Gratitude Softens a Guarded Heart

Often we sit for a few minutes before class as a means to gather ourselves into the boundaries of our own skin. Sometimes I remind myself and others to greet the wise Teacher within each of us. Alternately, I suggest we acknowledge all of those who have been our teachers, in whatever form or time, throughout our lives.

Both of these acts of reverence are a kind of gratitude practice. As a spiritual investigation, it is one of the sweetest and offers the most for the least sacrifice. Gratitude practice is particularly good for those who are depressive or for others who find fault more easily that they find joy.

The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy. Practice of gratitude reminds us of the simple fact that we participate in a much larger context than our personal stories seem to indicate. Cultivating thankfulness for life softens and expands into a more refined understanding of the interdependent nature of life. This, in turn, elicits generosity which brings more joy with it. A guarded heart may be softened, forgiveness may arise and with it clarity of mind upon which spiritual practice depends.

Gratitude does not turn aside from life’s difficulties. We suffer, we die. However, a practice will prove that joy and wonderment are antidotes to fear, loss and notions of scarcity. But we have to stay open to the possibilities beyond the obvious.

An old Sufi story goes like this: A man’s son captured a beautiful wild horse. When he brought it home, the neighbours congratulated him and pointed out his good fortune. "We’ll see," said the boy’s father. Soon thereafter the boy was thrown from the horse and broke his leg. "What bad luck that horse is," said the villagers. "We’ll see", said the father. The following day soldiers came and took every able bodied man away, except the boy whose leg was fractured. "How very fortunate, that horse saved him from being conscripted," said the villagers. "We’ll see,” said the boy’s father.

Gratitude for participating in the mystery of life is like that.

For a recent birthday, I decided to list as many blessings as years of age. That is a lot! As the list grew, I noticed the joys of nature, of people, of good health and the privileges of my class and race. And then the list began to change as I acknowledged the daily pleasures and satisfactions as well as challenges which shake me up and teach me.

If gratitude is only expressed when things are going well, is that not a kind of spiritual blackmail? "I’ll practice gratitude if I feel good."

A broader practice might be to take a few moments at the end of each day to acknowledge each person who has given you food, clothing, shelter and education. Do you give thanks for the blue skies, clean air and fragrance of spring? That practice would take us face to face with how things really are. If we take note every day, and throughout the day, of that for which we are grateful, we begin to see what is right before us. And there is more ease in our daily life.

You might be feeling that this is some kind of hook to tie you to obligation. After all, you may have been taught to "repay" acts of kindness, which would mean being grateful was not a "free” act. However, if we are made to feel grateful for something given, then it was never freely given. Neither is gratitude an escape from purposeful action to relieve the suffering of others as well as our own. So we cannot get away with thinking, "Yes, this is wrong or unfair but I have so much to be grateful for…"

Despite the enormous privilege of our births, we have to act and we have to be aware of the folly of basing happiness on the outcome of our actions.