Category Archives: gratitude

All thanks to Gavin?

This week I didn’t teach meditation because I had an appointment to renew my driver’s license. This is a necessary life event that’s hard not to dread — all that dreary standing in line and then sItting around in the crowded DMV office waiting for your number to be called, having your papers shuffled through by bored bureaucrats who’d rather be anywhere but behind that counter; then taking a test, waiting some more, then a vision test, photo, etc. etc. So many lines, so much waiting! You know the drill.

There was a line outside the building when I arrived — uh, oh, here we go — but it turned out it was just for those with no appointment. The appointment line was empty! In fact I was a little early and the young woman who came in behind me had an earlier appointment time, so I encouraged her to go ahead of me. After receiving a number, I sat down and settled in, expecting a long wait, but before I could pull out my reading material my number was called.

At my assigned window I was greeted by a friendly clerk. Because I had filled in the renewal forms online, I just gave my thumbprint, took my vision test and paid my fee. Then she sent me off to “the red carpet where they are waiting to take your picture.” I told her that sounded like a lot more fun than it probably is. We laughed, she called me sweetie, and we wished each other a good rest of our days.

On the red carpet, while waiting for those in front of me to have their pictures taken, I couldn’t help noticing a woman who had been at the window next to me who was also getting her licence renewed. She had received the same instructions I had, about the photo and then the driving test in the room beyond, but after her photo was taken she didn’t seem to think there was anything else she needed to do. The photographer told her the next step and she wandered off dazedly in the general direction and eventually ended up at a touch screen test station, as did I.

After my test, I was behind her in line again. The computer had told me I’d passed, so I was just waiting for the clerk to issue my temporary license, which he soon gave with a cheery congratulations and, I later noted on my receipt, a smiley face and star! (see it with logo above) Aw! This is indeed the new DMV! I felt not just the usual relief of getting a chore over with, but as if I’d been to a well-choreographed party with thumbprint invitations all along the way so everybody knew my name. Well, ‘party’ may be overstating the case, but you get the idea. Compared to the mindless cattle-herding experience I had come to expect over the years, this was a relatively fun romp.

But my companion was not feeling it. She had failed the test royally. She just couldn’t understand how that was possible. The clerk gave her a printout of her test and suggested she go review it and then she could take it again. He was kind and patient with her as was everyone along the way. What a difference from the brusque impatience people who don’t follow the drill are often given in these kinds of situations!

I sent her metta (infinite lovingkindness), and metta to all who know and love her, and a hope that she is not alone because it looked as if a major life challenge is arising for her. We’re all in this life together, and wishing each other well is a powerful part of that. I felt that quality of lovingkindness from the staff of the DMV yesterday. They cared. And I bet a good part of their caring is knowing that their employers care about them and they can feel it. There was definitely a cultural shift in this place! Their kindness radiated through me as I drove home, and undoubtedly that benefited other drivers along the way. That’s how kindness works!


I arrived home earlier than my ten AM class usually begins, but there had been no way of knowing I would be out so soon. In fact, I had had such little faith in the bureaucratic nightmare of the old DMV that I had even wondered if I would be able to make my afternoon appointment!

And then the doorbell rang. Uh oh! One of my students must not have read my reminder email. But no, it was someone I’d never met at the door, a woman who had been wanting to attend and showed up, not knowing that the class had been cancelled. I invited her in, gave her the tour — here’s where we sit together with the view of the mountain, here’s the cupboard full of extra pillows, blankets, socks, etc., here’s where you get a glass of water, and here’s the garden with the waterfall, the oak trees, the blooming rhododendrons and the decks and paths to roam, quietly engaging with nature. She felt right at home. Then we sat down to get to know each other and to see what she was looking for in a class. Happily it turned out to be a good fit and we had a lovely leisurely exchange. As we were winding up, she said how fortuitous it was that she happened to come today and that I was at home.

