Today is a day when we are meant to give thanks - which seems quite general. In your opinion, what are we giving thanks for and how can we genuinely activate that feeling of gratitude?
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
Speaking quite personally at first, I would have to say that this Thanksgiving Day I will be giving thanks in a heartfelt way that sufficient numbers of my fellow Americans were able to say "yes" to the invitation to move beyond fear and isolation and stand as a single human family on the threshold of new hope. It is a delicious moment for the world, a miracle of new beginning, and I celebrate it with all due solemnity.
When something so manifestly good and generous happens, it is natural to respond with gratitude. But in a way, the very naturalness of this response has its down side, for it appears to confirm the notion that gratitude is a response; it is evoked by a prior action. And it is exactly this notion that the great spiritual teachers of all traditions have consistently challenged. And precisely in this challenge lies our freedom.
Yes, it's easy to be grateful when something good has been done for you (although, sadly, even this healthy human response seems increasingly under challenge nowadays in our escalating culture of entitlement and victimhood). But have you ever thought about gratitude not as a response but as a force in its own right; an initiating and healing energy that is not dependent on external circumstances but is rather an innate power of the human soul? When understood and wielded in this fashion, it has the power to liberate us from our self-imposed prisons of self-pity and envy and to actually change the energy fields (and hence, the outcome) of our circumstances.
In plain words, we can actually change our reality by being grateful first; not as a response but as an innate way of being.
It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of this motion, to learn the "not grateful for, but grateful TOWARD" motion. As in most things spiritual, it’s learned more easily in the domain of sensation than feeling. A lot of people will tell you to make up lists of things in your life to be grateful for ("counting your blessings," as they call it). But have you ever noticed that counting blessings sometimes feels no more inspiring than counting sheep? It's hard to cajole your feelings into logical response; feelings are not logical.
Instead, I'd suggest simply being quiet inside, paying attention to the rise and fall of your breathing, your heartbeat, the sensation of your feet on the ground or the breeze against your cheek. Let your story go for a few minutes, with all its wants and needs, and pay attention "not to what you are" (in the words of one medieval Christian mystic) "but THAT you are." That deep sensation of "I AM" reverberating in your being is connected to the "I AM" reverberating in every other sentient being, and in all of life itself. Through it, you are connected to Being itself, and in that connection lies the true source of your abundance and the wellspring of gratitude.
My friend Kabir Helminski, a well-known contemporary Sufi teacher, summarizes this teaching well: “If you can learn to make all cares into one care, the care for simply being present, you will be cared for by that Presence, which is itself creative Power and Love.” You don’t have to conjure up lists of things to talk yourself into being grateful for; simply
tune into that living stream of Being within you and pay attention to how it moves. Gradually you will come to see that gratitude is not a response; it is a river that is always flowing through you, and that you can learn to flow with. Wherever your external circumstances may appear to be heading, it will always be carrying you inwardly toward fullness and love.
Whoever has learned the secret of proactive gratitude taps into that famous "living water" described in the New Testament, that becomes a source of healing both for one’s own life and for the whole world.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Michael Berg replies:
During this time of Thanksgiving, we can inspire greater "thanks-giving" by understanding the spiritual importance of being grateful.
There are many things in our lives that give us pleasure, joy and fulfillment. Our relationships, material possessions, position in life, food, music – there are so many things from which we draw enjoyment.
But on a deeper level, what gives us the joy and fulfillment is the internal Light and energy within these things. When we feel love from our relationships, nourished from our work, enjoyment from a good meal, what we are actually enjoying is the energy and Light within those things.
Furthermore, there is an important Kabbalistic concept that states that we are only receiving a small percentage of the joy and fulfillment all these things can give us. Whether it’s the joy we feel with our spouse or friends, or the happiness and love we feel towards our kids, right now, at this moment, our experience can be many times greater than what it is (even if it's already good). This is because our joy and fulfillment is dependent and exactly correlated to our appreciation of these blessings.
More energy, and therefore fulfillment, can be flowing to us – when we strengthen and grow our gratitude. Appreciation and giving thanks actually unlocks more Light and energy from relationships and even physical objects, so that in turn, we can receive more fulfillment from them.
Therefore, the reason we want to appreciate the people in our lives and our gifts and blessings on Thanksgiving (and hopefully every day) is not because "we should" or "it's the right thing to do." Rather it is because the joy we feel from these blessings and gifts is exactly correlated to the appreciation we have for them.
A few years ago I was walking with my daughter who was about three years old at the time. She was singing and skipping as I held her hand. I was distracted though, thinking about work and other "important" things. Suddenly I realized and said to myself "forget everything else, just focus on this amazing moment with your daughter." I focused on her singing, on her skipping and on her joy. I cannot express in words the love that I felt then. Had I not focused on the amazing gift that was right in front of me I would have completely lost a wonderful opportunity for joy and real happiness. That moment in time held for me a great gift, but only by focusing on my blessing could I receive all the Light and happiness from it.
This holiday season, take time to focus on and grow your gratitude for what you already have, the relationships you’ve nurtured over the years, the qualities within that you’ve been blessed with at birth, and the material items you have worked so hard to acquire and make your own. Try to focus on the gifts you usually take for granted or a relationship that you realize you have not focused your appreciation on enough.
Giving thanks will awaken even more Light and energy within those gifts, thereby filling you with even greater fulfillment, joy and peace.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is Co-Director of the Kabbalah Centre.
