Could gratitude be the key to a happy life, good relationships, and a healthy society? Could it in fact be a quality of character that is foundational to all other virtues?
If we look at the challenges we are confronted with in everyday life, too little time, stress, dysfunctional situations, interpersonal conflicts, we might ask ourselves, where and how does gratitude fit in?
The first person I ever knew to speak about gratitude was Suleyman Dede in the late seventies. For some reason, at the time, it seemed radically enlightening. A while later Murat Yagan, an Ottoman educated Abkhasian spiritual master transplanted to British Columbia, named humbleness, gratitude, and love as the essential qualities to “open Divine inflow.”
So, what is it to be grateful? We are grateful when we recognize that we have received something that we value. Too often, however, our attention is focused on things we consider problems. Problems grab our attention. We are captured by whatever is negative. Dissatisfaction, disappointment, judgment, criticism occupy so much of our attention. The news media also focuses our attention on problems. How much conversation takes the form of complaining?
Gratitude arises out of an appreciation of gifts received, whether those gifts are tangible or intangible. Reflexively we associate gratitude with the source of the gift we have received, and whether the giver is a specific human being, or some intangible source: life, destiny, the divine.
The first step to awakening gratitude is to stop complaining, stop focusing primarily on the negative, and begin to realize that in every moment there is reason to be grateful. To begin with, life itself is a gift. It is amazing that we even exist! And what’s more we are conscious, we have awareness, we have senses. None of this was bought or earned; all of it is a gift. Behind every complaint and disappointment is the background of pure being-ness, of simple existence, of breath, of consciousness.
The value of gratitude is that it widens our perspective and often reduces the power of more negative states. We can have dissatisfaction and gratitude simultaneously. There are things we should be dissatisfied with but this dissatisfaction need not occupy all of our consciousness.
Developing gratitude is a process of transformation of our inner being. It is changing the quality of our inner life.
Whenever we talk about virtues like gratitude, kindness, modesty, or generosity, we are entering the realm of the invisible, we are entering what could be called a psycho-spiritual dimension.
If we look at what people actually value in themselves and other human beings, I think we can say that what we most value are qualities of human character. Character is something invisible. The qualities of character usually have other manifestations, like generosity, patience, humility, but the qualities themselves are essentially invisible and belong to a person’s inner being.
If these qualities were only attributes of behavior, and without an inner reality, we would consider the person to be merely acting, to not be genuine. And so we recognize a continuum between outer behavior and what a person truly feels, thinks, and wills within themselves.
And so the development of the inner human being is the main thing, and the expression of what we are inside is important, but secondary.
Gratitude and the expression of gratitude, of course, contribute to positive and cooperative environment. But there may be more here than meets the eye.
Could it be that the state of gratitude, not only implies the absence of negativity, but may contribute a healing and reconciling force that is invisible and yet effective. We all take subtle cues from each other, and a person who is not judging others, but living in a state of gratitude, may communicate subtle nonverbal signs. But is there any evidence that we may be connected to each other on a very deep level even beyond the subconscious cues, body language, etc.
As I began to formulate my thoughts about gratitude, I realized that I would be addressing a spectrum of people who have very different beliefs about the nature of reality. A subject that has interested me for many years is what I would call “applied spirituality.” There is an imaginary argument going on between those who claim to be reality-based, and those who might call themselves spiritual.
Of course, there are extremes of both kinds: there are those, for instance, who claim to believe only in what can be measured and whose explanation of reality is based in science and social theory. They deny the existence of a soul and consider consciousness an illusion of the nervous system. I am interested in communicating with people who claim to see the world this way. I enjoy exploring people’s experience, their values and perceptions.
In contrast to those who believe only in a material universe, there are those who attribute everything to the action and will of a God, attributing all good fortune and every event of life to the planning and supervision of a Deity apart from ourselves.
Then there are those, who deny both these positions, and who are wedded to the idea that we create our own reality, or that we are all creating this dream of life together.
Let’s see if we can find some common ground between these different approaches and understandings.
There is a traditional Polynesian practice of forgiveness and reconciliation called: ho’o-pono-pono. Hew Len, a psychiatrist in Hawaii began to practice this ancient art of forgiveness and gratitude that releases negativity and heals relationships.
The basic practice is to observe when we negatively judge others, when we are repulsed, or even when we enter into a state of fear of another. At that moment we take responsibility for our negative state, and internally say four things: I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Dr Len practiced this consistently in a prison for the mentally insane and miraculous results followed. Even without engaging in therapy, which was not his responsibility as an administrator, the state of both patients and staff changed dramatically. The staff became more positive and there was less turn-over of employees. The inmates began to be more positive and gradually more sane as well. The staff and the inmates began to enjoy field trips together, which had not previously been possible. How could this be possible? What could explain the change that came over the whole institution?
