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Giving Thanks For All the Little and Big Things in Life

Grow

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Would it surprise you to learn that you can begin changing your life right now, right where you are? As easily as turning on a light switch? It would? Good! You just started.

This article appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Have you ever noticed how your eyes open a bit wider when you are surprised? It is as if you had been asleep, merely daydreaming or sleepwalking through some routine activity, and you hear your favorite tune on the radio, or look up from the puddles on the parking lot and see a rainbow, or the telephone rings and it's the voice of an old friend, and all of a sudden you're awake. Even an unwelcome surprise shakes us out of complacency and makes us come alive. We may not like it at first, but looking back, we can always recognize it as a gift. Humdrum equals deadness; surprise equals life. In fact, my favorite name for the One I worship in wonder -- the only name that does not limit God -- is Surprise.

Right this moment, as I remember spiritual giants I have been privileged to meet -- Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama -- I can still feel the life energy they radiated. But how did they come by this vitality? There is no lack of surprises in this world, but such radiant aliveness is rare. What I observed was that these people were all profoundly grateful, and then I understood the secret.

A surprise does not make us automatically alive. Aliveness is a matter of give-and-take, of response. If we allow surprise to merely baffle us, it will stun us and stunt our growth. Instead, every surprise is a challenge to trust in life and so to grow. Surprise is a seed. Gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise. The great ones in the realm of Spirit are so intensely alive because they are so deeply grateful.

Gratefulness can be improved by practice. But where shall beginners begin? The obvious starting point is surprise. You will find that you can grow the seeds of gratefulness just by making room. If surprise happens when something unexpected shows up, let's not expect anything at all. Let's follow Alice Walker's advice: "Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise."

To expect nothing may mean not taking for granted that your car will start when you turn the key. Try this and you will be surprised by a marvel of technology worthy of sincere gratitude. Or you may not be thrilled by your job, but if for a moment you can stop taking it for granted, you will taste the surprise of having a job at all, while millions are unemployed. If this makes you feel a flicker of gratefulness, you'll be a little more joyful all day, a little more alive.

Once we stop taking things for granted, our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all. It never ceases to amaze me that my body both produces and destroys 15 million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That's nearly twice the census figure for New York City. I am told that the blood vessels in my body, if lined up end to end, would reach around the world. Yet my heart needs only one minute to pump my blood through this filigree network and back again. It has been doing so, minute by minute, day by day, for the past 75 years and still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every 24 hours. Obviously, this is a matter of life and death for me, yet I have no idea how it works and it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my ignorance.

I do not know how my eyes adapt, yet when I chant by candlelight they are 100,000 times more sensitive to light than when I read outdoors on the porch at noon. I wouldn't know how to give instructions to the 35 million digestive glands in my stomach for digesting one single strawberry; fortunately, they know how to do their job without my advice. When I think of this, as I sit down to eat, my heart brims with gratefulness.In those moments, I can identify with the Psalmist who cried out in amazement, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." (Ps.139:14) From there it is only a small step to seeing the whole universe and every smallest part of it as surprising. From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to these transcendent heights. Thomas Carlyle pointed to these peaks of spiritual awareness when he wrote, "Worship is transcendent wonder" -- transcendent surprise.

If you've ever eaten a strawberry from the field, you'll be grateful not only for the taste of this delicious fruit, but also for the backbreaking work it takes to bring a quart of berries to your table. And let's not forget the miracle that takes place in our bodies as we turn what we eat into energy that sustains us.

www.gratefulness.org: An Expanding Web of Gratitude

Brother David seems surprised and almost embarrassed by the success of his website. “l like to garden with a spade and a watering can,” he says. "A website providing online support for offline grateful living reminds me of gardening with a rototiller and other heavy-duty equipment." But what matters is not the level of technology, nor the style of gardening, but the goal: a happy, healthy garden.

"The steps to this goal are simple," he says." Surprise is the seed of gratefulness; gratefulness can be improved by practice; practice of gratefulness can improve your health; health that springs from gratefulness is contagious. Thus, seeds of surprise grow into gratefulness and yield a rich harvest: healthy people in a healthy society."

To help turn these words into healthy actions, here's a sample of the practices and support you can find at www.gratefulness.org.

Offline Practice

Surprise is the seed of gratefulness. Become aware of surprises. Relish surprises as life's gifts.

Learn to find the gift within every gift: opportunity — mostly the opportunity to enjoy, always the opportunity to learn.

Practice availing yourself of opportunities. Do everything gratefully. Do something simply to celebrate gratefulness.

Share your experience with others. Share joys and double them. Share pain and cut it in half.

Enjoy the energy boost grateful living gives you. Dare to tackle new projects. Taste the joy of turning feeling good into doing good.

Online Support

Play and discover the surprises that come with activating your senses of hearing, smell, touch, and sight with childlike freshness, www.gratefulness.org/play/senses.html

Learn gratefulness from distinguished teachers of various traditions through essays, books, film reviews, etc. www.gratefulness.org/learn/essays/

Practice gratefulness in all you do. Use the inspiration of Daily Word. Set aside a moment for lighting a candle of gratitude, www.gratefulness.org/practice/candles.html

Share your own experience by telling your story, reading the stories of others, or asking teachers of various traditions a question, www.gratefulness.org/share/qbox.html Reach out to find support for your own projects or join existing efforts to let gratefulness transform individual lives and the way humans work together. www.gratefulness.org/reachout/actsq.html


Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., is the author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and A Listening Heart. A senior member of the Benedictine monastery Mount Saviour, he is a leader in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, a popular speaker, and a columnist for Beliefnet.com.


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