Gratitude is one of the most powerful practices for living the dharma in daily life and the most easily cultivated, requiring the least sacrifice for what is gained in return. It is particularly effective for people who have depressed or self-defeating feelings, or those who habitually notice everything that's wrong in life.
Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development.
If experiencing gratitude feels so good, why do we often shortchange it? Sometimes it’s because our mind is stuck in problem-solving mode; it only notices what isn't working and is set upon trying to resolve it. This might seem desirable, but in fact there will always be things wrong in your life. Consequently, you reduce your experience of being alive if you are only responding to the negative. Is that what you want out of life? Do you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you wait for a perfect future moment that is unlikely to arrive?
We also fail to notice gratitude simply because the mind has not been trained to notice it. The mind tends to take for granted whatever is both desirable and present. This happens because the mind wants constant stimulation, and whatever is present and pleasant tends not to create that stimulation. The mind is programmed to want, and it has built into it the false assumption that “having more” brings happiness when in fact we’ve gotten more over and over again and not necessarily been happy. But this is the way the untrained mind operates, and it can lead to a lot of unhappiness.
Gratitude in Good Times and Bad
So how do we practice gratitude in daily life? Notice when gratitude is present and when it’s not, and what happens when fear or confusion arises. When you are contracted due to self-pity, fear, or anger, more than likely gratitude isn’t present, so notice those things for which you are grateful. Respond to a difficult situation by acknowledging it as such, and then say to yourself, "Yes, this is terrible, and I am grateful for…” An example would be, "I am angry at this moment, and I am grateful I have a mind which knows this is so and can deal with it." Focus on the wonderment of nature and the human capacity for learning and creating. It is so easy to only notice the terrible aspects of being human so that wonderment is often forgotten.
Reflect on this: You, with all your flaws, have been chosen for this opportunity to consciously taste life, to know it for what it is, and to make of it what you are able. This gift of a conscious life is grace, even when your life is filled with great difficulty and it may not feel like a gift at the time. Gratitude for the grace of conscious embodiment evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself and those close to you to being about all living beings. As this occurs, you need less and less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future. You realize that pain and joy are part of a mysterious whole. When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear and wanting. This is grace.
For your reflection:
- What are you grateful for? Make a list. Include “basics” you would not like to live without, like a warm shower or your morning coffee.
- Next time you are in a challenging situation, make an effort to practice gratitude.
- Pause to appreciate that in this moment you have a sense of well-being. Notice the effect of this. Does this gratitude lead you anywhere?
- Take a few minutes at the end of each day to mentally note the many people who have invisibly served you by providing medicine, shelter, safety, food, education, and so forth.
For further study:
Phillip will be Conscious Aging Telecourse offered through the Institute of Noetic Sciences, January 18-March 7, 2012.
Course Description: Becoming an elder is less about chronological aging and more about transformation and growth in wisdom, love, and compassion—for oneself and for others. The third age of life (after 60) is not merely a continuation of midlife adulthood; it is a distinct stage of possibility and opportunity as well as loss and letting go. Join us as we explore the theme of conscious aging together in community. We will learn the latest research and best practices related to conscious aging from visionaries, reflect and share on our own journey, and learn from each other in small and large group dialogues. For more information about the course, visit: http://noetic.org/education/telecourse/conscious-aging/