On Thanksgiving morning we at Evolutions held a Gratitude Practice–a special yoga class focusing on the deeper spirit of the holiday. In preparation in the weeks beforehand, I enjoyed researching various rituals of gratitude, and I also happened to be taking part in a Facebook “gratitude challenge” with some friends, each of us vowing to post something (or somethings) for which we were grateful each day in November. This daily gratitude practice was fun, and I noticed after even a few days that it’s something we could likely all do more often: stop and take a moment of noticing for this event, that meal, this person, that health that we enjoy. So often it’s only once these gifts have been diminished or removed from our lives that we achingly notice how meaningful they were. A daily practice of jotting something in a journal, or taking a moment of meditation at the end or beginning of the days is certainly something that could enrich the lives of many.
But at the same time, as days of this practice stretched into weeks, I began to feel a bit of a craving for more. I felt a nagging glitch…a dark side to the practice. A certain depth was missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As I continued to research and reflect, I realized what was bugging me: we run the risk of getting into somewhat of a business relationship with Life / God / the Universe / fill-in-the-blank when the practice ends with a thankfulness list. Finding gratitude for the lovely people or helpful items or pleasant experiences or even for the difficult but valuable learnings of our lives can put us in a place of transaction: I get “X” and give thanks, I get “Y” and give thanks… To cultivate gratitude for all that we have is an important step, but after just a month or so of the practice, I became aware that I was standing on a platform that could support a much bigger, deeper practice–that this was nowhere near an end-all, be-all practice. I could feel very clearly that this foundational practice is much like the foundation of the home we are currently building: important, strong, and brimming with potential, but–at some point for each of us–somewhat stark as it stands alone there in the earth.
Gratitude for life itself is the next step.
The Buddha believed that every human birth is rare, precious, and worthy of gratitude. Phillip Moffitt writes that: “[i]n one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop,” and that he would often instruct his students to ponder “the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the [human life].” I invite you to reflect on your gratitude by inquiring if it is based on exchange. Ask yourself what happened to all the gratitude you’ve ever felt in the past? Where did it go? Is your gratitude dependent on feeling good in this instant? If so, isn’t that a narrow and demanding attitude, implying that your gratitude is contingent upon your getting something? This is not the quality of gratitude that leads to a mystical, direct experience of life; I’ve come to believe that it’s a trap, setting us up for disappointment and anger when things aren’t flowing in a way that makes sense to us. As adults, most of us have learned how not to throw a public tantrum, but we have our own internal tantrums all the time…I for one can think of a certain quality of mind and emotion that feels just like I am four years old and can’t have the treat I want. It’s not an expansive state of mind to say the least, and it doesn’t encourage me to see what the world as benevolent or nourishing.
So what to do? Actively notice things you are grateful for throughout your regular day at times that do not feel particularly magical–for instance, when you’re mindlessly commuting to work, but then come back into a fuller consciousness. Look around. See the trees, the sky. Think of what this time alone could offer you, of what your job does for you. Notice what you may have otherwise missed–all that seems mundane which is not. Notice all which does still seem mundane, too–is there no room for that in life? There’s a certain magic in just being here that we may be lucky enough to taste from time to time…if we just look around more deeply. There’s a certain brightness of color and richness of texture, if we can allow ourselves to see it.
You can also practice being consciously grateful to all those who have come before you to make it possible for your existence to be comfortable, informed, or empowered–whether you know them, knew them, or not. In any non-special moment, take time to mentally note the many people who have invisibly served you by providing medicine, shelter, safety, food, and education. Or, to take the practice a step further, find gratitude when things aren’t going so well. For example, offers Moffitt: “when you’re stuck in traffic and you’re late and irritated, you can be thankful that other drivers are abiding by the agreed-upon driving rules, which prevent chaos and unsafe conditions. In other words, there is a level of well-being and community cooperation that is supporting you even in the midst of your bad day.” We’re simply talking about seeing things more as they actually are, instead of through our most myopic and negative lenses. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises.
Connecting to the joy and wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity and loss. It doesn’t deny life’s difficulties at all, but it allows you to meet them with more clarity. Do these practices not just once or twice, but dozens times each day, and do so not necessarily to get out of a bad mood or to be the person you think you “should” be, but with the intention of seeing more clearly the true situation of your life. Traffic will remain frustrating, but the inner experience of how our lives unfolds will begin to shift. Slowly, we become more clear about what really matters to us, and there is more ease in our daily experiences. May we learn together and travel our paths well!