Here in New York where I live, we’re approaching the festival of Thanksgiving. It’s a yearly holiday where we spend time with family and friends to celebrate and give thanks for the abundance in our lives. It’s one of my favorite holidays – partially because it usually involves a great deal of delicious food, and also because it has in its roots, the practice of recognizing and being grateful for all we have. For us as seekers of the Truth, being thankful isn’t just a yearly affair. Taking stock of the blessings that surround us is a daily practice and a sadhana unto itself.
The great 19th century saint Brahmananda sang:
Awake! My dear one, awake!
You have been sleeping for so long – at least now wake up!
When I first heard this poem, I assumed it was talking about the initial awakening to spiritual life. I always assumed it was extolling that moment when our hearts first taste a moment of light and grace. As time goes on and I revisit the words of the mystics asking me to wake up, I find deeper and deeper layers to their invitation.
Spiritual evolution can be thought of as a continuous process of waking up. Again and again and at deeper and deeper levels, our inner wisdom grows and we become more and more aware of, and sensitive to, the power that is within us and all around us. It’s as if the heart itself becomes more awakened and stronger as we evolve. On any given day in sadhana, we may feel very awake and sometimes we may feel as if we’re just sleepwalking through our days.
One of the greatest barometers of my heart’s wakefulness is my level of gratitude for the blessings that I have in my life. When I begin to go unconscious, often one of the first things to go is gratitude.
Gratitude is the state of being awake to and appreciative of the good things that are around us, moment to moment. The truth is that most of us are surrounded by blessings, great and small, all the time. This is true and yet, it’s so easy to forget; we have to practice gratitude – we have to cultivate this state of wakeful remembrance.
Gratitude is an inner stock-taking. We remember all of the good things we have in our lives, and give thanks for the calamities we’re able to avoid.
“I had the blues because I had no shoes until upon the street, I met a man who had no feet.”
- Denis Waitely
Of course, being grateful is not simply something that we ‘should’ do. Gratitude is a virtue that cannot be imposed from the outside or through a sense of obligation or guilt or shame. It can only be cultivated from inside of our own heart’s experience. When we’re suffering, we never want to hear someone say, “you should be grateful for this!” or “You know, it could be worse!” When we employ gratitude with our own heart’s consent, it becomes a gentle and powerful means that we can use to help us appreciate the world in which we live.
Try a Gratitude List
Try this: Take a piece of paper and make numbers one to 25. On each line write something for which you are grateful. You can start with really simple things like the power of speech, having a home etc. See how quickly you fill your list. Afterward, notice the way you feel inside.
There is something in the human mind that makes it all too easy to take things and people for granted. In truth, we are surrounded by people who help us in big and little ways, elements that support our lives, a planet that sustains us, and objects that make our lives easier. Even the roads that we travel on are cause for us to be thankful. Take, for instance, water: Think of all the ways that water touches and nourishes your life. Imagine a world without it. Imagine even a day without it. And yet, do we really appreciate water? Think of the countless people that work every day to support us. From the farmers who grow our food, to the people who run the power plants that supply our electricity. As people, we are each part of an intricate web of contributions and contributors.
In a given day, think of all the people you encounter and how many of those people are doing something that benefits you in some way. Imagine how you would feel if you consciously acknowledged them.
Try this: Remember someone living in your life today that you love very much. It could be a spouse, a child, even a shopkeeper or a neighbor. Now, imagine losing that person. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they’re gone. Imagine how much you will miss them. Imagine the void left in their place once they’re gone. Imagine your prayers, “Lord, if only I can be with them once more…” Allow yourself to feel the longing, feel the sadness.
Now bring yourself back to the awareness that your beloved person is here – you haven’t lost them. One day you probably will, but for now, they are still here. Allow yourself to feel the feeling of appreciation and gratitude well up in your heart.
Once we have woken up and recognized something or someone to be grateful for – how do we make our new found awareness operational? How can we as seekers practice gratitude? The first step is simply recognizing – waking up to the awareness of gratitude. The next step is to act with thankfulness. In some cases this may mean actually thanking people. You may, for instance, want to contact the person you just used for the exercise and let them know just how much you appreciate their presence in your life.