This raises the question of how are we connected to each other? Is reality determined by physical behaviors and cues alone or is there some relationship operating at a much subtler level?
Dr. Tiller at Stanford University has proven that people can be quickly bonded beyond space and time, that a unity, a relationship can be created that is beyond both outer behavioral cues and even beyond what we might call a vibrational connection, i.e. a connection through some kind of electromagnetic energetic relationship. Two people meeting for the first time and after undergoing a 15 minute period of eye contact, will show a synchronicity of brain waves even when physically isolated in an electromagnetically shielded chamber. A light flashed in the eyes of one is recorded simultaneously in the brain waves of the other. This cannot be explained by any conventional theory of modern physics and yet the result is clear: the consciousness of one human being becomes bonded with the consciousness of another without any electromagnetic transmission.
If human beings are interconnected energetically, or in some way we cannot explain, then the inevitable moral conclusion is that we must assume responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. In such a scenario gratitude becomes a basic operating system, a starting point that leads directly to the most positive outcome.
Gratitude leads to appreciation. Appreciation is perceiving the thing in itself and its intrinsic beauty. With appreciation there is less resistance to the actuality of what is; less energy wasted on resentment and negativity. Appreciation thus leads to greater acceptance and clarity of perception, and perception shapes reality.
Acceptance is a more harmonious state and in turn leads to more open communication and trust. Acceptance is not a passive indifference or the loss of distinctions. Acceptance is an openness to reality.
Finally gratitude is not only the key to personal inner well-being, but it directly contributes to the common good. With gratitude the quality of interpersonal relations improves; negative behaviors like self-pity, jealousy, envy, resentments, and backbiting are reduced.
A human being who makes gratitude a basic operating system is much less reactive and much less a victim of circumstances. When Gratitude is intentionally cultivated and lived we achieve a mastery of our inner being. The work of gratitude is the work of the soul, a transformation of who we are.
Every human being is a work in progress. When we fail to master our attitude toward events, when we take outer life as an end in itself, we are placing the emphasis on something out of our control.
When we focus exclusively on outer life by exercising power, control, or by complaining about what is out of our control, it is as if the whole world seems to snarl back at us.
But when we work on our inner state through gratitude, subtly, mysteriously, it seems as if the whole world begins to respond with synchronistic events. It is as if some invisible force is working to our benefit, easing our way, making the inevitable difficulties more bearable, perhaps even bringing peace and healing into the circumstances of our lives.
I have a friend, a Cherokee Indian, who was severely mistreated in an Indian residential school that tried to beat the Indian out of him. For years he suffered the most horrendous physical and mental abuse, but he told me he was grateful for it nevertheless. I was incredulous and asked why he could be grateful for such an experience. “It’s because it taught me that I can bear anything.”
Our outer lives present us with an opportunity to develop our character, our soul. If we look at our lives and what we value, I think all sincere people will conclude and admit that what is important and precious is what is invisible. At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, it will be inner values and experiences that matter: friendship, kindness, integrity, love. These inner states also have outer manifestations, to be sure, but it is the inner reality that is the core and substance of the outer behavior. To attain friendship is also to act like a friend. To attain integrity is to act with integrity when faced with temptations to do otherwise. Gratitude is foundational to happiness, contentment, kindness, generosity, and other inner qualities that enrich our lives.
Recently we visited a Mevlevi community in Turkey and participated in a conversation about service. A Mevlevi dergah is a place where a community of people regularly meet to do spiritual practice, to gain knowledge, to serve, and to enjoy the cultural activities that are part of the Sufi path. These are people who are committed to transforming their egoism, selfishness, and negativity through a rigorous process of self-observation and personal engagement. Nur Artiran, whom many people call Shaykha, the teacher of this community, shared some ideas that I had never expressed so clearly before and which touched me deeply. She said, “When we are here, we serve, and we do not expect any thanks for this. The opportunity to be able to serve others is itself a great gift. We are benefitting ourselves through this service so why would we wish to be thanked.” This is the attitude of a true spiritual warrior, a pure soul, a sincere and mature spirit. “If I ever had to punish someone in this community, all I could do is forbid them to serve. Instead they would have to let everyone else serve them.”
So, we can be grateful for the possibilities of service that life presents us with. The more we serve the better we feel, especially about ourselves. The mature character does not need, nor expect, to be thanked by others. The chance to serve, which is so good for ourselves, is itself a gift and is its own reward. Maturity is to serve without any expectation, and to be grateful to simply be.
(a talk given in December 2014 to the British Columbia Nurses Union)