How to Feel Truly Grateful
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.
“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?”
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 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.