It’s amazing how powerful it is to simply thank people from the heart. Your expression not only uplifts you, it is also often a much-appreciated blessing for them. How often do you think the security guard at your bank is thanked for his service of standing guard? Next time you go, try thanking him and see what effect it has.
Thanking can change the relationship we have with almost anything.
Try this: Take anything, a person, place, thing, idea, feeling, place – and thank it. Express gratitude to it in whatever way you choose. You can mentally think your expression or even say it out loud – even if you feel silly. See what the thanking does to your heart – see how it changes the way that you behave.
I tried this exercise with the keyboard I use to type these blog entries. When I did it, I realized I had never before even considered how much my keyboard serves me. I thought of all the letters and articles and notes it’s helped me write. As I felt the love and gratitude well up, I also began to notice how dirty I had let the keyboard become. Tea had spilt on the keys and quite a bit of dust had accumulated. With my newfound gratitude for the keyboard, I could not go on typing without stopping to lovingly clean my loyal helper.
Just imagine how our world would be if each of us were able to live from this place of gratitude.
Being Grateful for Spiritual Wealth
For those of us on the spiritual path, the scope of gratitude expands when we take into account the unseen blessings that we accrue through our practices.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt…
- Gospel of Matthew
Through practice, we can cultivate a store of inner power so that we can actually tap into and taste the unseen blessings that surround us – it’s not just an intellectual standpoint. No matter what is happening on the outside, we can be grateful because, on the inside, the divine splendor is shimmering. When we are centered and in touch with the divine power in our hearts, we always have something to be grateful for. At any given time, no matter what is happening, we can turn inside and thank the Divine for being there inside of us, if for nothing else.
If the only prayer you say in your life is “thank you,” that would suffice
- Meister Eckhart
People on the spiritual path also have at their disposal the power to turn hardship into something to be grateful for. Haven’t you had the experience of getting through some difficult time or tragedy, only to look back to see how much it helped you grow? In my life, the hardest times in many cases bore the greatest inner fruit. When we actively practice cultivating gratitude – even for the hard times, we are like alchemists who can turn a base metal into gold.
The Antidote to Desire
All of the great wisdom traditions tell us:
Desire is the root of bondage
As long as we desire, we cannot rest in the power in our hearts. If you think of our awareness as a stream – desires are like outward flowing leaks, streaming towards their objects. It’s like our happiness is literally leaking out through the holes of our desires. When we practice gratitude, we feel contented – the outward flow is checked and we can rest in the fullness of what we have.
In our modern lives, there is always something else to desire. There are objects to desire, money, a better job, more interesting friends, a nicer body, a better government, a nicer vacation, cleaner air. The list, of course, could go on and on. We crave the objects that we want and struggle against everything we don’t want. Herein, the sages say, is the source of human suffering. When we are able to practice gratitude and rein in the power of our desires, we take crucial steps towards our ultimate liberation.
Of course many of the things we desire are noble pursuits. Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean forgoing ambition or giving up on life. What the practice of gratitude is asking us to do is to wake up and become aware of the blessings we have in our lives. Are we rich or are we poor? The answer to that question lies in our ability to recognize what we have in our lives. Many wealthy people spend their days feeling incomplete and desirous of more and more – no matter what their bank balance is. Similarly, we all know of people with next to nothing who live happy contented lives.
When we forget to appreciate everything that we have, we actually perpetuate a deep untruth. The mystical tradition tells us that the goal of our sadhana is to live in constant awareness of our own inner power – of who we truly are. The sages – and our own deep experiences – teach us that we are supremely full, we are complete and powerful in every way; that we are, in fact, Divine Essence Itself.
When we live from a place of gratitude, then we affirm the inner wealth that we have. We know that we are complete and can approach almost any moment or person or event with appreciation and a willingness to serve.
As seekers, I believe that we are here with a mission: to love and to uplift ourselves and the world in which we live. We cannot give what we don’t have. Unless we can take stock of all the love and power we have in our lives and in our hearts, we cannot give our love and power to the universe. Cultivating gratitude gives us the ability to remember the blessings in our lives and live accordingly. When we live from this place of abundance and fullness, we not only experience the amazing Grace in our lives, we become the source of Grace in the lives of countless others.