We all float in consciousness. Some of us swim against the current, some cling to its shores, and others simply flow downstream with the current. The taste of this river depends upon our willingness to be buoyed by it, to feel threatened by it, or to simply drink its honey.
I have found that the river of honey is its tastiest when I drink fully from it, and let its meandering carry me along with it. It is my resistance to its experiences and its lessons that make me gag, and create the illusion of poison. It is God’s method, and sometimes, seemingly madness, that creates a river of honey that at times appears poison, but is ALWAYS, at the end of the day, correct, appropriate and good for me, despite my considerations to the contrary.
I am sitting in the gazebo … and something occurs to me. Now, please understand that this gazebo has some kind of feng shui, or something going on, that, whenever you sit in it, you cool down, zonk out, and in general, groove along in a timeless state. Even our dog is affected; indeed, she runs to it whenever we mention the word gazebo, and resists leaving it when we exit.
So, anyway, I am sitting there smelling the roses, watching the sunlight, hearing the hummingbird milk the fuschia, and I am overcome with delight, simply overcome with the rightness of it all, with the exquisite delight that went into its making, with the sweet, sweet nectar of being alive! It becomes so excruciatingly simple and obvious. There is nothing special about anything, except that it is all perfectly special, unique, and immediate. I wish I were a poet, for perhaps then I might be better able to impart the enormity of it more clearly.
And then a friend drops by. He repeats a Persian verse for me, which, written phonetically, reads as follows:
Agar firdoze bahar roohey zamin ast
Roughly translated, it means,
Nicely arranged universe, isn’t it? You’re sitting in the gazebo, minding your own business, needing a few lines of poetry, and along comes a friend, with just what you need rolling off his tongue!
Today, we received a wonderfully heart-warming note of gratitude from a spiritual friend which so lightened (and heightened) our day, that it motivated me finally to complete this essay I have been mulling over for months. Originally, I had been inspired to write about gratitude by our exposure to a young girl whose lack of it towards the members of her family has had, and continues to have, tragic consequences as her life unfolds. But that situation was so sad that I just kept shoving it aside, perhaps for tomorrow’s work. But, thanks to this other friend’s thoughtfulness, and the repercussions of that gracefulness in our life, and undoubtedly in hers too, I have brought the file to life, and here it is.
This little friend, the child I refer to, is bright, inquisitive, beautiful and precious, but she suffers from a character flaw, which if not repaired, will trip her up her entire life. This flaw is not unique to her. Indeed, I have numerous adult friends who suffer from it as well. In fact, there was a time when I suffered greatly from it as well.
Lack of gratitude, while disturbing and potentially tragic wherever observed, is particularly disturbing in children, because it goes against all childlike tendencies, and almost goes against the nature of being a child. Perhaps the explanation for it lies in the parent’s teachings. Perhaps gratitude was not cultivated, was not encouraged, was not exemplified. As children, we mimic our authorities; there is no blame, no fault there, it is simply an inescapable fact. “The sins of the parents are visited upon the children and upon the children’s children” ( see Exodus 34:7).
While this flaw is endemic in our world, what is not quite as apparent, nor much addressed, is how often it is lacking among those on the spiritual quest. This undoubtedly accounts for the slow progress and lack of spectacular results that some of us have in our spiritual process. Certainly, it is reflective of our cultural self-sufficiency, and thus arrogance, as well as our reluctance to relate except on a superficial and selfish level to others. It is one expression of Da Free John’s consideration of “Narcissus”, his brilliant explanation for humankind’s “fall” and thus most of our misery.
Gratitude seems such a minor virtue, something that frequently is pushed aside as not terribly important, or relegated to “nice to have, but not absolutely essential to the spiritual process.” But in fact it is crucial. Gratitude underpins the whole process of receiving blessings and power, of receiving God and all the bounty and promise of God. Gratitude is at base the core of the teaching by Jesus, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and it will be opened to you” (see Matthew 7:7); it is a prime example of New Thought’s understanding of metaphysics; it is a basic tenet of Ramakrishna’s teachings; and it is a practice which brilliantly exemplifies the concepts of Ramana Maharshi, to name just a few examples. Gratitude is an expression of love, humility, vulnerability, compassion, and Love. It is the source of most, if not all, success and happiness on a worldly level. It is the key to the stream of God’s consciousness within and without.
