What are you grateful for?
When I was asked this question, I gave an unexpected answer that went something like this: "I am grateful for the smooth flow of my breath, the feel of the air against my skin, the firmness of the Earth beneath my feet as I walk. I am grateful for my cute dog Kinder, for my 88 year old Dad, and for the opportunity to grow, experience and serve.” I wanted to say “I am grateful for everything.” Let me explain.
One day when I was a child a honeybee landed on my finger. For some reason I was not afraid, and peered closely at the bee’s round, striped abdomen and jointed legs as she lightly walked on my skin, and I was struck with what a miracle she was. Soon the bee flew away. At that moment, I knew that everything is a miracle: The honeybee, my body, that I could see, hear, and feel. Everything. I remember how the whole world sparkled when I thought that.
You’ve probably had similar experiences.
That realization affected me deeply. Even now, I feel a sense of awe that I am here, so many years later, experiencing life. What extraordinary good fortune to to be alive.
I can’t say I always feel this way though. It’s so easy to forget. Yet, it is possible to consciously practice gratitude, as a way of life.
Some years ago I read a statement by Swami Nijananda, an elder monk and teacher in the Himalayan Yoga Meditation Tradition, the tradition which I practice and teach, that went something like this: “Be grateful for whatever happens in your life, even those things you do not like, for this is the best response to everything.”
It’s easy to feel grateful when things go well. But it’s more difficult to be grateful when things go wrong, when life is painful or tragic. I wondered: Does it even make sense to do so?
After a lot of soul-searching, I’ve come to believe it does. Here’s my reasoning:
First, from a purely health-conscious perspective, it has been shown scientifically that emotions such as grief literally cause a weakening of the body’s immune response and can lead to sickness and disease. It’s the same for anger and hatred, which increase blood pressure, create muscle tension, ulcers, high blood pressure and many other problems.
Gratitude has the opposite effect. Studies have shown gratitude associating with increased energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and less stress. One study even found that the more gratitude organ recipients expressed for the organ donors, the faster they healed!
Then there are the obvious considerations of how you’d choose to live. Disappointment, sadness, hatred, all these “negative” emotions feel bad, while gratitude feels good. Wouldn’t you prefer to spend more of your time feeling good? It is a common belief that we can’t do anything about emotions, and this isn’t true.
My meditation teacher, Swami Veda Bharati, often says that a meditator learns that s/he has a choice about whether to get angry or not, and learns how not to pull the trigger that creates the emotional reaction. There is a moment after an upsetting event occurs, when this choice can be made. Often we unconsciously pull that trigger and get upset. However, we can learn to make a different choice.
One time when I was with Swami Veda Bharati in India, I got very angry at him over something he did, I don’t even remember what it was. I went to him and in a harsh voice said “I am angry at you!” He came to me and lovingly wrapped his arm around my back, started walking with me and said “It’s ok to be angry at me, but I don’t get angry back.” It was true, he didn’t get angry, and all I could feel was his love for me, and it sucked the anger right out of me. How could I be angry at such a loving presence? I calmed down quickly. Swami Veda walked his talk, and showed me it was possible to remain calm and loving even when confronted with another's anger. It was a powerful lesson for me.
As I’ve meditated over the years, I’ve gotten better at noticing when I am about to get angry, and have more often been able to turm my mind towards patience or compassion rather than upset.
It is important to note that Swami Veda wasn’t suggesting emotional suppression. That is very harmful. Instead, he was suggesting that we can learn to take our mind and emotions down a path different from upset.
There is an ancient Buddhist text titled Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, by Shantideva, which says some very interesting things on this subject:
A master who has hatred
Is in danger of being killed
Even by those who for their wealth and happiness
Depend upon his kindness.
By it (hatred, anger) friends and relatives are disheartened;
Though drawn by my generosity they will not trust me.
In brief, there is nobody
Who lives happily with anger.
Hence the enemy, anger,
Creates sufferings such as these,
But whoever assiduously overcomes it
Finds happiness now and hereafter.