Deepak Chopra replies:
In America this Thanksgiving we are caught between two competing emotions: economic anxiety and political celebration. These forces pull against each other, making this an uneasy holiday. But there's one thing that unites us at this moment: hope. America's better self has emerged, and we hope it will thrive in the future.
Those are national sentiments, because Thanksgiving is a national holiday. Personal thanks is more intimate and private. While being grateful for the usual things - hearth and home, a loving family, being safe and well for another year - I will be most thankful, in my heart of hearts, that awareness
can still expand. In times of fear the natural reaction is to contract, to retreat behind the walls of ego and petty self-interest. To be able to resist that urge is a great gift. None is more fragile, and yet none is more needed. Reaching beyond boundaries can save the world.
In a word, if you really want to give thanks, give of yourself first.
Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity
www.deepakchopra.com. Deepak Chopra's new book, Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment is available at Amazon.com.
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel replies:
Our attitude about our life and the feelings we have towards the world can be transformed simply by shifting our perspective. It's not that difficult. You can see the glass as half empty or as half full. We can change perspective by asking to speak to different aspects or voices within us. For example, each of us is a human being. We can ask to speak first to the human side, the human aspect, of our human being-ness.
So, let me speak to the one who is Human.
I am the Human in all aspects of being human. I am not you, you are separate from me. I have my own thoughts, memories, desires and emotions. My feelings can be hurt. I can feel discontented, alienated. I can feel pain, the pain of rejection, of criticism, of loneliness and loss. I have fear, anger and resentment. I wish that other people, the world, and even the self, were different. I frequently want things to be other than they way they are.
Now let me speak to the other side of you as a human being. May I please speak to Being?
I am Being. I just am. I am the I am-ness of life. I am pure awareness, pure stillness, silence. I am unmoving. I have no preferences or judgments; I don’t need things to be other than the way they are. I don’t suffer because there is no me to suffer. I have no center, no boundaries or limits. I am all things. I am the world, I am the universe. Everything is a manifestation of me, complete, whole and perfect just as it is. I am complete contentment.
If we think of these two opposing voices, the Human and Being, as opposite ends of the base of a triangle, I'd like now to speak to the apex, which includes and yet transcends these two aspects. Now may I please speak to the one who consciously chooses to be a Human Being?
I am the one who consciously chooses to be a Human Being. As this voice I am grateful for this life. I am satisfied and happy. I feel great appreciation and great joy. Very often, when I am stuck only in the Human side and am not including my Being-ness, I want things to be other than the way they are. From the Being side, everything is perfect, complete and whole as it is. As a Human Being I feel great compassion for this and all others’ humanity, for just how difficult life can sometimes be. And so I feel empathy and compassion for all beings. I am grateful and I give thanks for this life, this world.
– Dennis Genpo Merzel
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is the founder of Kanzeon Sangha, an international Zen community, and abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City. His latest book is Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way www.genpo.org.
Shaikh Kabir Helminski replies:
To Walk the Path of Thankfulness - It was during one very painful period of my life that I made the firm choice to walk the path of gratitude. At a time when my suffering had reached the depths, when I felt misunderstood and betrayed by some of those I had trusted to stand by me, I made the seemingly irrational choice to be thankful. In my pain, I had chosen to focus on the awareness of what was good in my life in the present.
Gratitude is an agreement we make with the Unknown. I chose to express my gratitude to the Source of Life. You could say it was an act of faith, but I don't think I deserve any credit for it.
The only other choice was not to be thankful, to resent the actual conditions of my life and everything that had created those conditions. It was then that I saw that I could be grateful for the pain and what it was telling me. In essence, I was learning to trust something beyond my immediate circumstances, something that restored my sense of peace, strength and openness to life.
Since the time that I chose to walk the path of thankfulness, I have tried to make gratitude my fundamental attitude, living in the present, grateful to the Unseen Mystery. Is that Mystery real? Or is the resentment, dissatisfaction, or self-conscious suffering I would otherwise experience more real?
I have come to trust that if we are patient with difficulty, the Unseen supports us. To express thankfulness is to attract goodness. Gratitude merely smiles at dissatisfaction and disappointment. In any moment we can choose to focus on the disappointments or losses we have experienced, on any number of details in our lives that might seem less than what we might want them to be. Or we can choose, instead, to be thankful for things great and small in the present. Above all, we can be grateful for our relationship with a Mystery that we may not fully comprehend but seems to be more and more present and real.
To be thankful for both abundance and hard times is wisdom, for thankfulness is the panacea that turns pain into happiness. Let's celebrate Thanksgiving.
– Shaikh Kabir Helminski
Kabir Helminski is Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, Co-director of The Threshold Society (Sufism.org).
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because it is a day for the gathering of family and friends and typically involves the sharing of delicious food, laughter and conversation. The holiday originated with long-awaited harvests which the early American settlers experienced in their new country. After struggling to find their way and establish themselves, the colonists were finally able to celebrate the bountifulness of their new world. The word bountiful resonates with me when I think of giving thanks this time of year. Virginia Satir, a preeminent family therapist, describes the feeling of well-being her family experienced when the big kettle in their midwestern farm kitchen was brimming with food scrumptiously stewing and filling the room with wonderful aromas. The full pot came to symbolize the well-being of her family
The human spirit is incredibly strong, bountiful and miraculously resilient! Even in hard and trying times such as these, it is important to fill our hearts and minds with childlike wonderment at the miracle of being human. Look around this holiday season and SEE the light in children’s eyes, HEAR the laughter in your homes and SPEAK of your love to your family and friends. Fill your inner kettle with love and hope and you will know what it is to be thankful. Happy Holidays.
– Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.