By gratitude, I mean simply an acknowledgment that good things happen in our lives as a result of some other intervention in our life, and that those interventions merit expression of thanks in an audible or visible manner toward the source of these interventions. Gratitude requires that we admit not only to ourselves, but to another, that these things are, ultimately, a direct gift from God, and, in the body of another, a transmission of that love to us through and from that “other” in the form of a gift given freely. Interestingly, it is easier to thank God than an individual for gifts. And some spiritual folks do just that to avoid expressing vulnerability, humility and gratefulness toward other human beings. It is easy to thank a concept, harder to thank an uncontrollable, other “entity”. Gratitude requires an expression of both thankfulness and its flip side, vulnerability and need. Both of these concepts indirectly express our fragility, our inter-relatedness with one another, our connections and inter-dependence. It expresses our non-separateness, our essential holiness.
Gratitude is, in the final analysis, not for the benefit of the one to which we are grateful, but is to our own benefit, in that it opens the heart, recognizes relationship, and thus maintains the touchable and softened heart. Into that open heart flows goodness, mercy, happiness, and bounty. Indeed, on a more mundane level, even if we only want to “get something for something”, gratitude has the magical quality of increasing bountiful events, and goodness in equal, if not greater, measure. In other words, the act of being grateful creates a kind of feedback into the universe of consciousness; it feeds back to itself, through each of us individually. Indeed, I have personally found that, with every expression of gratitude for any kind of bounty that befalls me, it consistently returns in kind, double fold.
The reverse of this law, of course, is equally true. Thus, those who do not feel gratitude, or who do not cultivate it, or who refuse to express it, usually find that bounty, and all good things, appear less and less in their lives, and life becomes more and more a struggle. Or, even if they have “much”, they do not feel the fullness and joy and security their good circumstances should generate. This is simply because there seems to be a metaphysical law that underscores that “as we do, so it happens to us”. Thus, ingratitude, or simply neglect to feel gratitude, generates in the universe a corresponding and similar response toward us, or within our lives. This is basic metaphysics, folks. Indeed, it is basic human relationship. There’s a difference?
Now, by ingratitude, I do not mean simply a positive refusal to offer thanks for something received. While, of course, that is one expression of it, ingratitude itself is much more subtle and pervasive. It is expressed when we do not acknowledge a sense of awe and delight at something someone has given us, told us, asked us, shown us, or something we have seen, understood, discovered. It is expressed in a reluctance to acknowledge a success in another’s life, to offer congratulations, to share in another’s joy or appreciation. It is spiritually expressed when we do not consistently thank God for giving us life, for allowing us choices, for simply being. Ingratitude expresses itself when we refuse to take another’s offering, whatever it may be, with appreciation, seriousness, and graciousness. It is particularly obvious when some kind of bounty or pleasant event occurs in our life, and we take credit for it personally instead of acknowledging all the conditions and other persons that created and generated the event for us. Ingratitude is glaringly apparent when someone accepts a gift or assistance without acknowledging, to the giver, not to mention to oneself, that it was and is a gift, given in love. Frequently, indeed, it becomes so pathological, that rather than accept the gift with graciousness, we give excuses about not needing it, wanting it, or “thanks, but no thanks”. In defense, we might insist “Yea, but this could be simply an expression of taking for granted God’s love, which is, after all, unconditional”; but we can only take that for granted when we ARE that love, not before. Prior to that state, to use that concept as an excuse for ingratitude is only another example of the great lengths to which we will go to preserve our seeming invulnerability, sense of control and power, and our isolation.
Of course, little children really do take all of this for granted, in that they assume their parent’s love, and by extension, the world’s love for them. This is beautiful, and right. To expect a child to understand all the intricacies and depths beneath gratitude is absurd. Children by right are pure vessels of love and relationship, and within that love, gratitude is implied and therefore indirectly expressed. And in fact, at some stage in the spiritual process, the childlike presumption returns, and God’s love and all its bounty is taken for granted, and assumed. However, gratitude does not cease because of that realization. It is only when the capacity to relate and love like a child begins to fade, and closes up, that the trouble begins in each of our lives. This happens at different times to different people, depending upon their sensitivity and circumstances. Some earlier than others, some because they are so sensitive that they feel they cannot survive without the protection of ingratitude, and by extension, invulnerability. Of course, far from protecting our survival, ingratitude actually threatens it! Some of us become so buffered by this protective device that it takes a catastrophe of enormous magnitude to break us open, if only because we find ourselves so isolated, so miserable, that in desperation we reach out, open our hearts, and begin to experience gratefulness. That might explain the ease and joy that serving the ill and dying brings each of us; invulnerability is no longer a priority to the sick and dying, and thus, gratitude usually naturally rises to the surface – not always, but usually. And thus, the feedback begins and is easily sustainable!
