The approach of Thanksgiving brought my identical twin brother Lefty to the computer to share his thoughts on this traditional American holiday, in a post entitled "Thanks -- and No Thanks." It seems he couldn't face the image traditionally presented about Thanksgiving without pointing to the reality of our history. (You can find his thoughts at Rambling On with Brother Lefty Smith, S.O.B.*).
Today, I could expand on his offering to go on a rant about the rampant commercial insanity of Black Friday as well. People getting into brawls in their frenzy to acquire gifts to celebrate the upcoming birthday of the Prince of Peace seems pretty far from the mark, no?
But I won't.
As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, "suffering is not enough." Sometimes you have to consciously turn your gaze toward the good things that light up your life. No matter what the "darkness" brings, they are ALWAYS there to acknowledge. I wrote about the Saving Grace of Gratitude on Thanksgiving 2013, and I'd like to share it with you again today. Happy Thanksgiving.
"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
Today, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, I sat for a few moments facing the relatively blank New Post screen, then wandered around a bit on the web tracing the word "gratitude" along various strands of thought, trying all the while not to get too far afield.
Now I'm sitting here with my chest heaving, tears rolling down my cheeks,with images of Bing Crosby as freakin' Father O'Malley playing across the screen at Mind's Memory Lane Theater.
WTF? How in the world did I end up here?
The Relative and the Absolute
It seems that this question can be approached a couple of different ways.
First, I can trace the sequence of thoughts. In researching the notion of gratitude for this piece, I had tied together the suggestions of several teachers and was recalling that a person choosing to consciously connect with feelings of gratitude each day was one of the essential ingredients of Naikan, a contemporary Japanese Self Help/Therapy modality developed by a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist practitioner who had actually sat, fasting, in a completely dark cave for quite awhile. I then thought of the folk wisdom contained in the notion of "counting your blessings." Then, in a blink, it was Irving Berlin and Bing musically proclaiming that notion as strains of "Count Your Blessings" streamed through my head. Then there was Father O'Malley in "Going my Way?"--and I was a goner.
But, where, exactly, did I go to?
In the depths of the tears I again encountered a fathomless pool of gratitude in the deepest core of my being. Image after image emerged from that pool including the simple purity of a childlike faith that there really are "religious" folk who serve up their lives with incredible dedication, courage and compassion -- and memories of witnessing both that dimension of deep kindness in my life, and experiencing the blind ignorance of its opposite -- in myself and others. The tears of gratitude embraced it all.
Then, If I change the focus and take a look at the question "how did I end up here?" differently , it immediately implies the question, "where did I come from in the first place?"
Peering deeply into that one, you can take that all the way back through the countless incarnations lodged in our DNA to the birth of the Universe! Luckily, there are others who've taken that voyage and written about it quite eloquently.
In an article, Gratitude, on Brother David Stendl-Rast's Gratitude.org website, Zen teacher Norman Fischer offers an amazing rendition of the Big Bang Theory. (He also writes about this in his book, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong.) Tracing the course of the indisputably inter-connected Reality of it all throughout all space and time as we know it, peering at the ultimately inexplicable, but nonetheless obvious, Existence of Life itself, he goes on to say something that rings true to me:
"It seems to me that gratitude then isn't so much an emotion or a feeling as an actual fact, maybe even the primary fact, of our being at all. If we are, in other words, we belong, radically belong, are possessed by, embraced by, all that is, and gratitude is literally what we are when we are most attuned to what we are, when we plunge deeply into our nature, and stop complaining."
That sounds about right.
Life, this mysterious energetic mish-mosh of devas and dragons, saints and sinners, streams through each moment with incredible beauty and depth. Sitting here at this moment, I am utterly grateful for the opportunity to flow gently down that stream when I can, to row when I need to.
As Practice deepens, it becomes easier to remember that, to pause, take a conscious breath, and return fully to the present moment. Yet, sometimes, it may help to "kick-start" the process of touching that place deep in our hearts the knows that Life is a Sacred Miracle. A number of teachers, suggest "Gratitude Practice", taking the time each day to list those aspects of your life that evoke gratitude. (I usually end each Mindfulness Circle with "Gratitudes", each person having the opportunity to contemplate and express something in their life they are grateful for. )
In that light, it seems to me that Father O'Malley, Bing Crosby, and Irving Berlin may have stumbled on another helpful technique as well. Next time "I'm "worried and I can't sleep", I'm going to count my blessings instead of sheep! How 'bout you?
Originally published November 29, 2013 (Revised)