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Gratitude

A few weeks ago I suggested to some of the reflective meditation teachers to write something about Gratitude within the Buddhist teachings. I have become more and more inspired by the history of dharma teachings through conversations, and I wanted to see what a written conversation might look like. What emerged is a creative, secular endeavor – a written conversation from modern times; there was no written language in the time of the Buddha. We hope you find some interest in our attempts to put our thoughts into words, and to hold a prolonged conversation about different aspects of Gratitude. 

Participants are myself – Linda Modaro (LM), Bill Cooper (BC), Wendy Liepman (WL), Janet Keyes (JK), and Bill Wellhouse (BW).

BC: It’s going to be difficult to write about gratitude in a way that doesn’t sound obvious or trite. After all, the subject of gratitude is not exactly controversial: who could be against it? But perhaps it needs to be written about, because its importance is often overlooked.  Gratitude, as I understand it, begins as a feeling of thankfulness. We often experience gratitude when we receive someone else’s generosity. Someone has done something beyond what is obliged, and it moves us in a heartfelt way. But if gratitude only remains a feeling, something becomes lost, if not missed, in ourselves.

Gratitude is difficult for us to express until we realize that small kind gestures matter a great deal to others. We may not be aware that our expressions of gratitude, our acts of generosity, actually make a tremendous contribution to the person receiving them. Gratitude cannot be shown by people who think little of themselves, who don’t know how much they matter to others.

Some of what may hold us back is the risk in expressing gratitude. It is an intimate act, almost of love, certainly beyond the usual transactions we engage in. Gratitude is a risk that establishes a warm connection with another, and it moves us out of self-centeredness. But even with this benefit, gratitude can easily be postponed.

In our tradition, teachers usually don’t express their need for our gratitude. In fact, they don’t often express their needs at all. They give the Dharma to those who ask, and they hope, or believe, they will receive what is needed to continue their teaching. But as Buddhists we know this relationship will not last, and that our opportunity to express our gratitude to our teachers will only last a short while.

LM: It is intriguing how you got to, what I consider, a very human need for gratitude and connection, Bill.  It speaks to the nature of our meditation practice being done in a relationship with others, and that generosity (dana) and gratitude grows from our shared interactions.

Coming home from retreat this week, I have been filled with gratitude for the meditators that joined us, along with gratitude for my teachers, spiritual friends (kalayanamitta’s) and family. Although they were not all physically with me on retreat, they are quite present now while I am writing this, almost like they are living in my head alongside my other thoughts, feelings, and experience.  So many people live with me in my memory and imagination!

Besides in person, the conversations I have with others are during meditation sittings, on walks, or in snippets while I am going about my daily activities.  After reading Bill’s thoughts on gratitude, I am aware of how when I feel gratitude it often stays in my mind, and I am less aware of how it may be expressed or acted upon. I would regret not sharing gratitude with others, especially if they did not know how much our interactions meant to me.

One historical teaching of karma meant that there are consequences for all actions, although this was taken up in a few different ways according to the traditions of that time; for example, in the Jain tradition you had to carry a broom and sweep the ground before you walked on it, so as not to injure any insects that may be in your path, and even doing harm accidentally incurred unwholesome karma.

Within the Buddha’s new-found understandings, he added in other perspectives. Karma seems be much more mysterious, inter-mixed, and non-linear; it includes our intentions and actions, and does not operate as clearly as a score-card tallying this and that.  Everything that happens is not due to karma, and in many cases, karma can create more questions than answers in the way it unfolds in an individual’s life.

My experience inclines toward this understanding, and a ‘refined’ intention and action is born from this contemplation on gratitude. When I become aware of opportunities to share gratitude through acknowledgement with others – however small, I find myself looking for ways to act upon them.  Otherwise, it seems such a waste to not enjoy the friendship and intimacy that comes from this kind of connection on a meditative path.

WL: Bill, I keep coming back to your phrase, “Gratitude cannot be shown by people who think little of themselves, who don’t know how much they matter to others.”

Perhaps those who don’t recognize their own worth find it difficult to receive gratitude. They may believe that their contributions are too insignificant to count. They may dismiss their offerings as “no big deal” or, “nothing really”, or “not enough.”

Any time we make it a point to express our gratitude to another “moves us” as Bill says, “out of self-centeredness,” Gratitude is a shared experience, it is mutually reinforcing, it connects us. The recipient becomes the giver when they express appreciation.

To me, the recognition of impermanence informs gratitude. What is an appropriate response to the realization that (to quote the band The Flaming Lips) “Everyone you know someday will die”? In my understanding, it is appreciation, gratitude, and compassion. We get to experience things which are beautiful and fleeting: the sun breaking through towering clouds, the juicy sweetness of a summer peach; an empty beach at low tide.