Shantideva goes on to say
Whatever befalls me
I shall not disturb my mental joy
For having been made unhappy, I shall not accomplish what I wish
And my virtues will decline.
And Shantdeva gives a further argument:
Why be unhappy about something
If it can be remedied?
And what is the use of being unhappy about something
If it cannot be remedied?
What Swami Veda Bharati and Shantideva are speaking of is a skill. We can learn to think thoughts that cause us to become clear-headed when faced with a difficult situation, rather than thoughts that elicit emotional reactivity.
It takes time to develop this skill.
In the meantime, if we have an emotional reaction, we can practice letting go of that reaction quickly. This is done by turning our attention away from the thoughts of the unfortunate event, and our ruminations about it, and placing our attention on the present moment. (Props to Richard D. Carson) One way of doing this is by feeling the flow of the breath, and being aware of the sensations of the body. Another way is by concentrating the mind on some task outside of us, and refusing to obsess on the upsetting thoughts. When we do this, we can re-establish ourselves in a neutral or even happy state. Over time, we can learn to re-balance more quickly.
There is something more we can do:
In a book titled A Commentary on Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, Swami Nijananda, whom I mentioned before, discusses a central doctrine in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, that “nothing happens to us in life unless God wills it so,” and that “God wills only the good.” So, everything that comes to us is a Divine gift deserving of gratitude.
This is Swami Nijananda’s rationale for constant gratitude: Everything that happens to us is the Will of God, and is best for us, and so being grateful makes sense and is a way of surrendering our ego to the Divine.
It’s easy to talk of surrender, and not so easy to do.
Swami Nijananda admits that when something bad happens to us, it’s not easy to be grateful. He suggests dialoging with ourselves in those moments, saying something like the following: “This situation certainly isn’t what I would have chosen, and yet I know it is God’s will, and God does everything for the best. I wonder what might be Divine purpose in this?”
By sincerely saying this to ourselves, by wondering, asking what the Divine purpose might be, we set the stage to begin to feel gratitude, and it can happen.
There are similar options for those who do not believe in a Divinity.
One method would be to ask, in those situations, "what can be learned?", and "what gifts are hidden in the situation?" In this way we can be grateful for the opportunity to learn, if nothing else.
Secondly, we can think like a Taoist. Taoist philosophy says there is a constant flow between the yang and yin, the expansive light and the yielding dark forces. When yang reaches a peak, the tide inevitably begins to turn toward the yin, and vice versa. So, whenever things really get bad, we can rejoice that soon things will likely start getting better.
Recently, I passed through a deep personal disappointment when something didn’t work out the way I wanted. Although very sad, I accepted the situation, wondered what Providence might have in mind, and did my best to feel grateful, and it helped. My spirits lifted enough to enable me to see the sparkles of life again. Over time, I came to realize that what happened really was for the best, although it certainly didn’t seem so at the time. Being grateful helped me pass though the crisis with much less suffering than would have been the case otherwise.
I am not saying there wasn’t any pain. Much pain in life can’t be avoided, but much suffering can. Suffering comes when we react emotionally to the unavoidable pain of life, and obsess on the unfairness of the situation, feeling like a victim. Making ourselves out to be victims and obsessing on the unfairness of the situation is a sure recipe for suffering.
When we stop that whirlpool of circular negative thinking, much suffering can be avoided.
It also helps to remember that honeybee, and the miraculous nature of life, even in unpleasant situations. When in touch with the living miracle, we are in the moment, and all potentialities are available. On the other hand, when we are wrapped up in negative thinking, the pain is deepened.
So it is best to accept the pain, feel it, and be grateful for what has been given us. It could always have been worse! If we then put our attention in the moment, feel the breath, and focus on our blessings, we can live to the fullest.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to give gratitude a try. It may be good for your health and your happiness.
This post was created as part of a global groundswell of gratitude called TweetsGiving. The celebration, created by US nonprofit Epic Change, is an experiment in social innovation that seeks to change the world through the power of gratitude. I hope you’ll visit the Tweetsgiving site to learn more, and to bring your grateful heart to the party by sharing your gratitude, and giving in honor of that for which you’re most thankful.