True Gratitude

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.

Peace, Diane

Pausing to Be

A few weeks ago, I took a week off, which is unusual for me.  I took a road trip to visit family, renew a nurturing connection, and enjoy a much-needed change of pace.  That week of almost no digital connection, sufficient sleep, spontaneous activity and conversation, and time alone listening to birds in the trees or reading, among other things, was a most welcome time of renewal.  Some might call it doing nothing, though the time certainly did not seem empty.

Doing nothing …is a feeling of presence and truly enjoying the moment as it is. It is simple and pure….

It serves an important purpose as well, probably unwittingly to most, in that it provides a sense of connection, not only to each other but with yourself. As a result, you end up gaining greater clarity about what is important to you at your core. This is a stimulating, always on-the-go society and it has become the default form of living, especially in the West. There is so much pressure to perform and meet expectations, creating a treadmill of stressful activity day after day….

Somewhere along the way society gave up on notions such as relaxation, idleness, and living in the moment as an important part of daily life. Having periods of time with little activity has always been a part of life (until, perhaps, the rising energy of the past few decades).

The quote is from an email communication by the Deepak Chopra Center.  It caught my attention because I, like others, experience the fast-paced chaos of modern times.  Chopra is correct.  However, slowing down to find enjoyment is often easier said than done.

Few among us have not experienced the rising pace of life and the ensuing rush to accomplish ever more in a dwindling time frame.  The most fortunate among us have managed to carve out moments of stillness within the frenzy.  The truth is that we all need those moments of stillness; we need them more frequently than most of us realize.

Some may object that doing nothing is not possible, because even if very still, one is still existing.  That is something.   OK, got it, but that is not what is meant by doing nothing.  If one is doing nothing, one is engaged in whatever degree of stillness for no ostensive purpose other than the act or process with which one is engaged.  This is key to understanding nothing.  One is in the moment, and not out to achieve or accomplish.  For example, if one is sitting on a cliff, wind blowing on the face, watching the distant sunset, one might say that is nothing.  If one is sitting on that cliff with the purpose of generating relaxation, or recording/remebering the details of the sunset, or even drying damp clothes in the wind, that person is not doing nothing.  If all there is is in the moment, and is simply the experience of what is happening, without purpose or a sense of having accomplished a challenge, then that is doing nothing.  It is being, not doing.

Being is not necessarily the absence of activity, but the attitude in which any activity is occurring.  It is centered in feeling and intuition, rather than in thinking, planning and accomplishing.  It has no purpose, in the sense in which most people understand purpose.   It is easy to dismiss, yet is a prize of great value, value which goes often unrecognized.  Peace, growth, health, relationships have their roots in non-doing.  Being has no counting or comparing.  In the moments of being, time does not exist, just as it does not exist in the far reaches of infinity.  We cannot DO outside of time; we can BE in those moments in which we can relax and devote attention solely to the present, without judgment.

People try to do this in meditation, but this is not the only way to experience moments of being.   Listening to inspiring music, without analyzing, judging or looking at the clock, simply to experience the music is being.   Coloring a mandala, walking in nature, soaking in a tub, staring into the fire, even the act of caring for a pet or another are entrances into being when they are done without exterior purpose to do them, without needing to accomplish them, without expecting result of them or analyzing them.  They are entrances when they are simply the experience of the moment, when we are experiencing the present in a focused way.

If being is simply experiencing the present moment, whatever it is, then it follows that in order to be, we must let go of what we normally cling to – our expectations, judgments, desires, or thinking about what is going on  Not thinking does not make us dummies.  The mind is always thinking; it does not seem to be able to turn itself off.   To be, we need for a moment to cease to identify with the mind, to simply let it do its thing, knowing it cannot define us if we refuse to be defined thereby.  Inspiration is rarely a result of thinking about things; it comes instead after moments of releasing thought to simply be.  Technology is much like the mind.  When we use it, we are normally thinking, doing something that the technology helps us to do.   For me, the break from even the limited technology I use helped me for a few moments to simply be.  It helps me to write, but it does not help me to be.

It is so simple, yet being (in the moment) is surprisingly difficult for most to do.  One cannot try to be, because trying is doing.  One cannot be angry with oneself for not being, because the anger is judging and doing. It is worth it, though, to set aside times to practice relaxing and releasing, simply experiencing what is.  I do think that practice helps.

I wish us all experiences of being.

Peace, Diane