Living in the Spirit of Gratitude

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Writing this last Still Water announcement of the year, I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful to everyone who supports our announcements, including those who write and facilitate on Thursday evenings, our editors (Jane and Connie), our regular and occasional participants, our donors, and all those who read the announcements and send us good wishes.

I am grateful especially to my wife Ann-Mari who graciously supports me in this endeavor and in a multitude of other ways.

Gratitude did not come easily to me. I don’t remember that it was ever talked about while I was growing up: not at home, at school, among friends, at our temple, or in the media. Rather than learning to appreciate what I received, I was taught how to please others. If I succeeded in getting their approval, then I was safe and happy — for the moment.

What a soul-sucking way to live. Pleasing others is never enough. Like a meal of empty calories, it is never truly satisfying. It is never enough because when we are taught to prioritize what others want rather than to understand ourselves more deeply, and move in the direction of our aspirations, we will have no confidence, no contentment, and no freedom.

Over the course of my life I have been fortunate to meet some remarkable people who seemed to discern my difficulties and cared enough to help me grow. I learned from them that it is possible to live with integrity, that I could find joy and satisfaction in the experiences and challenges of everyday life, and that gratitude is a soul-nourishing orientation to life.

I would like to tell you about two people who helped me in my early twenties. The first was Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning. I met him in Vienna when I was studying German and other subjects during a junior-year program. Two other American students and I managed to enroll in his psychotherapy course for medical students, even though our German was far from fluent. He quickly figured out that we were not comprehending his lectures and offered to meet with the three of us for two hours each week to go over the material in English. Although I’m sure I benefited from his lectures and books, and from watching him talk with patients in front of the medical students, what most impresses me now is how he modeled generosity by freely giving us hours of his time.

The second was Alan Hunter, a retired Congregational minister and the author of Courage in Both Hands and other books on pacifism. In 1966 I was back at Pomona College for my senior year. As I learned about the War in Vietnam, it didn’t seem right to me that the United States was destroying that small country. I joined a weekly noon Peace Meditation at the college and met Alan there. Throughout my senior year,  from time to time I went to his house for tea. Our conversations were honest and open in a way I had never known with a person anywhere near his age. For example, he talked once about how his love for his wife, who was then in a nursing home, was evolving from eros, romantic love, to agape, selfless love. I learned he had been an activist missionary in China during the 1920s and had worked with labor organizers during the 1930s. During World War II he was a pacifist, as were members of the church he pastored in Hollywood, California. One action that particularly touched me is that his church befriended the Japanese-Americans who lived nearby. When they were forcibly relocated to internment camps, church members bought their houses, stored their furniture, rented out the houses, and gave the proceeds to the families. At the end of war, they sold the houses back to the families for the price they had paid. They also visited them in the camps and advocated for them. Alan taught me what it meant to have moral principles and to stand by them. I am grateful to have known him.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), another exemplar of generosity, authenticity, and compassion, addresses the connection between gratitude and happiness in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries

In Vietnam there’s a school of Buddhism called the Four Gratitudes. Just by practicing gratitude, we can find happiness. We must be grateful to our ancestors, our parents, our teachers, our friends, the Earth, the sky, the trees, the grass, the animals, the soil, the stones. Looking at the sunlight or at the forest, we feel gratitude. Looking at our breakfast, we feel gratitude. When we live in the spirit of gratitude, there will be much happiness in our lives. The one who is grateful is the one who has much happiness, while the one who is ungrateful will not be able to have happiness.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will have an opportunity to share what we are grateful for, who taught us to be grateful, and explore together the link between happiness and gratitude.

You are invited to join us.

An excerpt by Thay on gratitude and enlightenment is below.

Sending warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Moment of Gratitude, Moment of Enlightenment
From Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

There are moments when we feel very grateful for the other person in our life. We deeply appreciate his or her presence. We are full of compassion, gratitude, and love. We have experienced moments like this in our life.We feel so grateful that the other person is still alive, that she is still with us, and has stood by our side during very difficult times. I would suggest that if such a moment happens again, take advantage of it.

To truly profit from this time, withdraw to a place where you can be alone with yourself. Don’t just go to the other person and say, “I’m grateful you are there.” That is not enough.

You can do this later. Right at that moment, it is better to withdraw into your room or to a quiet place, and immerse yourself in that feeling of gratitude. Then write down your feelings, your gratitude, your happiness. In half a page or one page, do your best to express yourself in writing, or record yourself on tape.

This moment of gratitude is a moment of enlightenment, of mindfulness, of intelligence. It is a manifestation from the depths of your consciousness. You have this understanding and insight in you. But when you get angry, your gratitude and love do not seem to be there at all. You feel as if they have never existed, so you have to write them down on a sheet of paper and keep it safely. From time to time, take it out and read it again.

The Heart Sutra, a scripture that is chanted daily by many Buddhists, is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings on wisdom.What you have written is a Heart Sutra because it comes from your heart—not from the heart of a Bodhisattva or the Buddha, but from your own heart. It is your Heart Sutra.