Rev. Kinrei Bassis
Cultivating gratitude is one of the best practices to help our spiritual life. Although we often are oblivious to this fact, everyone always has many reasons to be grateful. When we look with gratitude at what is unfolding in our lives, it helps to free ourselves from that human tendency to obsess about all that is going wrong and all the difficulties that seem to be causing us to suffer. Cultivating gratitude helps us to see beyond our selfish and self-absorbed point of view and helps us to open our hearts to a much deeper spiritual perspective.
The basic problem for our spiritual life is how are we dealing with all the unwanted conditions in our life, both our external difficulties such as problems in our relationships, our finances, our health, and then also all our unwanted internal emotional conditions, like feelings of depression, anxiety or fear. I have found that how we deal with all the unwanted aspects in our life is where we can see either our spiritual progress or lack of progress. The real sign of someone doing well spiritually, is how much they can embrace their life with gratitude, and this is particularly true when one is being given the unwanted conditions of life, such as illness, mistreatment, misfortune and injustice.
The following poem by the 13th century Muslim mystically poet, Rumi, points out how we need to have an open and welcoming attitude to all of difficulties that life is giving us.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jellaludin Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)
Everyone’s life is full of unwanted guests. Someone is being unfair or unreasonable. We have unwanted feelings of anger or despair. Our body is filled with pain or health problems. These are all part of our life yet we did not seek or want them. And, there are karmic reasons for most of these unwanted guests visiting us. We can take all these guests as teachings and learn from them or we can expend our energy just battling with our karma, trying to prevent anything difficult from arising. Yet, since many of the conditions in our life are completely outside our control, what this means is that this is a normal and inevitable aspect of human life and that we will always be having many unwanted guests.
One of the positive aspects in dealing with people practicing Buddhism is that I often meet people who have had some very serious illness or some form of disaster in their life and yet, they sincerely express gratitude for the illness or disaster because it really helped them to look deeper at their life and let go of many of the aspects of their life that were causing them to suffer.
The practice of gratitude starts with being mindful of all that we are being given. When I eat, I want to remember to be grateful for the gift of the food. I have a warm bed and place to sleep. I have gratitude for all the people in my life who I care about and who care about me. I have gratitude that my body is mostly healthy and working well even if I am ill or having some physical problem and pain. Yet the really deep gratitude does not come from just having a life that is giving us much of what we desire. The really deep gratitude comes from realizing that the spiritual path we have found is going to give us what we are really seeking. In Buddhism there is a teaching that “The Dharma is medicine that can heal all suffering.” And when we really take the Dharma to heart, we can be filled with gratitude because we can learn to recognize that all our suffering does not come from our difficult conditions but comes from not seeing and relating to the world and the unfolding of our life with “Right View”, the first step of the Eightfold Path.
Faith and trust are essential conditions for us to awaken our own grateful heart. We need to trust that no matter what is unfolding in our lives and no matter what is unfolding in the world, nothing is or can ever be fundamentally hurt or lost. Each difficulty is both a problem we will naturally wish to alleviate, and it will also be a gateway that points us to something in our life which we need work at letting go of. I find when I have difficulties, it helps me immensely when I recognize that it is not just simply something that I do not want but it is also a teaching for me on what I need to do in order to find real freedom. When I am suffering, if I look really carefully at what is happening, I can see this suffering is not new and it has been happening throughout my life and, unless I deal with it, it will keep appearing in my life in various forms until I deal with it. For instance, I can suffer when I feel I criticized, particularly when it seem unjustified, and yet until I let go of clinging to opinions of others, I will always be living in a world in which I can be hurt by someone else’s opinion.
Learning to recognize impermanence helps us not to get lost in the seemingly hard reality of difficult conditions and instead to be able to recognize the ephemeral nature of everything we experience. When we stop grasping at all the conditions and see the dreamlike nature of whatever we experience, we can start finding real freedom and liberation because we can experience that nothing is solid which means, in turn, that nothing can ever truly bind us. The only thing ever binding us is our mind trying to grasp the ephemeral conditions. The following lines from the Diamond Sutra point how we should view the unfolding of our life and the world.
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A child’s laugh,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantasm, and a dream.
We are trying to awaken the faith that we already possess everything we truly need, the Buddha Heart. This truth is found and experienced by letting go of trying to grasp the flow of conditions in our life and trusting that the real Treasure we have always been seeking, we already possess. By being still and open and not demanding that the world gives us what we desire, we can find this place of liberation within our own heart. When we start readjusting our focus to do the difficult work of trying to let go of our mind’s habitual patterns of obsessing on all our worldly conditions; obsessing on our work, our health, our relationships, we start to create more space and freedom in our hearts and minds. We get in touch with a deep and profound gratitude for the fact that we have found that we are on a path that is taking us to our true spiritual home.