This morning we will explore Cultivating Gratitude. Webster’s Dictionary defines gratitude as “a feeling of appreciation or thanks.” As we explore a few ways we can cultivate gratitude today, we will also learn about what gratitude means from a Buddhist perspective.
Silently think of three things you are grateful for. It was easy to think of three things for some of you. For others, perhaps you struggled to think of something. Have you ever noticed that some of the things you are most grateful for can be the most bothersome at times? Being grateful is not always easy for various reasons. For an untrained mind, gratitude does not always come naturally. It’s as if our brains get stuck in the negative thought patterns.
Cultivating gratitude makes me think of the story of Pollyanna written by Eleanor H. Porter. Pollyanna is a little orphan girl goes to live with her bitter aunt who owns and controls an entire town. Pollyanna teaches an entire town to be grateful by playing “The Glad Game.” Have you ever been in a situation where a person or group of people seemed like they were feasting on negative talk? It is easy to fall into a habit of talking negative about things and even about ourselves, but we can stop this negativity by focusing on the positives and playing the glad game. With practice, the positive talk can become a habit we gravitate towards. Pollyanna lived by the philosophy that if you looked for the bad in mankind, you would find the bad. Look for the good, and you will find the good. Psychology Today says “studies show that gratitude not only can be deliberately cultivated but can increase levels of well-being and happiness among those that cultivate it.”
Now let’s talk about those times in our lives when looking back we are grateful. Jack Kornfield quoted his Thai meditation teacher Ajahn Chah as saying to him, "Which has had more value in your life, where have you grown more and learned more, where have you become more wise, where have you learned patience, understanding, equanimity, and forgiveness – in your hard times, or the good ones?" There is an executive at a local company who has a wonderful positive attitude about all experiences and she encourages this positive attitude in her entire staff. In her department, she never accepted problems or issues during tough times. They are always referred to as challenges and opportunities. She is able to put a positive spin on any tough situation by focusing on solutions and looking upon things as an opportunity to change and grow. What if we could learn to be grateful for all experiences in this way--the challenges and opportunities in the present moment? A Bodhisattva approaches everything, all beings and all experiences, even the dukkah (suffering), with equanimity and without judgment in the present moment.
Pema Chodron addresses how to do this in her book Start Where You Are when she discusses the pithy slogan in the Lojong teachings “Be Grateful to Everyone.” What it means to be grateful to everyone is to learn how to deal with all types of situations and people that are difficult or bothersome. Pema Chodron said “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” Being grateful to everyone means being aware of your habitual response when difficult situations arise. Pema Chodron talks about leaning into these situations and putting a gap before responding to them in our habitual ways.
I love my dogs, but when I meditate at home they can be bothersome. One stares me down and growls and the other smacks her mouth. I used to interrupt my meditation and yell at them to stop, but this would leave me feeling guilty and like I failed when I sat back down to resume my meditation. It occurred to me one day that I could use my dogs as my teacher so I started an experiment of leaning into my feelings of irritation and disgust. Not ignoring, but recognizing the physical restlessness and stirring of irritation that arises and not reacting. Simply sitting in awareness with the feelings and holding compassion in my heart for my feelings arising and for my dogs. At first it was difficult not to respond. I sat and sometimes twitched listening to the smacking and growling, wanting with every cell of my being to yell out at the dogs for being noisy--it was painful as Pema Chodron describes as itch I wanted to scratch. The most remarkable thing is happening, things are getting better. There is still the smacking and growling going on, but I have changed my response to the situation. I have found myself starting to smile in my heart when I start to hear them. I have released my attachment to the idea of having a perfectly quiet meditation space. The noise is simply part of my meditation. I am feeling more patience, peacefulness, freedom and even gratitude because I let this go and changed my behavior.
I have news for everyone here today; we are all annoying, obnoxious, and difficult to someone at sometime. Often times, the things that bother us in others are the very qualities we see in ourselves that are bothersome. The good news, we can work to change our responses when things situations arise by leaning in. By changing our response and behavior, we can change the world around us.
There are other ways to cultivate gratitude by shifting our awareness on the positive aspects of our lives. I attended a retreat recently and the final puja (chant) right before bed each night was intended to remove evil spirits. It involved a symbolic three sided Tibetan dagger called a Phurba—each side of the dagger represents one of the 3 poisons (ignorance, greed/envy and anger) or evil spirits that can afflict us. While chanting, they hold the dagger and visualize (and I stress the visualization part) removing or exorcising the evil spirits, the 3 poisons, which hold us back from enlightenment. Those negative things which hold us back from living with a grateful and open heart. If this practice does not seem right for you, perhaps you can cultivate gratitude through the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Every night before going to bed write down what you are grateful for. It is the regular practice of shifting awareness towards the positive aspects of our lives, over and over again, which neutralizes the negative thoughts and creates a positive mind.
In Tibetan Buddhism, simply to be born human and to be alive is something we should be deeply grateful. According to the Tibetan tradition we are fortunate to be born and to have inner wisdom to experience the dharma. The Dalai Lama said “Everyday, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."
Through cultivating gratitude, we can realize the joy, suffering, and everything in between are all part of our unique journey called life. If we have tunnel vision, and look too closely at our problems, we will overlook the bigger picture and what we have to be thankful for. If we broaden our view, we will see the dukkah, problems and issues along our path are opportunities to help us evolve, change and grow. We can open our hearts and learn to embrace all experiences with gratitude with just a few minutes each day spent on shifting our perspective. With gratitude and open hearts, we can change our world in a positive way.