I live in a small town where gratitude is a much celebrated practice. Often in gatherings, we’ll begin or end or both, by saying something we’re grateful for. Growing up, this was a nightly practice after singing the Shema, an ancient, daily Jewish prayer. We’d report the best parts of our day, always adding in my sister’s reminder of “The miracle of the day.” Every religion I’ve ever heard of offers gratitude as a holy practice, in one form or another, for the benefits of compassionate, heart-opened living. And I have experienced moments when while tuning into gratitude my heart really opens.
I started to get grumpy about all the gratitude. The thank you’s started to sound rote, monotonous, like we have to do it or should do it. It’s very easy to form habits, if you haven’t noticed. And often, once something becomes habitual, it takes the aliveness out of it. I saw it in myself and felt it in others. We would say our gratitude, but there would be no grateful feeling that moved us. Yes, perhaps, the practice is still worth doing, but to me, it almost feels worse to pray and feel like it’s all just a bunch of words, to say a gratitude without feeling grateful. I was once in a closing circle with children where we went around in a circle and offered a gratitude for the day, and one kid said, “I’m not grateful for anything.” Oh, I loved that moment so much! It’s so very humbling to see this level of authenticity and honesty, rather than playing along just to come up with something that may have not really been true, which many of us do.
This really started a predicament for me: If the purpose of gratitude is to feel thankful, but often the practice of thank you feels cheap, how does one practice gratitude and really feel grateful?
Feel grateful. How do I feel grateful? It again brings us back to that non-conceptual reality conversation. The place the words can only point to. The felt sense of thank you. What I’m learning about feeling is often I have to stop, get into my body, travel into my heart space, and speak from there. Instead of thinking what I’m grateful for, it’s about feeling into what I’m grateful for. I’m hearing the sound of birds chirping as I write these words, the sweetness of their harmony, I can feel that gratitude in my senses, in my heart. It’s so incredible that birds were bestowed a beautiful tune to speak with!
Okay, so that’s a step further, to get into feeling, and then, in the perfection of all that is, the other day I sat down to eat at a grocery store, and there laid a magazine that I’d never seen before, a Common Ground magazine, and I opened to any random page, and landed on an article on Brother David Steindl-Rast. I’d never heard of the guy but apparently he is a Benedictine monk and a speaker for interfaith dialogue. And this guy, he’s got it right. The first words that I read said, “People usually think that gratitude is saying thank you, as if this were the most important aspect of it. The most important aspect of the practice of grateful living is trust in life. Every human being every day has to make a practical choice between trusting life or not trusting life. Again and again in life, one is tempted to distrust and fear. Fear and distrust — this is the same.” He goes on to talk about what it means to trust life no matter what comes up. To acknowledge that even in the difficult moments when we think, oh that’s not what I wanted to happen, we can say “Well, maybe I don’t like it but I trust that life gives me good things — that life is trustworthy.” Do you feel the depth of that!? I can certainly say that that is not how I live even if I muttered gratitudes for the rest of my life.
Trusting that life gives us all good things, that we can trust that.
When I read this, one reminder that came to me is Whole, Complete, and Perfect. This is it. This is why I named the blog this name, this is why I took the name Nikhila, one who is whole and complete. Because this is faith, confidence, that all is already whole. That whatever comes in our path, that whatever happens, it perfect, is good, is trustworthy. David is in no way saying it’s easy, especially in the midst of misery, but that it is a committed practice to come back to, to see the joy of life even during unhappiness. I find that when we feel pain, we believe whatever it is that has seemed to cause that pain is bad, but isn’t pain another alive aspect of life?
The simple practice that David offers to practice grateful living is what he calls Stop. Look. Go. In whatever moment, we can stop or pause for long enough to then look around at the opportunities to find gratitude. And once we’ve acknowledged the opportunity we go ahead and enjoy the gift we’ve found! Joyful living, grateful living, is not just words, it’s acknowledgement transformed into action. To feel the gift, be in joy with that gratitude. There are always gifts, opportunities, draped on the hinges of life, or showing up right before our eyes. And to take the moment to stop and notice and then to consciously enjoy, that is grateful living.
I’m giving this practice a try, so far so good, it feels a lot more in line with how I want to live in gratitude. Any time I remember, I’ll stop, take pause, to experience my life.
“To live that way is what I call ‘grateful living’ because then you receive every moment as a gift. And really the gift within the gift is opportunity.” – Brother David