Why Be Grateful? — Thoughts from Thanksgiving
November 26, 2009
There was a time in my life, which ended relatively recently, when I simply couldn’t appreciate why people thought gratitude was so important. At least, I didn’t resonate with the way most people expressed it.
When I came onto the spiritual path, however, I found that there are actually different kinds of gratitude. The normal kind is gratitude for things — good people, good surroundings, and good food — but the Divine kind is gratitude for everything, good and bad.
Pancakes vs. the Sky
I live at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, which I often think is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Each season, its extraordinary gardens have something unique to offer. In the spring, there are newly-blossomed flowers and plants, vibrant with life. In the winter, there is coolness, stillness, and the silent invitation to become more still, oneself.
There are, of course, many things to be grateful for here. Some are transitory, while others are more permanent. I was particularly touched to hear what the 2nd and 3rd graders at Ananda Village’s elementary school were grateful for, when yesterday the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grade, came up to the retreat.
They were grateful for trees, forests, and the sky; for fish, birds, and the ocean. It wasn’t a put-on; many of them shared these things spontaneously during an activity led by the college students. Surely it takes a refined nature to place the sky high on a list of what you are grateful for. It speaks of a feeling of being connected to all life around you, and to realities that expand beyond the present moment.
If, instead of focusing on the calm, eternal expansiveness of the sky, I was busy being grateful for pancakes — as, in fact, I was this morning — and if all of the pancakes were gone — as, in fact, they were — I might have lost some of my gratitude, which I did. That was conditioned gratitude, which isn’t bad, just limited. (A fresh batch of pancakes arrived in short order.)
Maybe this is a key to a higher form of gratitude: being grateful without limitation. One way to do this would be to be grateful for things that don’t change.
Someone once asked Yogananda, “Should one thank God for His gifts?” Yogananda replied, “Thank him, rather, for His love.” Indeed, what could be more changeless?
Grateful Without Cause
Another way to be grateful without limitation is to be equally grateful for all experiences, including painful ones, like, ahem, missing pancakes. (Admittedly, absence-of-pancakes is not very painful — say, on a scale of one to ten.)
In his course, Success and Happiness Through Yoga Principles, Swami Kriyananda wrote:
Gratitude, properly understood, has no reason: It is simply an aspect of the pure joy of our existence — so much a part of it that one can hardly be distinguished from the other.
This passage finally explained to me why reading something like the comments of this post is inspiring: because gratitude itself is joyful!
If we needed an external, scientific proof of this, there is one: Facebook’s United States National Gross Happiness Index. This chart on this webpage shows a large spike on Thanksgiving day, indicating that people express themselves to be much happier (using words like “happy” and “elated”) on that day than on any other, with the exception of Christmas.
Surely this is, at least in part, because on Thanksgiving people are making a conscious effort to be grateful — and even if that gratitude is sometimes for things, and not for God, it is still ennobling, and expresses an aspect of the Divine joy that we all have within us.
In this way, a stepping-stone to being grateful for everything might be, first, to be grateful for the things we naturally like. This would begin a habit of gratitude, which in time could expand to include everything — especially the source of everything.
But still, the clearest and quickest path must be going straight to the source itself, through the joy and peace found in meditation. Certainly this has been my own experience: gratitude comes most easily in the presence of even a small amount of Divine Joy.
I hope you had a joyful Thanksgiving, and may your next several weeks — from Thanksgiving through Yogananda’s birthday on January 5th — be particularly deeply blessed.