Tomorrow we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and for many of us it’s a very busy day filled with the three F’s: food, family and football. So filled, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be room for the G’s: gratitude, grace and giving thanks.
So here’s a chance to focus on our sense of gratitude.
What are we grateful for? It is easy to launch into our list: Our family and friends, our homes, our health, our jobs, our financial security to whatever degree we have it, etc. If things are bad — and for many of us these are difficult times indeed — we are grateful that they aren’t any worse.
Watching the devastation of the recent firestorms in Southern California — how within 20 minutes hundreds of people’s homes just vanished into smoke — we know what the survivors will say. They say what all survivors say after losing their homes: That as difficult as the loss of cherished possessions is, they are grateful: Grateful to be alive, grateful that their families survived
It is only human to view these horrific news reports with a combination of feelings: compassion for those who are going through the experience, fear of anything like that ever happening to us, and renewed gratitude for our own homes and families, still safe and sound.
Looking more closely at this perfectly natural kind of gratitude, you might notice that it is rooted in fear, the fear of losing what we have. That’s why we feel it more strongly when we witness the losses of others. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It is, therefore, a conditional gratitude, dependent on there being enough left on our list that we value. Dependent on this kind of gratitude, we may fall into patterns of clinging to the people and things on our list, terrified of losing them. Clinging, as you will recall, is the root cause of suffering identified by the Buddha in The Second Noble Truth. This clinging strains relationships and tightens us into knots. This kind of gratitude is, as I said, perfectly natural, but being so conditional, it is shallowly rooted in the hard cake soil of fear, and what grows out of it can be distorted and unnourishing.
From this shallow rooted place, we may find our gratitude list has many qualifiers. ‘I am grateful for this, but would be more grateful if it were different.’ These qualifiers may overwhelm our sense of gratitude, and we find ourselves with a shorter and shorter list. Then we ask ourselves how did we end up with such a puny little list?
The less we are able to write on our gratitude list, the more this gratitude is likely to be counter-weighted with a sense of deprivation, anger, failure, humiliation, envy or frustration. Other people have what we wanted for ourselves. We are exhausted from trying to acquire the things we want to be able to write on a gratitude list, the things that we believe will make us happy.
Frustrated, we may be compiling another list that grows longer: the list of our complaints, worries and gripes. Nothing is ever quite good enough. There seems very little, if anything, to be grateful for. In this case our gratitude is very conditional indeed.
So how do we get to unconditional gratitude?
There are many gateways. One of them, strangely, is grief. By a certain age, most of us have lost someone dear to us, some of us have lost quite a few. We have experienced our hearts imploding in grief, and the pain that rises and falls like waves, sometimes carrying us away into realms we didn’t know existed.
How does this create gratitude? Well, perhaps right away it doesn’t, but if we are able to stay present with our experience, eventually we will notice the way our hearts have been carved deeper by this loss, making room for a deeper form of gratitude, an unconditional gratitude, not dependent on our ability to hang on to everything in our lives that matters to us.
Other forms of loss can be gateways as well. Perhaps because they bring us up short, break us out of our habitual patterns, force us to really look at ourselves and the world around us with new eyes.
Fortunately, loss is not the only gateway to unconditional gratitude. Through regular meditation practice, we can access it as well. We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. It is a gratitude for ‘the best seat in the house’ where the amazing gifts of the world, in a vast variety of forms, continually come onto the stage of our awareness. These gifts are probably not what we wrote on our wish list or our to do list, but our willingness to be present, to let go of having to dictate the outcome, allows us to be available to savor whatever arises.
This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.
Gratitude can be a practice unto itself, allowing us to savor every moment, to appreciate every being we meet. Because underneath the hard cake fear is the nourishing soil of unconditional love that supports us. We can toss the list because we would be writing forever if we tried to keep up with all that we are grateful for in this expansive unconditional way. We can simply let the gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life!