"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.”
sometimes amazed -- and often amused -- as I've sat in front of a blank New Post page here at the computer and observed my mind
floating down the stream of consciousness.
That particular day, with Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, my mind was just as blank as the screen for a few moments. I then gathered my attention on my breath and body for awhile.
Then, connecting the dots to Thanksgiving, I watched myself decide to wander around the web tracing the word "gratitude" along various strands of thought.
And then -- Zap!
My heart burst open. I found myself sitting with my chest heaving and copious, hot tears rolling down my cheeks. Black and white movie images of Bing Crosby, clad in the black and white garb of Father O'Malley, played across the screen of my mind's Memory Lane Theater. Each image brought on more tears.
"WTF? How in the world did I end up here?" I thought.
I was experiencing a powerful heart opening. I've learned to trust the wisdom of such tears, so that question seemed important. I breathed through the tears for a bit, then gathered my thoughts in a focused contemplation.
I traced the sequence of thoughts that led me to the tears.
My web surfing had strung together quotations of Yogi Bhajan and several other teachers. That then brought up a memory of reading a book on Naikan Therapy, a contemporary Japanese self- help technique developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist who dwelt, meditated, and fasted as a young man in a completely dark cave before developing this method of self-reflection. (I figured if he'd sat there that long, he probably saw something important.) Ishin recommended that spending time each day to get in touch with what you've received from others, with the aim of fostering the feeling of gratitude, is an extremely important element of healing.
Remembering that brought forth the thought of the folk wisdom contained in "counting your blessings." Then, in a blink, an image of Bing Crosby singing "Count Your Blessings" in technicolor emerged, then it morphed into black and white -- and there was Father O'Malley, the kind, saintly -- and very hip -- hero of "Going My Way," and "The Bells of St. Mary" taking center stage in my mind's eye.
Sitting here now, these tears again emerge.
But, where, exactly, did I go then? What is this place now?
In the depths of these tears I encounter a fathomless pool of gratitude in the deepest core of my being. Image after image emerge from that pool. I can feel the simple, innocent purity of my own childhood recognition that kindness matters, my own intuitive understanding that there is a basic sincerity, good will, and human decency that connects us all to the spiritual dimension of life. Although Father O'Malley was a Hollywood fiction, for me, Crosby's portrayal resonated with the simple reality that, through the ages, countless people of good will have dedicated their lives to a religious life of service.
At certain crucial points in my life, within the chaos of a traumatic childhood, and later when I was in crisis as an adult, I had experienced this deep dimension of kindness from others. These experiences were inspirational. They emerged from, and pointed toward the transcendent power of simple kindness, the human expression of Divine Love.
Of course, I'd also experienced the exact opposite. In the midst of that chaotic and traumatic childhood I'd experienced violence, sexual abuse, meanness and cruelty, as well. Yet, I'd come to understand the profound ignorance and deep suffering that propels such actions. Over time, with Practice, I'd learned how to forgive this ignorance in myself and others, to begin to heal my wounds and respond more compassionately. The limitless Gratitude that flowed through my tears that day, and now, embraces it all. It is imbued with a sense and wonder that connects grief with joy in a unity that defies easy description.
From Here to Eternity
My contemplation didn't stop there that day. The question "how did I end up here?" expanded to include "where did I come from in the first place?"
I'd plumbed that question once before in a guided meditation led by the venerable Joanna Macy years ago. Focusing the mind's expansive eye on the on-going flow of matter and energy that led to this moment, she took us on a journey back through time. Step by step, she chronicled the countless generations of human beings who contributed to the DNA in our cells, the DNA that had emerged from eons of evolving life-forms. Back through time, our gaze was guided through the vast reach of time as these life-forms arose from a soup of organic chemicals that, itself, had evolved through vast reaches of time from simple atoms flung far and wide in the explosion at the onset of our solar system. Back through time, she continued, taking us to the formation of galaxies, back through to time to ... the Big Bang? God? Brahma? The Void? As my mind expanded to embrace the unfathomable mystery that day, the question became wordless. Beyond labels, it dissolved into its source.
Zap! For a moment, nothing remained but a flash of pure, white light.
Don't Take My Word for It
I'm grateful that I'm not the only one who has stumbled into that space. I've had good company. Zen teacher
Norman Fischer offers an amazing rendition of this contemplation in Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Tracing the course of our individual, yet indisputably inter-connected, Reality back through time to the inexplicable, but nonetheless obvious Existence of Life, he goes on to present something that rings true to
"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 this stream when I can, to roll up my sleeves and row when I need to. As Practice deepens, it becomes easier to remember. It becomes second nature to pause, take a conscious breath or two, and return fully to the Miracle singing silently within each moment.
Yet, sometimes, it is helpful, even necessary, to consciously"jump-start" the process. It can be like pressing the "up" button on our own elevator rather than needlessly circling down into the sub-basement of our own conditioned depressive patterns. A number of teachers suggest various forms of "Gratitude Practice," various ways to contemplate and list those aspects of your life that evoke
gratitude. Gratefulness.Org, founded by Brother David Stendl-Rast, a Catholic cleric who has been central to the ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue, may be a good starting point.
Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe Father O'Malley, channeled by Bing Crosby, (and Irving Berlin) stumbled on a helpful technique as well. Next time I'm "worried and I can't sleep," I'm going to count my blessings instead of sheep! It just may work.
But, don't take my word for any of this. Check it out for yourselves.
It just takes Practice.
Originally published November 29, 2013 (Revised)