The infants that I once kissed and cradled in my arms no longer exist. In their place are grown men, who have left home and are beginning lives on their own. I am grateful to have experienced all the many stages of their lives. When they thank me for a home cooked meal or give me a hug before leaving, I take it in. Young men want to be independent and while learning to make their way in the world they at times rely on parents for financial and emotional support. I feel compassion for their struggle, I have been there. I don’t always know how my offer of help will be received, and question if I am skating that fine line between generosity and enabling. My intention is always their well being and happiness. At some point they will be fully fledged.

What is impermanent can be poignant, whether in the moment, or in memory. In this practice, when we share our meditation sittings through reporting, listening, or interviewing, there is a fluid dance of giving and receiving. When one person reveals their inner world, others gain the confidence to do likewise. Together we create a safe container where trust, support and non-judgment can flourish. We give each other the gift of being witnessed in all of our human complexity.

JK: My experience of gratitude right now is a little different from what you all have written about. It had less to do with others, and more to do with appreciating and valuing my own experience. I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful that my body works pretty well. I am grateful when I remember something I might have forgotten.

My sense of what gratitude is and how it works in a life was informed early by my mother. She had a gratitude “practice” her whole life, though she wouldn’t have called it that. It used to drive me nuts. She would be grateful for what I considered the strangest things. For example, a wealthy friend would regularly send my mother a box of her clothes, everything many sizes too large for my mother. Everything looked ridiculous on her. She would try on one after another, looking at herself in the mirror. Somethings that were too well-made or stylish to pass on, she would try to alter, but this was never successful. She usually ended up with a big pile of things she never could wear. Yet another pile of things; she was a bit of a pack-rat. I’d ask her why she kept them if they didn’t fit. “But they are so beautiful,” she would say. And I’d say to myself, but what good do they do you? She was grateful for things I didn’t value. It went on like that for many years.

Then in the final years of her life, when she had dementia, her lifelong practice of being grateful really shone; even I could see it. She was grateful for her plants, for the stairs that she had to climb to get to the bathroom, for the snow, for the clock. She was grateful for everything. Slowly, I saw that her gratitude was so deeply a part of her that there was nothing she wasn’t grateful for. About that time, I began to notice that my own practice wasn’t and temperamentally couldn’t be gratitude. That wasn’t where my mind went. But seeing her radiant and happy, made me wonder if it was too late to change, since it had stood her in such good stead her whole life.

Nowadays, without particularly looking for it, I find gratitude arising by itself. But as I said, it’s not directed towards outside, really. Rather it arises as a quality present in my experience: I am grateful for my family, friends, for my practice, and as I said, for my life. It all seems pretty impersonal, not having to do with me, nor to do with others. Just gratitude: there to notice and experience.

BW: Reading your thoughts on gratitude raises all sorts of questions for me. I am wondering whether gratitude arises as a quality, unbidden and without intention, like other qualities such as generosity or patience. Or is it–the feeling or expression of gratitude–something you bring intention to–this year I am going to be more grateful for…  Is gratitude something we own as practitioners and/or Buddhists? Or do some people feel it naturally, as Janet’s mother did. I know I sometimes think of these qualities–generosity or gratitude– as “Buddhist” qualities but in reality they arise outside of the context of practice. We don’t “own” them as practitioners but they are important aspects of our practice.

What is beneficial or wholesome about gratitude? Does it bring about less harm to ourselves and others? I think the answer to that is yes. I would think that it would be difficult to feel gratitude when you feel anxious or constricted. But if you are feeling gratitude for some part of your life or for the actions of someone else, it is more difficult to disregard or devalue those aspects of yourself or the actions of other people. The expression of gratitude toward others may lead them to soften or open up a bit.

Do we feel gratitude only for the things we value or is it possible to feel it for things that are not pleasant, interesting, or valuable to us?  Can I feel gratitude for a noisy freeway or an unexpected loss? Usually I don’t but it would be interesting to reflect on how closely gratitude follows on getting what I want and on how much gratitude I feel when others experience happiness or peace.

It seems as though the fleeting nature of life, as Wendy describes it, could just as easily lead to anxiety and bitterness as to gratitude. What determines that response? Which is the more honest response to impermanence? Our response may have to do with a deeper understanding of the nature of our existence and the continual loss we experience in our lives. It does seem that a more complete understanding of dependent arising–how we as beings are so dependent on others (people, plants, and things) for not only our existence but also our sankharas (and personalities)– leads to a sense of gratitude.