I told her that it was all thanks to Gavin Newsom.
“Really? How so?” she asked, confounded but intrigued. (You know you think your new meditation teacher is of sound mind and you’re on the same page and then she comes up with some weird statement like that! Wha’???)
I told her where I’d been and where I’d probably still be but for our new governor keeping his pledge to make the DMV a top priority. (I have no idea if he directly impacted the changes, but excuse me if I’m feeling effusive and willing to give him credit. I just whisked in and out of the DMV in a festive mood with plenty of time to spare! It may take time to change major technology and systems, but changing a culture and inspiring workers by making sure they know how important they are doesn’t take long at all. So yes, I’m willing to credit him and his leadership team.)
So because he kept his campaign promise I arrived home in time to greet her.

Thanks, Gov!

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

t-day

Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

There Go I

Seventeen days out from my hip replacement surgery, I am feeling very grateful — for my husband of 49 years and his devoted caregiving; for the support of my family and friends; for the skilled and kind hospital and home care team at Kaiser Terra Linda; for living at a time when this surgery is so well developed that, as one relative put it, it’s just like being dropped off at the dry cleaners — in at 7, out at 5. What great good fortune to have the end of my long pain be such a run-of-the-mill fix!

woodyThis awareness of my good fortune came into even sharper focus yesterday, when I saw a man outside our local Staples, a ringer for Woody Harrelson, limping in pain. Such a presence in my life has walking pain been, I could feel it as I watched him hobble along. Although his pain was clearly so long-term that his whole body was thrown out of whack by how he had to accommodate it while getting on with the challenging business of getting by. I thought about how that pain affects his whole life, his relationships and his ability to do things. I could almost see the shattering ripple effect of it. Because no pain can be contained. None of us live in isolation.

After he passed by, I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast: There I sat in the car feeling positively coddled by my excellent health care, including an expensive surgery that cost me next to nothing. While he, if my hasty assumptions about him and his condition are correct, may have to live with severe pain for the rest of his life, and all the ramifications of the lack of options available to him.

So, nestled in my field of gratitude blossomed forth a sense of outrage that he and so many others must suffer because of the unnecessary inequities that exist in our system here in the US. How can anyone justify it?

It is justified by people who think not only that another person’s problems are not their own, but that those problems are the result of some personal failure, and are therefore deserved. Meanwhile they’ve got theirs, so where’s the problem?

They’re the problem. Not them per se, but their myopic take on the nature of being that gives them a sense of deserving what they have because of all they have done to get it. They lack the ability to see how anyone else contributed to their good fortune. They don’t credit the taxes and labor that built and maintains the infrastructure that carries them and their business. They discount and would happily be rid of those hardworking people who assure that everything they eat and drink is safe, as well as the air they breathe. They scoff at any value from those who educate them and their children so they have sufficient understanding and skills to make their way in the world. And they are blind to the easy pass they may get because of their ethnicity, gender, zip code or inheritance. It’s much more satisfying to say they did it all themselves. Because self-sufficiency is the admired American way.

We are told we live in a land of ‘rugged individualism’ where people ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’, ‘the early bird gets the worm’, where ‘might makes right’ in a ‘dog eat dog world’. I’m sure you can think of many more of these sayings. Please ‘reply’ with them. It would be great to have a whole collection to look at. It’s so important to pay attention to how our words shape our perspective.

As we become — through science and our own experience — increasingly aware of the interconnection, the interdependence of all life, those who are trapped in this isolated mindset become more fearful. No one likes to have their heretofore clear understanding upended, even if it promises to bring relief from suffering, a suffering they don’t dare acknowledge. Isn’t it easier to make fun of others, blame others, and doubt the science? Isn’t it more satisfying to have their fears reinforced wholeheartedly by the powers that be and to come together only to fight, defeat and conquer the ‘other’ they prefer to blame? Depending on their mental stability, doesn’t it feel justifiable and even heroic to take that sense of feeling threatened and follow through with rash acts of violence?

It’s quite possible that the man I saw for whom I felt so much compassion, is trapped in this sense of isolation and anger. Perhaps he even supports the politicians who actively deny him access to the healthcare he deserves, just for being alive. But that doesn’t make me want that access for him any less. He is of this world. He is not his situation, his behavior, his condition nor his beliefs. He is the same stardust expression of life loving itself as am I, and you are. There’s an old expression ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ There’s merit in that recognition that any one of us could be in such a position at any time. But doesn’t that just make me go phew! I’m glad that it’s not me in his shoes? How much deeper and truer is the understanding ‘There go I.’

