How to Practice Gratitude When It Ain’t Easy
“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful,
but gratefulness that makes us happy.”
~Brother David Steindl-Rast
Last month, I had the honor of giving a dharma talk at Upaya Zen Center. The talk was scheduled the night before Thanksgiving so gratitude seemed like the perfect topic. I thought you might enjoy reading what I shared; if you’d like to listen to the talk itself, you can find it here in Upaya’s wonderful Dharma Podcast collection.
One morning a few weeks ago during a cold spell, I headed to the laundromat and decided to stop at a bakery along the way. My heart was set on a “cinnamon melt roll” (a speciality of the Sage Bakehouse, if you ever visit Santa Fe).
I could visualize how wonderful it would be to munch on it, accompanied by a piping hot cup of coffee. I was practically salivating as I imagined biting into that crispy, sweet bunch of dough.
As the fates would have it, when I got inside the bakery there was only cinnamon roll left.
I stood patiently in line as one person after another ordered. And still the roll was there. Finally, the woman in front of me placed her order. She got a cup of coffee, was just starting to choose a muffin, and then her eyes landed on the last cinnamon roll. She changed her mind and got it instead of the muffin. I could feel my grasping move into high gear… oh, the agony!
What does this have to do with gratitude? Not much, on the surface. I’ll get back to this story in a moment.
We usually think of gratitude around things like family, friends, good food to eat, warm homes to gather in, and the abundance of our natural world. All these things are most worthy of our gratitude. It’s so essential that we don’t take them for granted, that we practice thankfulness for all these gifts that we are so privileged to receive.
But that’s kind of like Gratitude 101.
I believe that gratitude shows its true power not so much when we are grateful for the good things in our life, but when we can practice it in the face of what is difficult and challenging.
In other words, when life turns us upside down, staying in an attitude of thankfulness is the key to unconditioned happiness and equanimity. But wow, how to do that?
So back to that cinnamon roll. There was that cinnamon roll that I lusted after and didn’t get… and there was the woman standing in front of me who got it. Instead of me.
In that very moment, I was aware of the sense of suffering rising up inside me, and I made a choice to park it. I made a conscious choice to practice gratitude even though I didn’t get what I wanted.
I said a silent ‘thank you’ to the woman who got the roll. At that moment, I wasn’t even sure why I should be thankful, only that it was a much better alternative than stewing about something I didn’t get that I didn’t need in the first place.
And indeed, within a moment I was able to shift from feeling resentful to feeling contentment with the muffin I ended up getting. I also had a genuine feeling of mudita, sympathetic joy, as I hoped that the woman who got “my” cinnamon roll was enjoying it as much as I envisioned enjoying it a few moments earlier. And that felt a whole lot better than being irritated about it.
That’s a fairly trivial example. Let me give you a more profound one.
This story comes from Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer, who was remembering a talk given by Issan Dorsey many years ago. Issan was a Zen priest who founded the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. In his earlier life, Issan had been a female impersonator and was quite an outrageous person, in the best sense of the word. He contracted the HIV virus and eventually died of AIDS in 1990.
For many of us, the first response to learning that we had a terminal illness might be to think, “Why me?” During this particular talk that Norman was relating, Issan spoke about his experience of having AIDS and said,
“I don’t say, why me? I say, why not me?”
These are Norman’s words about this:
As far as I remember, Issan accepted his condition with a grace and cheer that was truly remarkable. Rather than complaining about what he had that he didn’t want, he took pleasure in his condition, he enjoyed his health and his illness up until the day he died.
Saying “why me” means we see ourselves as separate beings among many beings. We want good things for ourselves and we want to avoid bad things.
Saying “why not me” means that we know that we belong with everything and everyone, we aren’t separate. What can happen to any one of us can happen to me and I can accept it. It’s not a tragedy and it’s not a surprise. Gratitude is wide enough even to cover our own suffering.
So perhaps one of the reasons why gratitude is so powerful in those difficult situations is that it anchors us in remembering our essential connection to each other rather than dwelling in the illusion of separateness that causes so much suffering.
I want to share with you these phrases from a Korean Buddhist text that have lived on my refrigerator for the past few years. Although the list never uses the word “gratitude,” it gives us an algorithm for how to transform a negative situation into a positive one…. and gratitude is a natural byproduct of this process.
Ten Guides Along the Path
1. Don’t hope for perfect health. Perfect health leads only to greater greed. “Treat illness as medicine, not disease”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
2. Don’t long for a life free from hardship–such a life leads only to haughtiness and self-pampering. “Make worries and hardships a way of life”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
3. Don’t hope for a lack of impediments in your study. “Release is hiding right behind obstructions”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
4. Don’t hope for a lack of temptations in your training. A lack of temptations will only serve to soften your resolve. “Treat temptations as friends who are helping you along the path”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
5. Don’t hope for easy success. Easy accomplishment leads only to increased rashness. “Accomplish through difficulties”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
6. Don’t hope to get your own way with friends. Having friends give in to your wishes only leads to arrogance. “Make long-term friends through compromise in your relationships”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
7. Don’t expect people to follow your wishes or commands. This, too, leads to arrogance. “Consider those who differ with you to be your character builders” —so spoke the Enlightened One.
8. Don’t expect rewards for your kindnesses. This leads only to a scheming mind. “Throw out expectation of rewards like you’d thrown out old shoes” —so spoke the Enlightened One.
9. Don’t expect more out of life than you deserve. Exaggerated profit-seeking leads only to foolishness. “Become rich at heart with small amounts” —so spoke the Enlightened One.
10. Don’t complain about vexations. This leads only to resentment and poison in the heart. “Consider vexations as the first door on the path”—so spoke the Enlightened One.
These phrases point us toward viewing obstacles as opportunities, challenges as gifts along our spiritual path.
When I look back on my own life, I can see how so many of the events that at the time were incredibly difficult for me led me to something much greater, either in some tangible outcome or simply by helping me to develop qualities such as compassion and forgiveness.
Relationships that fell apart, jobs that didn’t meet my expectations, physical illness, financial challenges — all of these were portals for my own spiritual growth once I saw them from that perspective.
So it seems to me that the key to practicing gratitude in the face of difficult situations is to ask ourselves:
- Can I be thankful for this experience?
- What opportunity does it open up for me?
- How does it remind me of my connection with others?
Gratitude actually is a practice. We need to make an effort to cultivate it, though this can be a joyful effort. We can use phrases, for example, that will trigger a feeling of gratitude. Even if we can’t rationally figure out why we should be thankful for something, we can practice saying “Thank you” and see what that does to our minds. Another phrase you might try is simply saying “Yes” to whatever conditions you encounter — pleasurable, painful, or neutral.
Zen happens to be a wonderful practice for reinforcing gratitude, because so many of the forms provide us with embodied reminders of gratefulness. All the bowing that we do in the zendo, for example, is a way of deeply acknowledging what is right in front of us and expressing thanks for it, whether that is the Buddha, our sangha friends, our teacher, or our meditation cushion.
Consider this radical proposition: the appropriate response to everything is gratitude.
Think back on a difficult, challenging time or experience in your life. As you look at it now, can you see what gifts that might have brought to you? Can you be thankful for the experience, now in retrospect?