Gratitude – a gift, not an instruction

Thursday morning my dharma talk was about gratitude. All week I had been noodling around about the concept of gratitude. At my Toastmasters club meeting,one club member gave a great short speech about research into the causes of true sustainable happiness. He said that one cause is meditation practice. Another is gratitude. Just two minutes a day of noting what we are grateful for can cause a shift into a state of happiness. Great news!

But the thing that kept coming back to me all during the week was how gratitude as most of us experience it has some challenging aspects. When we start listing things we are grateful for, we can see that they are almost always for things that may be taken away. In fact, because of the temporal nature of life itself, we can fairly say they will be taken away sooner or later.

Can we be grateful without tightening our grasp around what we are grateful for, fearful that we will lose it? Can we be grateful even when something precious has been taken away? When we lose a loved one, a relationship, a job, a home, our health, a physical ability — how do we deal with this idea of gratitude?

Depending on the severity of our loss, we may be too angry, feel too betrayed, feel too lost to be grateful. There’s no room for it in our hearts now, not with this huge hole, this heaviness or this rage. And yet some part of us, or perhaps some person somewhere, says we should still be grateful. Well, screw gratitude! There! Doesn’t that feel better?

Yes it does. But look at that sentence again. There’s another word in there, the word ‘should.’
Should is really the culprit here. The feeling that we should feel something we don’t feel and don’t want to feel — that’s what creates a falsity in anything, in this case gratitude.

In our ongoing discussion of the Buddha’s river analogy for exploring The Middle Way, what does this word ‘should’ do? Should shoves us into the shallows of one shore or the other. When this should attaches to any word, even the most lovely word gratitude, then it makes it shallow and meaningless.

Back in the middle of the river, the gratitude rises naturally and is felt without obligation or longing. It simply exists as a felt sense of appreciation for this moment, whatever it is, understanding that this moment is temporal, fleeting, a gift we can only enjoy now, then it’s gone.

After arriving at this realization about gratitude, I looked back at my Thanksgiving eve 2009 dharma talk and my Thanksgiving Eve 2008 dharma talk and found that I had come to the same place about gratitude again and again. That is, I guess, the nature of the dharma! The truth reveals itself again and again. So if you feel like reading more about gratitude, read those dharma talks.

I am truly grateful for all of you who read this blog. It was originally meant to be a way for students who missed a class to keep up with an ongoing dharma talk theme, so I wouldn’t have to bring anyone up to speed. But now it is read by thousands of people all over the globe! Great gratitude for your kind attention, comments and questions.

In the US in late November our one day for giving thanks prompts these dharma talks about gratitude, but gratitude can’t be contained in a day. The following suggestion can be applied to any moment.

For those of you who will be gathering with family and friends in this traditional harvest feast, pause over pie to look about you and give space to simply notice your emotions. Allow room for all the automatic reactions that certain people bring up in you. See this complex pattern of life being lived. Notice desires for things or people to be different. Notice the desire to please, to appease, to tape someone’s mouth shut, to bop someone over the head or any of a myriad of reactions! Then sit with the full force of life being lived and simply savor it.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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