The outrage I feel doesn’t undermine my gratitude for the wonderful care I have received. But it does make me more determined to vote, to be a fully-engaged citizen in this country and the world, so that all of us have the opportunities that I have.

Gratitude is Timeless!

I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving, however you spent it, whatever you are grateful for. I am grateful for you, long time readers and those who have just come upon this site. Also for the opportunity to be of use with my teaching and writing.

Kwanyinwaterfall2017.jpg

Our walking meditation garden in November

 

Yesterday I had a fun conversation with my great-niece, a high school math teacher, and now we are working together to formulate a suitable mini-meditation at the beginning of her classes to help her students focus and overcome math anxiety. The more meditation is accepted in our culture, the more it benefits everyone. I am grateful to be a part of the process of sharing this simple rich practice.

At Thanksgiving dinner I was talking with my daughter-in-law’s aunt who when asked what she’s been up to told me she was being lazy, just having fun with friends. And I said that’s not lazy! Research is showing that socializing is high up in importance for overall health. And anyway, one of her weekly social activities is hiking. Lazy indeed! How hard we can be on ourselves with these labels. What labels do you have for yourself that you might look at anew, question and liberate?

There are many posts on gratitude on this site. If you are interested, search ‘gratitude’ in the field in the right-hand column and see all that comes up. I did, and here’s a link to one from 2008 that is just as true today as it was nine years ago. Check it out!

 

Celebrate the Harvest!

cornucopia.jpgThe old saying ‘you reap what you sow’ means that with every word and action in our lives, we are planting seeds that will grow. Are they seeds of kindness? Seeds of compassion? Seeds of wisdom? If you find that you are striving and you spend a lot of time judging, comparing and scolding yourself, you might ask yourself why you are planting such a thorny and poisonous garden?

But if in your meditation practice you have been making wise effort with wise intention, then pause to look around and enjoy the bounty! See if there is something blooming in your life that wasn’t there before. See if there is something growing within you that you hadn’t appreciated before.

The first blossoms of practice are insights, both ones you hear that resonate and inspire you, and ones you have in your own experience that stay with you and nourish you at the very core of your being. (These happen spontaneously, at any time during your normal day when you have a regular meditation practice. The simplest noticing might bring an insight perfectly tailored by your own inner wisdom to be of value to you.)

In class I passed out small pieces of paper and gave the students some time after meditation to write down what they noticed as the fruits of their practice. Afterwards they shared to whatever degree they wanted. One found that she no longer reacted in an ‘eye for an eye’ way when her feelings had been hurt. She could so clearly see now that the hurtful words of a friend came from a place of pain and fear, and nothing was helped by exacerbating it.

Another student said she noticed a greater sense of ease, an ability to establish boundaries and a growing self-confidence. Another noted a greater sense of balance. One noticed that her to do list wasn’t so aggravating, that the word ‘should’ was fading from her vocabulary. Everyone noticed something. In fact they all wrote for quite a while.

After their sharing, I read what I had written when preparing my dharma talk, and it mirrored exactly what the students had found for themselves: ‘The fruit of the practice is greater ease, a lightening of being, a sense of balance, a sense of clarity and a growing access to inner wisdom that guides you to make wise choices.’

Having just been on a retreat, I noted that I felt lighter, like a butterfly alighting on this flower of life, not plotting to get to the next bigger brighter flower but simply living fully in this moment with great appreciation but not attachment, knowing as a butterfly knows, to just keep doing what I’m doing.

I suggested the students fold their little papers up and put them in their wallets for review in moments of doubt. And I suggest to you that you do the same. Who doesn’t at times have moments of doubt? Who couldn’t use a little encouragement, a little reminder in your own words that the practice is working?

