turning things around, of transforming them, and me, but now I know better. Now I recognize, with gratitude, the human qualities of perseverance and persistence in working with the material of life – my life. So to all the people who have stood their ground with me, who have challenged my perspective on life and shaken my belief system, to them I give thanks for they have surely been my teachers who have strengthened me.
“ Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. “
Gratitude can be fully attending, with a ‘ now ‘ focus in the present moment. It can also incorporate a glancing back in appreciation to what was, and of course a projecting forward to what might be – our hopes and dreams. Gratitude can range from a fleeting ’ wind swept ‘ thought blowing across our minds, to a full-bodied experience that erupts into a spiritual insight, acting as a catalyst to awaken us to a new life. Whatever our circumstances are, wherever we are placed, we have all been presented with this mysterious and magical gift of life and our obligation is to honour this gift by taking what talents we have to the far reaches of their potential. And for this journey of adventure, this journey of growth that will open up so much for us, we must be supremely grateful.
“ Gratitude is heaven itself.”