8 February 2010
I always thought gratitude was strictly something that happened to me. Gratitude arose when conditions crossed the gratitude threshold. When they were surprisingly good, when they beat my expectations, they crossed the threshold. I noticed. This meant feeling the goodness was mostly good luck. Not my doing. If it were my doing, I felt pleased or I felt proud. But not grateful. Grateful was when something happened independent of my efforts, or even in spite of them.
I still feel this way occasionally, but my understanding of gratitude has changed. My experience of gratitude has expanded. For one thing, the wall between what’s my doing and what’s not my doing has mostly come down. Something good happens. Something bad happens. Did I do this? Did this happen to me? Yes. Yes.
More importantly, I’ve learned to cultivate gratitude. I’ve learned gratitude needs to be attended to. Bad news overwhelms good news. Depression overpowers buoyancy. Bad news and depression get to feeling like the truer truths; gratitude gets to feeling like delusion or denial in the face of suffering.
But gratitude is a muscle. Unused, it atrophies. Exercised, it gets stronger. So I exercise it. My practice with gratitude is an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist practice of Sympathetic Joy, knitted together with a practice I learned from my Zen teacher, Chikudo Lew Richmond. I do this as a silent meditation, roughly as follows:
I begin by letting my awareness settle on some very small but specific thing that I have experienced recently. Recently enough to be vivid. It can be the most trivial thing. For example, the smell of the fresh ground coffee I had this morning. I invite the feeling of appreciation to pervade my awareness and notice the corresponding feeling in my body. I watch the feeling of gratitude arise. I say to myself, silently, “Grateful for this lovely smell.” I let the feeling abide, then let it go. I repeat this exercise with another small, specific, recent thing. Then I turn my awareness to something specific a person has done for which I am grateful. Again, it can be the smallest thing. For example, a stranger held a door open for me at a gas station a couple of days ago, smiling and allowing me to pass through. I let the experience and the feeling reside in my awareness and notice what it feels like in my body. I say to myself, silently, “Grateful for this kindness.”
I continue this process, expanding it to take in the visage of a person whose very existence I am grateful for, a grandchild for example. “Grateful for Olivia.” Then I work with gratitude for a group of people, perhaps friends or colleagues. And so I continue. In this way, I widen the range of my gratitude to encompass as much of life as I can. This practice doesn’t ignore or minimize the reality of suffering – my own and others’. But it helps ensure I don’t ignore or minimize the gift of this human life and the blessings this existence includes.
Here is a poem by Jalalu’l-din Rumi which expresses gratitude a lovely way:
What Was Told, That
by Jalalu’l-din Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks
What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.
What was told the cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was
whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever
was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them
so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is
being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.
The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,
in love with the one to whom every that belongs!