This becomes particularly valuable when we falter in our practice. It is so easy to let the demands of daily life take precedence. Women can be particularly prone to giving our time away. Yet on closer examination, how rare it is in life that we actually are required to give up the exact time of our practice, or our weekly meditation class. Say, for example, we call to make an appointment for a medical checkup, and the first appointment time mentioned conflicts with our practice or class. Do we just take it instead of asking for another time? For some reason, the way we were raised perhaps, we are susceptible to not claiming what is of value to our own well being. What we forget is that our practice is of benefit not just to ourselves but to everyone around us. Sure, on rare occasions there are emergencies, but even then the daily practice can be postponed instead of cancelled.

Notice for yourself if this willingness to give up what is of deep value is a tendency of yours.

Daily practice is like the sun, the rain and the rich soil that makes it possible to grow. We can’t really expect much wisdom to arise if we haven’t planted ourselves in our practice, if we just practice on random occasions and hope for the best. If you want to practice but find it difficult to fit into your schedule, I am happy to work with you. You might be surprised how naturally practice can be incorporated into a busy life.

Once we have a practice in place, the rest takes care of itself. We are actually saving time because we can put away all the invasive tools we are in the habit of using: harsh views about our self worth, doubts about what we are doing, doubts as to whether anything beneficial will come from this, comparing ourselves to others who seem to be wiser or happier.

The blossoms of insight and awareness reveal and release old habits of mind: the words that we torment ourselves with like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, for example. We see them as left over from some past way of seeing. We let them go to whatever degree we are able, gently as if they are dried up leaves that drift away on the breeze.

This is the season of the harvest. If you have been regularly practicing meditation, then pause to appreciate the bounty of your practice.

Gratitude in the midst of it all

kwan yin

Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion

In the US every year on the last Thursday in November we get together with family and close friends to…engorge, imbibe and put on our game face. We call it Thanksgiving, but it’s the rare gathering that actually takes time to express gratitude in the midst of the turkey, gravy and stuffing. It takes a certain bravery to be the one to break up the busy conversation for a moment of silence, prayer, poetry or, even braver, a request that everyone tell what they are grateful for. (Can you hear the collective groan?)

Throughout much of the country the weather turns cold and we just want to be cozy. We may want to hide away from the news of the world, as it takes on a fierce quality, harsh as the winds that shake the house. It feels like the newscasters are just making this stuff up to scare us. And in some ways that is true because of where they focus, how they frame it, and the need to lead with what bleeds, knowing our negativity bias.

This year we are getting to know our future president, whomever he or she may be. That enforced and extended uncertainty can be stressful, particularly when the field is so large and the candidates so… well…

We may have issues we feel strongly about, and we may feel frustrated when fellow citizens don’t seem to care, or worse, see us as the problem. And even those who share our views can get distracted by things we may consider non-issues.

The world seems full of testosterone-crazed nihilists causing havoc and heartbreak both here and abroad. We feel compassion for those who are without a home and who may feel without hope. And we are inspired by those who rise above base fears to embrace shared humanity, as when Germans greeted beleaguered refugees with generosity and compassion, or when Parisians of all ethnicities and religions hugged each other in peace after an attack on their city. This too is the world we live in. For that triumph of the human spirit we are especially grateful.

On a Thanksgiving in turbulent times, we have the capacity to deepen in gratitude for being present, together, enjoying cherished traditions. For some of us, this is our first Thanksgiving without a loved one who was very much a part of our tradition, but gratitude is still possible. We are grateful to be alive to experience whatever life brings, regardless of current circumstances or conditions.

So if you feel inspired to be the one to tap your glass and bring the table to a brief moment of sharing in this deep way, know that just below the surface we all may be feeling a little vulnerable right now and perhaps more ready than usual to acknowledge our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

– Stephanie

 

Gratitude & Generosity in an Infinite Loop

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:


Tumbling down the cliff,
I couldn’t help but notice
the cherry blossoms.
—  KuKu Kichigai,
18th century Japanese poet
In a sense, we are all tumbling down the cliff. We are all living temporal lives with a knowledge of the ending — not the when or the how necessarily, but we all share the same fate. This is a simple truth that we tend to avoid most of the time. And yet we are naturally attracted to temporal things in our experience. Our eyes are drawn to the new, to the thing that is moving, to the things that are fleeting, like cherry blossoms.

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.