Category Archives: gratitude

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

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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.

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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

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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.

Great Gratitude Retreat

I just led a daylong Great Gratitude retreat that seemed to leave everyone in a state of bliss and yes gratitude, according to their end of the day sharing.



Going into silence is such a delicious thing to do, although people always think it sounds scary. ‘How can I possibly not talk for hours (and in the case of longer retreats, days) on end?” Easy! One student at the end mentioned how surprised she was at how pleasant it was to be quiet, to not have to think of something to say, and to be together as a sangha in mutual appreciation without needing to communicate orally or even by eye contact. This lovely interior experience is fully supported by the community, and that’s something people forget when they think about going into silence.


We did a traditional Vipassana Buddhist style retreat: sitting meditations alternated with outdoor walking meditations. The decks with their boards set the natural walking meditation aisles for formal walking meditation. The gardens were for less formal meandering and communing with nature. At different points throughout the day meditators would take a seat by the waterfall to do a listening meditation. One meditator kept returning to the base of an old oak. At the end of the day sharing she said it helped her feel her roots. One meditator took note of the great number of species of animals that share the garden with us, sensing community. Another noticed her comparing mind, how enjoying the garden got infiltrated by thoughts of ‘Why isn’t my garden like this?’ One meditator developed gratitude for her feet as she did walking meditation, and recognized what a gift they are, how some people don’t have the use of their feet or their feet are in pain. One meditator felt the flush of creativity that being fully present can provide.

You might say well of course it is easy to be present and grateful in a garden on a beautiful spring day, but what about being present amidst life’s difficulties? What about being present with pain and hard choices?

We practice in the garden so that we learn the way to the present moment in any situation. We learn here and apply what we have learned out in the busy world. Since so much of what we struggle with in life has little to do with conditions in the world but much to do with how the mind grasps for, clings to and turns away from whatever arises in our experience, it isn’t necessary to provide unpleasant situations to get the mind to struggle. The mind does this with everything, until we recognize it and find that we can make room for all of life experience if we simply expand our spacious open embrace.

Even in a lovely setting we can find something to bother us. As I walked on the cedar decking, I couldn’t help noticing how shabby it was, how mottled, how in need of repair. But after a few periods of seated and walking meditation, I walked the same course and found the same boards to be beautiful pieces of natural art! That’s how the mind is. It finds fault in conditions and situations, and then when it settles down — when the tuning fork of meditation has brought it into balance — it sees beauty everywhere. So if we took this retreat on the road, if we transported it to a slum in Mumbai, at first we might be overwhelmed by the squalor, but after a period of meditation we would begin to see the beauty of the people, the colors, the patterns, the sounds and the energy of life being lived. We would, as people often do, fall in love with something that we had felt such aversion for just a few hours before.

Another example: I used to go on a wonderful Buddhist women’s retreat up above the world famous Muir Woods where towering redwood trees fill a deep canyon. During each day of my retreat I would walk down the trail into the canyon and enjoy the quiet of the areas away from the tourist-trodden trails. Towards the end of the retreat, I decided to venture into the populated areas. In that state of mindfulness, my heart filled with such love for the flocks of this colorful species with their bright t-shirts and hats, each little grouping a family or fellow-travelers having its own little world of interaction. What a falling away there was for me of the attitudes, opinions and cynical judgments I carried about my species, especially in crowds. This is the gift of meditation. It doesn’t turn us into zombies. It removes the dust-trapped veils that have prevented us from seeing clearly and experiencing great gratitude for this gift of being present, wherever we are.

So what is ‘great gratitude’ and how does it differ from plain old gratitude? Plain old gratitude is counting your blessings, and that’s a lovely thing to do. What kind of unfeeling ingrates would we be not to be grateful for the good fortune we have? People who have less health, wealth, love and beautiful surroundings would say, ‘Hey, if you’re not grateful, then step aside. if I had what you have I would be soooo grateful.’ How often have we been in that position ourselves, thinking ‘if only’ we had the blessings some other person has, we would be so incredibly grateful? (That ‘if only’ is a very painful place, one that doesn’t disappear with acquisition, but sets the stage for more ‘if only’ desires.)


So we count our blessings. Of course we do. We are not automatons that don’t feel pain at the loss of these kinds of blessings. But when a loss happens, through our meditation practice, we stay present with the experience, noticing what arises. We might notice the heavy pressure in the chest that is so often associated with loss, for example. We stay present enough to hold ourselves with tender compassion. We are willing to feel what we feel and not rush to get past it. We understand that the dark valleys of our lives are where the fertile soil is. Instead of wallowing in the mud, getting stuck in our story of loss, we nurture ourselves, have patience with the process, and grow from our experiences.
One thing we learn from loss is that the blessings we can count on our fingers are conditional: our health, our wealth, our homes, our loved ones. These things we are grateful for are finite, changeable and undependable — all the things that make being attached to them a sure fire way to cause dukkha, suffering.

Is there anything that is infinite that we can be grateful for? Yes! We can feel great gratitude for this very moment just as it is, with all its joys and all its sorrows. As long as we are conscious we always have this very moment. Pleasant or unpleasant we have the experience of being present.

In moments when our conditional gratitude falters, when we want things to be different from the way they are, or we want things to stay the same and we dread change, can we open to that infinite quality of gratitude for being present simply to experience it all? And in that way can we soften our tight clinging and our fear-based belief that without these things we could not go on?

The practice (for the retreat and perhaps for you if you choose to do it) is to notice both the finite gratitude for specific blessings we can name, and then expand into infinite gratitude for this very moment just as it is. There is room for it all if we are present and compassionate.
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. 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.

We can simply let the great gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.