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Talk: Gratitude

One of my teachers told me repeatedly that to become Awakened required three foundations: 1) Relaxed body; 2) Empty mind; and 3) Grateful emotion. We have been addressing relaxed body in each of our meditations. When you scan your body and relax tense places, or when you put your attention on your breath, the body naturally relaxes. We have been addressing empty mind with many of our talks. Letting go of grasping and aversion, remembering impermanence, and dissolving the sense of solid separate self are all ways of emptying the mind to be open to whatever comes. And we will talk more about this in the coming months as well.

Gratitude is a heart-state and therefore related to compassion and to kindness, which we have discussed over the last couple of months. But gratitude is its own flavor of heart-state and is worthy of its own discussion.

Rick Hanson wrote a book called “Buddha’s Brain” which relates Buddhist practices to the modern understanding of the brain. He talks about how our experiences change the neural pathways in our brains, and this shapes our minds. Most of the shaping is in memory that is subconscious or unconscious, and affects our expectations, our ways of relating to others, our emotional tendencies and our general outlook. In essence, what it feels like to be you is due to the accumulation of the residue of experiences that remains in the subconscious. We have a number of experiences, and what is left over from those experiences, the residue, is what shapes our minds.

In essence, we can say that there are two piles of residue of experience – those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. According to Buddhist ideas, we would want to increase the beneficial residues of experience and deemphasize the harmful residues. The difficulty here is that our brains naturally preferentially look for, recall and react to unpleasant experiences. Our brains tend to be like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. What happens is that even when we have many positive experiences, the few negative ones get most of the attention and become the predominant subconscious residue that defines us. The key then is not to repress negative experiences, but rather to emphasize positive experiences. And this is where a practice of gratitude comes in. It trains our minds to absorb positive experiences more fully and deeply, and ultimately brings greater joy and happiness.

A second benefit of a gratitude practice is that it tends to bring us more of what we want in our lives. Whatever we place our attention on, mostly subconsciously, whatever fascinates us, that is what tends to be attracted to us.

Let me give a negative example of this. When I was young, whenever my mother would drive me and my sister in the car, she would always say, “Don’t lean against the car door. It might open.” I don’t know where she got this idea – probably she read in the paper of some instance when a car door opened when someone leaned against it. My mother told me this so many times that eventually I started asking myself, “What would happen if the car door opened?” I became so curious that one day, while my mother was driving, I leaned against the door and opened it. Of course chaos ensued. The door swung open. I hung on to the door rest, but started to skin my knees. My sister cries out, “The door opened.” Lord knows what my mother was thinking. But eventually she pulled over and I was OK. My mother was more sure than ever that she had been right – that leaning against a car door can make it open. But she was not correct. What caused that door to open was my mother’s fascination with and attention paid to the possibility of the door opening. If she had not focused so much attention there, I would never have even considered opening the door.

It works the other way too. When we practice gratitude, when we see all the beneficial aspects of our lives, it attracts more benefits. Imagine two children. You give a present to each of them. One expresses gratitude for the present. The other either ignores you as the giver or complains that the present is not exactly as he would like it. Which child are you more likely to give another present to? Our environment tends to give to those who are grateful for what they have, and for what they get. We are more willing to give to those with a cheerful disposition, than to those who constantly complain.

Gratitude has another important benefit. It puts us in more in the flow of life and serves to help dissolve our sense of a solid, separate self. When we are identified with a strong sense of a separate self, we feel isolated from our environment. It is us against the world. And this self tends to grasp for desires in order to be comfortable or feel powerful, and to defend against unpleasantness. And this defended, grasping self suffers. It puts up walls which imprisons us. Gratitude fosters the recognition that, even when things are difficult, we are supported, we are not alone, we are interconnected.

The whole universe has aligned itself to have us here, right now, living, loving, learning and growing. If the earth were a little closer or a little farther from the sun, we might not be here; life itself would not exist. Our whole existence is dependent on the sustenance we received from our parents or guardians, though flawed or even highly flawed they may have been. We have benefitted from the schools we attended, from the roads that have been laid, from the doctors and nurses who have cared for us, from the farmers who have grown food for us, from the sun and rain that nurtured the seeds for that food to be grown. We have benefitted from the comfort and support of friends and family. We have benefitted from our own strengths and skills, many of which we were born with and have been improved by our environment.

When we see our interconnectedness, our sense of separate self, of doing it all alone, dissolves. And this lessens our sense of dukkha – of suffering and stress.

So how do we practice gratitude? One simple way is to, each day, note a few things for which we are grateful. We can be grateful for simple things, such as clean clothes, or a sunny day, or a paper towel that is handy when your cat throws up. We can be grateful for the beings in our lives – our friends, family, teachers, pets. We can be grateful for the underlying forces in our lives, such as electrical generation, or our heart’s ability to pump blood without our thinking about it, or our capacity to learn. We can be grateful for skills that we have developed and the beneficial qualities of our own hearts and minds. The list goes on and on. There is so much to be grateful for that we typically take for granted.

