That’s Gratitude For You

“That’s Gratitude For You,” Bob Ryder – November 25, 2012

Readings

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” ― Epicurus

“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.” ― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.” – Meister Eckhart

Adapted from a blog post by Mary on “JustAlchemy” (http://justalchemy.com/2012/09/10/the-bengali-tea-boy-be-grateful-to-everyone-change-yourself/)

In her book “Start Where You Are: a Guide to Compassionate Living,” author and Bodhisattva Pema Chodron tells a story about Atisha, the renowned Buddhist teacher from northeast Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) who lived between 980 and 1050 CE.  Atisha was planning a trip to Tibet to share his knowledge with the people there.  As he prepared for his journey, he heard reports that the Tibetan people were very good-natured.  His scouts told him that the people were earthy in their understanding of the world, flexible in their thinking, and open to new ideas.  In one way, of course, this was reassuring, as Atisha hoped his teachings would be well received.  But he worried that his spiritual growth would be stunted for lack of social challenges.  He was convinced that the people we find most obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible are our greatest teachers, because they reflect back to us those same features in our own personalities – the obnoxious, frustrating and contemptible aspects of the ego.  As Atisha developed his roster of traveling companions, he invited his tea boy along with him.  The other monks in the traveling party were surprised, as the tea boy was known for his mean spirited irritability.  The young man being from Bengal, the monks supposed this was Atisha’s reason for bringing him along.  But when Atisha learned about their assumption, he laughed and told them that he wanted his tea boy along to ensure his spirituality would not atrophy amidst the hospitality of the Tibetans.  As the story has it, once Atisha arrived in Tibet he discovered much to his delight that he needn’t have worried about lack of opportunities for spiritual exercise – the Tibetans themselves were just as obnoxious, frustrating and contemptible as anyone else.

Reflection – This being Thanksgiving weekend, let’s think about gratitude.  Would you agree that gratitude is among the most life enhancing perspectives we can cultivate?  It massages the soul both for those who receive it and those who offer it – it feels good to be appreciated, it feels good to appreciate.  Gratitude acknowledges our commitment to one another’s well being.  It inspires generosity and perpetuates virtuous circles of trust and interdependence.  So why is it not more common?  Gratitude is such an elusive skill, such a slippery perspective.  It’s challenging to maintain.  Part of the reason, I think is because we’re pedaling into a headwind.  We’re constantly invited to notice what’s missing from our experience; to notice what we deserve but don’t yet have.  If so many advertisements are to be believed, it’s about time we get what’s coming to us.  Happiness, sexiness, convenience, personal growth, and a lawn that is the envy of the neighborhood are all promised to wait for us just the other side of a transaction, a purchase, a get.  Indeed, one of the unalienable rights with which we are endowed by our creator, according to the constitution, is the pursuit of happiness.  What an interesting take on our experience in life, that we are destined to chase after a fleeting emotional experience.  It’s a more comment on human nature, I guess, than a prescription.  But what if we assumed that our endowment consisted of life, liberty, and the mutual sharing of the world’s abundance?  Lloyd Farlee would correctly have noted, “It doesn’t sing.”  But I think it’s probably a prescription for a more satisfying existence – “Life, liberty, and the mutual sharing of the world’s abundance.”  Maybe gratitude is partly a function of our expectations.

Assuming we’re not about to amend the constitution and assuming you agree that gratitude is a character strength worthy of cultivation, how do we go about it?  As I said, it’s a perspective first and foremost, gratitude is.  So how do we start, or move forward from where we are?  The trick is to understand a cause and effect relationship that is counter-intuitive.  Aren’t we used to thinking that gratitude occurs at the end of a sequence?  We lack for something, that something is provided, and if we’ve been raised with good manners, we’re grateful.  I suspect that isn’t really the way of it, but just the part we can see.  Gratitude is not the result of acquiring some sufficient amount/combination of possessions and experiences.  If we think about it for even a moment, we can see that acquisition is addictive – the more we get, the more we want.  Getting does not naturally result in satisfaction, appreciation or contentment.  Rather, gratitude is what makes the experiences and possessions we’ve already acquired seem sufficient and satisfying.  In other words, gratitude comes first.

The experience we have all associated with Thanksgiving since we were little is the feast, the celebration of abundance, often the indulgence of excess.  And surely many of us are authentically grateful to enjoy such resources.  To the extent that we are grateful, it’s easy to assume that’s the reason – we have enough, more than enough.  But our best guess about the first Thanksgiving is that it was probably an expression of gratitude for survival in a difficult new place.  It was a perspective that they were fortunate to be alive, to have anything at all.  It was a sharing of resources that could not be taken for granted.

Another way to understand grateful perspective is as being the opposite of entitlement.  Gratitude is noticing the value of experiences available to us and realizing it might just as easily not have been so.  It’s pausing occasionally to recognize the contributions of others to our well being, and taking pleasure in returning the favor.  And in that respect we might do well to regard gratitude as a practice.  Again, it might be a bit counter intuitive because we sometimes refer to gratitude as a feeling.  Susan’s parents were among the most grateful people I’ve ever known.  I can think of so many occasions when her father would share some money with someone who was in need – sometimes well known friends and neighbors and family, other times complete strangers that he’d encounter by coincidence.  Susan’s family has a tradition that started maybe 20 years ago when her parents loaned us some money to see us through a lean time.  When we got caught up and were ready to return the money, Phyllis and Jerry encouraged us to pay it forward and give it to one of her siblings who needed it for an emergency at that time.  I’ve lost track, but I think that money has made the circuit around the family a few times now, and I know each time we’ve been in a position to send it where it’s needed, it’s a joyous occasion for thinking about how well we were taken care of in a time of need and being able to do the same for someone else.  Something about that ongoing experience helps me understand why this holiday is called Thanksgiving.

One last thought seems worth sharing before I open up our conversation, which has to do with an advanced form of gratitude – gratitude for challenging experiences.  I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it, not even close.  But once in a while I have the presence of mind to suspend a reflexive inclination for defensiveness or retributive judgment or sarcasm or condescension, and appreciate an opportunity to practice grace under pressure.  A small example happened to me yesterday as I was navigating a crowded parking lot.  There was a moment of confusion about who had the right of way between 3 different vehicles all going in different directions in a tight intersection.  I’m sure that if we could look at a video it would seem like no one in particular was at fault for a short tie up where each was waiting for another to move out of the way.  The whole affair lasted less than 15 seconds.  As we took our turns moving in the directions we needed to go, one of the other drivers gave me quite the sourpuss look.  It seemed well practiced, and intended as a weapon to be used when hands were too busy to make a more overt gesture.  I freely admit that it hooked me for a moment and I rehearsed all the caustic replies I’d like to have offered in response if she could have heard me.  But a moment of calm occurred to me and I recognized the sourpuss face as one that I have wielded myself on occasion, and I felt grateful for the chance to see how unpleasant and unhelpful I myself can be.  It felt like a wet blanket lifted off of my shoulders.  I felt complete peace toward the other driver who had already disappeared around a corner and on her way to whatever was next.  I genuinely hope that she was able to let go of or at least forget about the monetary frustration we shared, and to enjoy what was, after all, a pretty nice afternoon on a holiday weekend.  I’m grateful for that experience, odd as that might seem.

Who is the most grateful person you know, and what impact has their gratitude had upon you?  To whom are you especially grateful?  Have you expressed that gratitude?  If so, how?  If not, why?