Cultivating a Gratitude Practice
In all my years of following the Buddhist path, there has been only one teaching that made me cringe. Whenever I heard it, my reaction was, “Are you kidding me?!” Here’s the story: Buddha is approached by a monk, who asks for advice regarding desire. It is distracting him from his spiritual practice, not to mention his life. What should he do? Buddha’s response is to tell him that it is important to remember that seeing our desires fulfilled always leads to suffering. Once we get what we want, we’re afraid we’ll lose it—which, when you think about it, we always will in the end. Better to know that the less we pursue our desires, the less we’ll suffer. So far, so good.
The monk thanks him for his advice, then mentions that he will be heading out for the village of Sunaparanta. Buddha is taken aback. He asks the monk if he knows that the place is known for its “fierce roughness”—what will he do if they abuse and threaten him?
The monk responds, “Then I shall think these people are truly kind in that they did not give me a blow with a fist.”
But Buddha can’t leave this alone. What if they do punch you? The monk says, then he will think that they are truly kind because they didn’t hit him with a clod. Well, what if they hit him with a clod? He’ll be grateful that it wasn’t a stick. What if it was a stick? They were truly kind to not stab him. And if they did stab him? Well, at least they didn’t kill him. What if they did kill him?
The monk’s response is to tell Buddha that he knows that there are some monks who, “being humiliated by the body and by life, sought death.” He would consider himself lucky to find death without seeking it.
Are you kidding me?!
You can see why I shrugged the teaching off, figuring it must have been changed somehow as it was retold over and over throughout the centuries. I knew there was no way that I would be able to respond with gratitude to being punched, stabbed, or killed by what was essentially a pack of bullies.
But then a funny thing started to happen. Whenever a health crisis hit, I’d find myself thinking about that monk. Strep throat, mono, pneumonia, the flu—after an initial fear that I could be dying (hypochondria hit me hard after I turned 50), I found myself taking comfort in the monk’s story. By emulating his expression of impersonal gratitude for whatever is going right, I am able to ease away from my neurotic anticipation of escalating medical disasters, giving this body some room to heal. The teaching slows me down, reminds me that we all spend some of our days in the realm of bullies, and that the best possible thing I can do to be OK in a difficult situation is to listen to what the situation itself is telling me to do, without hiding under a cloak of fear. Sometimes this means going back to bed for a week. Once in a while it has meant heading for an emergency room. Mostly what the monk’s impersonal gratitude teaches is that, given time and care, healing happens, whether it is physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional, or all four. What we need is the monk’s willingness to notice where we are getting in our own way and, when we do, to stand down. Feeling gratitude for all the things, people, and places in our lives that support us during a crisis helps us to do just that.
When I was a seminary student, I had a teacher who taught us that gratitude practice could transform everything, from dissatisfaction to depression. For a year, we had the assignment of listing 10 things for which we were grateful every night, just before going to sleep. We slept better, shrugged off petty irritations more easily, and were quicker to apologize, say thank you, or tell someone we cared for them. This didn’t come from the gratitude alone, but the practice gave us a different lens to look through. And when we did, the world became magical.