I suppose that it was no surprise that the approach of Thanksgiving a couple of weeks ago brought my identical twin brother Lefty to the computer to share his thoughts on the traditional American holiday, in a post entitled "Thanks -- but No Thanks." It seems he couldn't face the traditional Thanksgiving mythology without pointing to the stark reality of our collective history. He then headed out to Plymouth to participate in the 48th National Day of Mourning, sponsored by the United American Indians of New England. (You can find his thoughts before he headed out there at Rambling On with Brother Lefty Smith, S.O.B.*).
I suppose I could expand on his offering to go on a rant about the lack of spiritual values present amidst the commercial insanity of Black Friday as well.
But I won't.
Although gazing fearlessly at the darkness in our world (and in ourselves) is crucial, sometimes it is wise to change the channel. Rather than incessantly spin our wheels in the mud of our own mayhem and misery, it can be quite helpful at times to consciously turn our gaze toward those things that light up our lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, "suffering is not enough."
At this moment, I am grateful to acknowledge this as True. No matter what the darkness brings, there are ALWAYS good things to acknowledge. I wrote about the Saving Grace of Gratitude during the Holiday Season back in 2013. I've reworked it a bit here, and would like to share it with you again today.
Today, I stared for quite awhile at the blank New Post screen here on this old Mac laptop. Trying to connect with a theme for this week's musings, I just sat -- and waited.
Not unlike the Soto Zen practice of Shikantaza, I held my torso upright, aware of my body, my breath, and an open field of spacious awareness. Poised here with a precise, but relaxed attention, hands on the home row of the laptop instead of the formal zazen mudra, I waited -- profoundly curious about what might emerge.
Breathing in. Breathing out...
Breathing in. Breathing out...
Then, in time, the word "gratitude" appeared in my mind's ear and I was off and running -- or surfing, rather. Wandering around the worldwide web for awhile, I traced the word "gratitude" along various strands of thought, trying all the while not to loose the original thread.
I'm now sitting here with my chest heaving, tears rolling down my cheeks. As the tears continue to flow, images of the crooner/actor Bing Crosby in his role as freakin' Father O'Malley play across the screen at My Mind's Memory Lane Theater. (I'm sure this dates me as the septuagenarian I am. LOL)
How in the world did I end up here?
Breathing in. Breathing out...
The Relative and the Absolute
"How in the world did I end up here?"
It seems that this question can be approached in a couple of different dimensions. First, I can trace the immediate sequence of thoughts that led to the tearful outburst. As best I can remember, I set off surfing on the theme of gratitude, tying together the suggestions of several teachers. I had then remembered that a connection to feelings of gratitude was one of the essential ingredients of Naikan, a contemporary Japanese Self Help/Therapy developed by a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist practitioner who had actually sat, fasting, in a completely dark cave for quite awhile as a young man. Listing the benefits you received from others each day became part of the Practice he developed.
This lead to a thought about our own folk wisdom contained in the notion of "counting your blessings."
Then, in a blink, my mind cast forth Bing Crosby crooning "Counting My Blessings" in the movie "White Christmas". Then, in an instant, this time in cinematic black and white, arose images of the simple, kind gentleness of Father O'Malley in "The Bells of Saint Mary" -- and I was Gone!
But, where, exactly, did I go to? Why did I end up here in a torrent of tears? (And where the hell is that box of kleenex?)
As best as I understand it at this moment, in the depths of these tears, I have once again encountered a fathomless fountain of gratitude in my heart of hearts, the deepest core of my humanness. Image after image emerged along with those tears, including the simple purity of my childlike faith that there really were incredibly kind, religious, folk who serve up their lives daily with dedication, courage, and compassion. Awash in those tears were memories of witnessing that dimension of deep kindness as it touched my life and the lives of others.
Awash in those tears, also, were the shadows of the blind ignorance of its opposite: the times I've exhibited, experienced, or witnessed a lack of kindness. Coupled with these images was an aching heart, the deep yearning that all of us see our way clear to experience the One Love that permeates Life as it Is.
These tears of gratitude support and embrace it all.
In the Beginning...
Then, if I enlarge the focus as I look at the question "how did I end up here?", an even grander tapestry emerges. Peering deeply into that question propels me on a journey back through time, through the countless incarnations lodged in our DNA, through spinning realms of matter and energy, to the very birth of the Universe -- and Beyond!
My mind boggled with that one. I just sat here for awhile.
Breathing in. Breathing out.
Then, a bit mind blown, perhaps copping out a bit, I surfed again. Luckily, there are others who've taken this same voyage and written about it quite eloquently.
In an article, Gratitude, on Brother David Stendl-Rast's Gratefulness.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 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 mish-mosh of devas and dragons, beauties and beasts, saints and sinners, streams through each moment with incredible beauty and infinite depth. Sitting here at this moment, I am utterly grateful for the journey, for the opportunity to flow gently down the stream when I can, to row when I need to.
And in the End..
As Practice deepens, I've found that it becomes easier to remember, to pause, to take a conscious breath, and return fully to the present moment -- in gratitude. Yet, sometimes, it may help to "kick-start" the process of touching that place deep in our hearts that knows that Life is a Sacred Miracle. A number of teachers, and a few of my friends and CircleMates have suggested a daily "Gratitude Practice". They take the time each day to stop and reflect on those aspects of their life that evoke gratitude. It makes sense to me. For quite awhile now, I usually end each Mindfulness Circle with "Gratitudes", making the space and opportunity as we go around the Circle for each person to contemplate and express something(s) in their life that they are grateful for. A collective warm glow often emerges.
In that light, it seems to me that Bing Crosby (and Irving Berlin) offered a technique as well. In fact, as the lyric to "Counting My Blessings" goes, the next time, "When (I'm )worried and I can't sleep", I'm going to count my blessings instead of sheep !
How 'bout you?