Today's Daily Tip
There is a shadow side to gratitude, in which reality gets distorted in yet another way. It manifests as a hopeless or helpless attitude disguised as gratitude, and it expresses itself in a self-defeating, passive voice—"Yes, these things are wrong and unfair, but I should be grateful for what I have," or "At least we have this," or "Compared to these people, look how much better off we are." This voice, whether it is an inner voice or comes from someone else, is not to be trusted. Gratitude is not an excuse for being passive in the face of personal or societal need or injustice. You are not excused from working to become a caring person, creating a better life for your loved ones, or protecting the innocent. Acknowledging the great gift of a human life through gratitude is just the opposite; it is a call to action to be a caring human being while acknowledging the folly of basing your happiness on the outcome of your actions.
Many students ask, If experiencing gratitude feels so good, why do we often shortchange it? If you will answer this question for yourself, you will gain much insight into how you make your life more difficult than it need be. Sometimes you shortchange gratitude because your mind is stuck in problem-solving mode; it only notices what isn't working and sets about trying to resolve it. This might seem desirable, but in fact there will always be things wrong in your life. So you reduce your experience of being alive if you are only responding to the negative. Is that what you want out of life? Do you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you await a future, perfect moment that is unlikely to arrive?
A second reason you might shortchange gratitude is related to the first: The mind tends to take for granted whatever is both desirable and present. This happens because the mind wants constant stimulation, and whatever is present and pleasant tends not to create that stimulation. You can see this for yourself around eating a favorite food: Notice how the first few bites taste so delicious, then how quickly the mind ceases to register the pleasant sensations. It is like this with everything—a cool breeze on a hot day, the sound of a stream as it flows over rocks, the freshness of the morning air after a rain. They all simply disappear from consciousness in the untrained mind. However, a mind trained in mindfulness of gratitude will stay attuned far longer and note more details of that which is good.
The phenomenon of comparing mind is another hindrance to practicing gratitude. It is the aspect of your mind that notices, "She has a nicer car than I do," "He is stronger than I am," or "She is a better yogini than I am." Understand that there is a difference between discernment, the factor of mind that sees things clearly, and comparing mind, which exercises judgment and hides a belief system that says, "If only I have more of the right things, I will be happy." This is a false belief, of course, a mental habit really, but because it is unacknowledged and seldom examined, it holds enormous power in your life.
Unrecognized arrogance arising from a hidden sense of entitlement can also be an obstacle to practicing gratitude. When you have a strong feeling of entitlement, you don't notice what is going well, but rather what is not right. It can stem from a sense of either having suffered unfairly or having been deprived. It can also arise from feeling special because you are smart, a hard worker, or successful. At the subtle level of mindfulness, this arrogance is a form of ignorance where these two truths of life are mixed together.
Finding Grace Through Gratitude
The words "gratitude" and "grace" share a common origin: the Latin word gratus, meaning "pleasing" or "thankful." When you are in a deep state of gratitude, you will often spontaneously feel the presence of grace. The grace in receiving a human life is that it grants you the capacity to experience that which is beyond the mind and body—call it God, emptiness, Brahman, Allah, or the Ground of the Absolute.
Reflect on this: You, with all your flaws, have been chosen for this opportunity to consciously taste life, to know it for what it is, and to make of it what you are able. This gift of a conscious life is grace, even when your life is filled with great difficulty and it may not feel like a gift at the time.
When Henry Thoreau went into retreat at Walden Pond, he and his friend Ralph Emerson had been studying Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist texts. He wrote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." He understood that conscious life was a gift for which the highest form of gratitude was to know it in all its depths.
This grace of conscious life, of having a mind that can know "this moment is like this," is the root of all wonder, from which gratitude flows. The wonder, the mystery, is that you, like everyone else, are given this short, precious time of conscious embodiment in which you can directly know life for yourself. However you find life to be—cruel or kind, sorrowful or joyous, bland or stimulating, indifferent or filled with love—you get the privilege of knowing it firsthand.
Gratitude for the grace of conscious embodiment evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself and those close to you to being about all living beings. As this occurs, you need less and less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future. It is not that you would not prefer good things for yourself, but your sense of well-being is no longer contingent on external circumstances. You are able to rejoice that amidst all life's suffering there exists joy. You realize that pain and joy are part of a mysterious whole. When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear and wanting. This is grace.
"Dharma Wisdom" columnist Phillip Moffitt is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers' Council in Woodacre, California, and the founder and president of the Life Balance Institute. He teaches vipassana meditation at Turtle Island Yoga Center in San Rafael, California.
Page 1 2