Screech! went the brakes as the car jerked to a stop on the road’s shoulder. Just a few feet ahead of the car’s horrified occupants, an eighteen-wheeler jackknifed across the road. Further ahead, three cars had piled into each other as they skidded on the icy surface of the road. Trembling, the occupant of the front passenger seat exclaimed, “Thank God we stopped in time!” In that moment of terror and relief, her primary thoughts and feelings were those of gratitude.
A group of family and friends was seated around a Thanksgiving table piled high with holiday delicacies, surrounded by a festive atmosphere. As was their tradition, the host suggested they start the meal with each one sharing what they were thankful for. Each participant recounted some good thing for which they were thankful. Some of the acknowledgements focused on things or comforts, some on actions or people. Undeniably, each thing acknowledged was worthy of gratitude. Yet, many acknowledgments lacked the depth of feeling – or even of contentment – that might have been expected.
We are approaching a holiday which emphasizes the concept of thankfulness. In addition, throughout the year, many spiritual teachers revere gratitude as one of the highest traits of spiritual growth. Most of us are aware that we should feel grateful, and many of us are convinced that we actually do. Yet, how many of us truly understand gratitude?
Many – maybe even most – of us do not realize that gratitude is a choice. It is not something that simply happens to us or does not happen to us outside of our control. “I can’t help it, I just don’t feel grateful.” The first part of that statement is incorrect. One may not be in the habit of choosing gratitude, or one may find it difficult to do so, but the doing or not doing is a choice we make. In addition, it is a choice we make in the present moment. Although we may have felt gratitude in the past, and are able to remember our past choice, we cannot BE grateful in the past. The past is gone, and no longer exists except in memory and in influence on present conditions. Likewise, we may anticipate when we will feel grateful, but we cannot BE grateful in the future, because the future is a will-o-the-wisp that has not yet arrived. It is only in the current moment that we can feel our gratitude; hence, the choice needs be continuously made.
Also, in order to choose gratitude, we must feel satisfied with something – as with the protection of life in the first case above. We may wish that things were otherwise – most of us do. But in the moment of gratitude, we must feel a certain satisfaction with the way things are. This is the hardest part for most of us, who do not really know how to feel satisfaction. Our society tends to teach us to always want more, do more, or be more. It tells us that feeling satisfied is the way to fall backwards.
Furthermore, gratitude is facilitated by relaxation. Tension, the feeling of having to watch our backs, despair about succeeding at something, or anything else that causes apprehension or distress cannot facilitate gratitude. In the example above, it is only in the moment of letting go after safety has been achieved that the passenger can feel gratitude. Her gratitude may or may not be sustained, but in that relaxed minute, satisfied that her life has been spared, she feels it.
So, what are we to do at the Thanksgiving table, or in those moments when things seem hopeless? Affirmations have power. It is good to affirm that not only can we make the choice for gratitude, but that we are actually in the process of doing it. To say that one is thankful for one’s food, one’s family and friends, one’s health, or even the vote that came out according to expectation is a powerful thing. The rub is that saying is not the end of the matter. Affirmations do not take the place of actual practice; they are a beginning. We need to realize and acknowledge that gratitude is an ongoing choice, a continuous response to life and to life’s aspects. One might say it is a kind of being, as opposed to what one is accomplishing. That done, we need to examine our responses. Do we feel truly satisfied with something? If not, then this is an area in which we need to work. If so, can we expand this feeling beyond its seed? Feeling satisfied does not mean that nothing will ever change. Life itself is change, and often we are able to influence that change. We can be satisfied with eating turkey and sweet potatoes in the present moment and know that we can be satisfied with eating lentils and kale in another moment. We can be satisfied living humbly in a small cottage in this moment and know that we can be satisfied with living in a large house, or in a yurt or a trailer camp in another moment. This is because gratitude is a choice that we make or do not make in every moment. It is not dependent on circumstance, and it does not limit the parameters of other moments. Hard as that may seem, it is essential to understand and to strengthen our ability to become.
Finally, we need to know that although this may be a difficult, even arduous, practice in which to engage ourselves, it is not a battle. We do not “win” it by efforting. We need a medium of patient relaxation in which to practice. For a while, anyway, we need to disconnect from the continual bombardment of things do, things to accomplish, things in which to be otherwise. In this moment, we need to simply relax, confident that the rest will manifest. For just the moment, we need to relax, so that satisfaction and gratitude can happen. Relaxation is not going to sleep. We can relax and still be aware. It is a response that can be developed by practice, non-judgmental practice in which we simply engage without criticizing ourselves for our doing or the perceived quality of its outcome.
This Thanksgiving, and in life generally, let us be aware of the power of our gratitude, knowing that we have the ability to become ever more grateful. Whatever our circumstances, let us release our objections to them, and bless them, if only for a moment.