It appears to me that the reluctance to be grateful results from years of conditioning and experiences where, by opening the heart in gratitude to another, we were either hurt by the response, or disappointed in that response. Maybe it only takes a few times, as a child, to receive a non-response or neglectful response from the parent to sour a child toward giving or asking. Certainly Pavlov’s dog would confirm this theory! It is human to feel a hesitation when confronting another individual, uncontrollable by our own consciousness, unpredictable as to how that person will respond to our vulnerability; inevitably, our experiences evolve into habitual assumptions and presumptions.
However, our conditioning may be the explanation for our ingratitude, but, once understood, it is not an excuse to prolong or engage in it. But, still, most of us cling to the false security that ingratitude seems to suggest; that somehow, if we remain shut down, closed-hearted, we will not be hurt. Of course, the opposite occurs. With ingratitude, others respond accordingly, and thus we become more and more isolated, less and less full-hearted, more and more shut down. I am always surprised that, as spiritual seekers, while understanding the principle of projection, and understanding that we find in our world outside what is inside of us, we don’t seem to grasp that it applies as well to ingratitude, or, its reverse, gratitude. If we are ungrateful, the world will become ungrateful towards us. It will, in essence, stop responding, just as we individually stop responding to those who approach us with ingratitude. This applies to the most human of situations; it applies equally to the most spiritual and transcendent. It is so terribly simple and obvious, and yet, the pain, the unhappiness that results because we do not put it into practice is enormous, and unnecessary. If you doubt this basic metaphysical law, simply reconstruct your feelings when giving to a responsive child, for example, and your consequent desire to give again and again. Then reconstruct your feelings after having given to an individual who does not respond in gratitude and love, and your reluctance to give again because of the discomfort, unhappiness, and disturbing emotions that non-response generates within. This is how the universe feels as well; as above, so below and vice versa!
Since gratitude is not taught or cultivated in any direct manner in our culture, to learn to express it is initially, for many, a stilted and contrived exercise. But the miracle of this initial effort is that, with consistent practice, it eventually becomes genuine and somehow opens the heart progressively as it is expressed. No doubt the success of this effort is in the odd truth that if we wish to become something, we need to BE it initially, even though that being may be artificial and uncomfortable in the beginning. Of course, if consciousness is essentially what we are, then the choice to be any kind of consciousness is all that is required, and with practice in that choice, the rest automatically happens.
As for the actual practice of expressing love, one can ascertain just how buffered and closed down one is by observing how difficult it is to express verbally appreciation and thanks to another, on a regular basis, and with sincerity and feeling. Interestingly, those who are greatly shut down will often find it relatively simple to roll off the tongue a thank you, without heart-felt feeling. It can always be felt by the receiver whether it is heart-felt or simply rote. We think we are closed books; we are not. Everything is read by each other and one another, either consciously by those who are alert, or subtly or intuitively by those of us who are less adept; nonetheless, we do not fool one another, though we may convince ourselves otherwise.
It is surprising, then, how many of us resist this initial effort, even though we know that this will ultimately result in a happier life. Of course, if we consider who and what it is that is resisting, it is no longer a surprise. The small, fearful and separated ego is afraid of and resistant to any acknowledgment that there may be something bigger and more profound or omnipotent than itself, and it expresses this fear in refusal to acknowledge or be grateful for anything other than its own support and subsistence. This results in a world of fear, separation and resistance by virtue of our choice to remain as THAT. It is astonishing how stupid the ego can be sometimes! Indeed, the ego can be so resistant to this kind of expression that rather than acknowledge gratitude to another, it absorbs and takes ownership of whatever was given to it as originally or rightfully its own, perhaps consciously, hopefully unconsciously. This is a universal trait of the separate ego, after all, but it is deadly to its transcendence within the spiritual process.
None of this play and resultant pain is necessary, not any of it, for a spiritual seeker or for any other person of whatever position in life. What is only necessary is an acknowledgment that we are inter-related, that we are indebted to one another and in particular to those who reach out to help us, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. For the spiritual seeker, in addition to this acknowledgment of inter-relatedness toward other human beings, is the equal acknowledgment and gratitude to God, the supreme source and mover in our lives. It must be done over and over and over again, and it must be practiced in a practical and physical manner actively toward human beings within our lives, with an open heart and grateful thanks. It is such a simple practice to undertake. And its fruits are infinite.
There is no sin that I would not rather have upon my soul than to have displayed to the universe ingratitude. Do you say that the universe cares little about our praise? Well, I vote against you. I believe the universe does care, and needs our gratitude.
Richard C. Cabot Q
Two monks were arguing. One said, “The flag is moving.”
Zen Wisdom Q