On our cultural calendar we have a day of giving thanks, feeling gratitude, followed by a season of giving and being generous. It strikes me how natural the flow is in this arrangement. When we feel grateful and count our blessings, high among them is usually the people we love – our family and friends. The upwelling of that sense of gratitude quite naturally turns into a desire to express that gratitude to them in the form of generosity. Because we care about them we want to do what we can to give them joy. Voila! Tis the season of giving! We are also thankful for our health, safety, the roof over our heads, and the food on our table. So it’s no surprise that what follows is a desire for others to be housed, fed, healthy and free from harm. So it’s not surprising that we are much more likely to give and to volunteer during the season that follows. Clearly gratitude should come with a warning label! ‘Caution: May cause a tender heart.’
But what if we are not feeling grateful? This is also a season of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted and put upon. Traditions put us in a choke hold, making us do things we just don’t feel up for. Christmas again? Are you kidding me?
And some of us are dealing with loss — of health, a loved one, abilities, freedoms, hope — and it’s challenging to feel anything but the suffering we are experiencing.
Oddly, that’s when a deeper sense of gratitude, one that has nothing do do with what we have, is actually easier to find. When our lives are in a turmoil we tend to hunker down. If we don’t get lost in distractions or addictions, we can sense into this present moment as a refuge from all the trials and tribulations we have been experiencing and all the worry of what is to come. This moment fully experienced can be a sweet haven.
One student in class this week said that before she falls asleep at night she thinks of three things she is grateful for. Lovely! But if she has had a really rough day and it’s too hard to come up with anything, she is grateful for the softness of her mattress. Fabulous! In that moment she is fully present, anchored in physical sensation. That is exactly where we need to be in any given moment to go deeply into the joy of being present with what is.
(For more about this deep kind of gratitude, check out this post from 2009, titled ‘Gratitude for Everything”.)
Here is a poem that captures what we’re talking about:
18th century Japanese poet
Noticing the fleeting nature of life causes us to pay attention and be grateful. We may also go into states of fear, disappointment, longing. We may ask why can’t it stay like this? Without pondering too deeply, we find we wish for extensions on pleasurable moments. But a delicious meal if we eat too much becomes painful. A great party if we stay too long becomes tiresome. It is the fleeting nature of what delights our senses that makes them so delightful and makes us so grateful. So openly accepting the temporal nature of life helps us to receive it with grace and gratitude.
When we are struggling in our lives and gratitude is hard to come by, another door to find gratitude is to do an act of generosity. I am sure you have had the experience of doing something for someone and feeling lifted up by it, more alive and grateful.
So gratitude leads to generosity, and generosity leads to gratitude in an infinite loop. Wherever we are in any moment we can find one or the other. And the way to both is through being fully present in this moment and compassionate with ourselves and others.