Thursday, November 23, 2006

Practicing gratitude

This Thanksgiving Day, I want to steer you toward an essay simply called Gratitude by Zen master Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Here's a rather wonderful excerpt:

[Brother David Steindl-Rast] sent me an article he wrote about gratitude. In it he writes, “do you remember a time when you went outside at night and looked up at the stars, seeing them as if for the first time?" He quotes Eugene O’Neil: "For a moment I lost myself - actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the...high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life.. - to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. For a second you see the secret - and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!"

Brother David sees this sudden and immediate sense of belonging that you sometimes can feel, and that I think is fostered by our practice, as being the condition of gratitude. When we see ourselves as separate atomized individuals in a world full of other separate atomized individuals, we don’t feel grateful. Quite the contrary, we are complaining all the time because there is plenty to complain about. We have so many things we want and need, and whatever we actually get is never enough. No amount of love or possessions or gratification could ever fill the gap between us and the world. So we're looking for something, thirsting for something, always dissatisfied. In Buddhism they call this trishna, thirst. Like hungry ghosts we are thirsting endlessly for something that we never can get. We are deeply restless and dissatisfied.

But when we feel suddenly a rush of belonging like the one O’Neil describes- something that comes really for no reason, something that we haven't earned or created for ourselves, but it just arrives, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, perhaps when we are not expecting it at all, we naturally feel a profound existential gratitude. Brother David says, "Why do I call that wild joy of belonging 'gratefulness'? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether undeserved, utterly gratuitous -- life, existence, ultimate belonging - and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole."

This beautiful belonging and gratefulness - this at-one-ness with the Universe - transcends politics. It is because of this gratefulness that we can be politically involved and active without losing our souls.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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