“Gratitude opens the door to the power, the wisdom, the creativity of the universe. You open the door through gratitude”
Continuing with the theme of the foundational attitudes of mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn admits that Gratitude and Generosity should be added to the original list of 7 proposed in Full Catastrophe Living. In the Buddhist teachings that secular mindfulness has mostly grown from gratitude and generosity are considered fundamental to nourishing states of mind conducive to inner peace and wisdom. It’s not difficult to realise how nourishing and soothing gratitude is. Savouring moments of joy, ease, sufficiency as they pass and/or including gratitude in our formal meditation is a wonderful and vital practice. Generosity is a deep and significant quality that of course deserves its own blog, so here I am mainly considering it in terms of how we can be generous with ourselves each time we give ourselves permission to receive. And from this sense of receiving it’s so much easier to give.
Touched by the abundance of May blooming and blossoming I feel so much gratitude – it’s like nature blessing us each day with all her gifts: the fruit and veggie box is full; the bird song is joyful and there is stunning green new growth everywhere. After the contraction of winter, this month more than any other seems to call me into life. This capacity to give ourselves over to life a little more is what mindfulness practice is all about. How? Because mindfulness and compassion meditations give us the ground and courage to receive the life that’s here, moment by moment, and to let life live though us. Receiving this life, with all its joys and sorrows, is the ultimate gift to ourselves.
“if the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you’ that would suffice”
As we give we also receive AND as we receive we are also giving. The bringing together of gratitude and generosity in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s description is important, because it expresses their symbiotic nature. Gratitude is a more generous relationship to ourselves, as we give ourselves permission to receive the life that’s here. Ever had that experience of giving a gift (or compliment) to someone who finds it hard to receive, ‘oh no you shouldn’t have’ and perhaps doesn’t open it, or acknowledge it, with embarrassment brushes it away or puts it on the side? Don’t we both lose out in those moments? And when we respond in that contracted way to others don’t we lose out too? With mindful presence we might acknowledge those moments and make a choice about whether to let in and receive or close down. In the same way we can let life in, or keep our distance – what feels better?!
I had the privilege yesterday of attending a day of reflection, discussion and meditation with other mindfulness teachers, friends and practitioners at London Mindfulness Practitioners. It’s run on a non-profit voluntary basis and its very existence is an act of generosity. At the start of the day we were invited to reflect on what we hoped to gain from the day, our expectations or wishes for what we’d like to take away. Much to my surprise I discovered that actually I had no wishes, wants or expectations. Initially concerned that I didn’t really have a sense of why I was there I then shifted to delighting in savouring for a few blissful moments the unusual state of not wanting anything. What a relief, a sense of possibility and peace. What I also recognised was that I was giving myself a gift, in having made the time and the journey to be there I was being generous to myself – the gift of a day that I could let unfold, instead of the more familiar controlling, directing, managing. My wish for the day became simply to appreciate the space of not wanting. My only responsibility as a participant was to be present to my experience, and receive whatever teachings felt relevant, useful or interesting to engage with. I am so grateful to Rosalie Dores, Gary Born, Nick Pole and friends for sharing of themselves and their wisdom. And NB It also feels good to share our gratitude – to speak it out loud, text, or write it. Try it.
Like many of us I am someone who has spent far too many of my living hours getting hooked on what’s wrong, what’s not happening, what I don’t have. I remember about 15 years ago recognising that I seemed to spend a lot of time feeling disappointed. It was important, and subsequently liberating, to recognise and label it. That was step 1. After that step 2 (to be repeated endlessly) has been choosing a different view when disappointment clouds my vision. This means rather than dwelling on what’s wrong recognising what’s right – and in the present moment. Its not positive thinking, its real direct experiencing. Moving away from how we planned or hoped things would turn out (past) and our fear that things won’t ever work out the way we wanted them to (future) we can give ourselves over to what’s OK right now. These may be the very ordinary features of experience you can sense – a nice temperature, sound, taste, view, good company. None of these are ordinary or little when you look closely. And if you look around a little you might be prompted to acknowledge the gifts from others you can see in your home, the income that made it possible for you to have the material objects around you, the gifts of nature and the efforts of others that brought this food to your table or this tea to your cup…in fact the gifts to be received are truly endless and abundant. And not just in the month of May!
Gratitude can be practised, it can become a habit. With the discovery of neuroplasticity we know that the brain is always changing, and that what we do with the mind changes the brain. There is plenty of evidence that deliberately savouring good experiences, and looking out for what is pleasant, enjoyable, or satisfying builds resilience, calms the nervous system, deactivates the threat system and boosts energy and wellbeing. But rather than listen to what ‘research says’ of course the best evidence is always your own experience – how does it feel when you are grateful? Does the body contract or release, do you frown or smile, do you see possibilities or limitations?
Finally gratitude doesn’t mean that we give up taking action to change the conditions of our lives or the lives of others. It’s not that our needs and wants get shelved or dismissed. Rather we can discover that from a place of sufficiency we have the strength and resources to act where it is necessary – to grow the conditions we need to thrive in our relationships, work, and world. To listen more deeply to what we yearn for and what truly nourishes us. May moments of gratitude, of giving and receiving, open you to possibility, and to life.
Watch more on gratitude Brother Steindl-Rast