The key is that we must train our minds to notice and take in all that we have to be grateful for. Just like we make our muscles stronger through exercise, so we make our capacity to experience all that there is to be grateful for through daily practice. Some people find a gratefulness buddy. Each day, they share with each other what they are grateful for. This way they are able to encourage each other to keep the practice going.

We can make this practice deeper by not just listing what we are grateful for, but by more fully taking what we appreciate in. As Rick Hanson puts it, “Turn positive facts into positive experiences… Whatever positive facts you find… open up to them and let them affect you. It’s like sitting down to a banquet: don’t just look at it – dig in.”

Here we consider what we are grateful for and savor it for as long as possible, 5, 10, 20 seconds. We sense how our bodies feel from what we receive. For instance, suppose someone compliments you. A natural tendency is to simply rush right past how the compliment feels. Yet we can take time to savor the compliment. We can notice how that compliment feels in the body. Maybe there is some relaxation in the belly or the brow; maybe there is some lightness in the heart. Focusing on what you are grateful for increases dopamine release, which makes it easier to keep noticing and internalizing positive experience.

Let’s practice:

Take a few minutes to write down things you are grateful for.

Pair up with another person and share your list. As you share, share slowly. Give yourself some time to bring the situation into your mind and to feel the sensations of gratitude.

Once each person has shared, pick one of the items that you are grateful for. Bring the situation into your mind’s eye – seeing location, who or what is there, what, if anything is said. Feel the sensation of gratitude in the body. Breathe in and out of that space. Allow the sensation of gratitude to expand into the entire body.

As we get deeper into the practice of gratitude, we find ways to be grateful even when we are experiencing difficult situations. In much of Buddhist practice, problems and difficult situations are considered important to spiritual growth. A Tibetan Buddhist prayer actually asks for problems: “Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion may be truly fulfilled.”

Alan Cohen, in his book “I Had It All the Time”, likens this process to a juice extractor. In a juice extractor, a fruit or vegetable is put in and is ground up. Out the bottom goes the juice, i.e. the good stuff, and out the side goes the pulp and cellulose, i.e. the stuff you don’t want. A gratitude practice is like a positiveness extractor. In comes the raw experience, with both positive and negative aspects. The practice of gratitude grinds up the experience and extracts the positive aspects, discarding the negative aspects to the side. The brain, and thus the mind, is then shaped by the residue of the beneficial aspects of the experience.

As an example, for a while I have been experiencing difficulty being a house owner. I have a yard that has a lot of foliage. There are a lot of vines that grow over bushes. There are a lot of weeds that grow and keep coming back. I am highly allergic to these vines, so I have to cover myself thoroughly to not get a severe long-lasting rash.

At one level, I have felt stressed and overwhelmed by all of this. I find yard and house work boring and anxiety provoking – I am afraid I will screw up and whatever I do, the problems will keep coming back. I would much rather write dharma talks and teach meditation and mindfulness than take care of all the house issues. When I am identified with my small self, I feel that I am not in control and powerless over the disorder that the house and yard tend toward.

But if I come at the situation with an attitude of gratitude, I can see the situation very differently. First, I can be grateful for what I do have: the fact that I have a home and that it is quiet and backs onto a park and that I have lots of flowers and lovely neighbors.

Secondly, I can begin to appreciate how working with these problems helps me in my spiritual growth. It is teaching me patience. It is teaching me how to accept things in life that are difficult or boring or out of my control. It is teaching me to stop running away and address what is in front of me. It is teaching me to accept my imperfection. It is helping me to connect with the difficulties of others, who grapple with things not going the way they want. At a deep level, it is alerting me to explore in meditation the beliefs I hold that are still keeping me stuck.

At an even deeper level, we can have a grateful heart that does not depend on specifics. My old teacher taught that to cultivate a grateful emotion, you simply keep repeating the mantra, “Thank you.” You sense the feeling of the words in your heart and let it spread throughout your body. There are no specifics necessary.

According to Phillip Moffitt: The words "gratitude" and "grace" share a common origin: the Latin word gratus, meaning "pleasing" or "thankful." When you are in a deep state of gratitude, you will often spontaneously feel the presence of grace … You are able to rejoice that amidst all life's suffering there exists joy. 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.

Let’s practice again. Sit comfortably and place your attention on your breath. Every time I ring the bell, I invite you to think of something that you are grateful for and say it out loud, though quietly. It may be something personal. It may be something more cultural or cosmic. It may be something pleasant. It may be something unpleasant, but you can still be grateful for it. At some point, you may run out of specific things to be grateful for. At that point, simply repeat the words, “Thank you.”

Now repeat the words “thank you” only in your mind. As you repeat the words, see if you can relax your body and feel the effect of the words in your heart area, breathing in and out of this space. At this point, you can stop saying the word Thank you and simply focus on the sensation. As it feels appropriate, let the feeling in your heart spread throughout your body, sensing gratitude in all parts.

Photo by Debby Hudson at Unsplash.

Person standing in a field with arms open wide


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