“Every day we touch what is wrong, and as a result, we are becoming less and less healthy. That is why we have to learn to touch what is not wrong – inside us and around us… Peace is available. We only have to touch it… Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby… We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime… Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Many people seem to define themselves by what they see as wrong with the world. Social conversations are quite often an exchange of complaints, judgments and negativity. Yet, reality is that side by side, every moment, a choice exists to be experiencing gratitude for ever-present gifts or complaint about perceived lacks, and quite simply, the quality of our lives is in the choice we make. Unfortunately, we don’t really see this as a “choice” – our conditioning to complaint and negativity is so automatic. Mostly, we make no conscious choice at all.
Yes, sometimes at the forefront of our experience something wonderful may be occurring, and gratitude naturally flows forth. “Yes! Thank you!” And then there are the times when we have forced upon us great difficulty or pain. Usually, our lives move along hum-drum in a kind of neutral zone, some people tending toward a more optimistic nature and some toward more persistent pessimism. Then with a mind like some autonomous happiness meter, events around us swing our needle between happy and unhappy. We are not conscious that we have a choice in these circumstances. Life events run our mental well-being.
Buddhism teaches us it does not have to be this way. Buddhism teaches us that the human egoic mind compulsively divides the world into the three categories of the things we want, the things we don’t want, and the things we have no preference for one way or the other, neutral. Buddhism further teaches us to not assume things are as they initially appear and that there really is no “or” in this formula, for every moment is filled with the wonderful and the terrible and the neutral; it’s only a matter of what you focus upon and the conditioned value-system you bring to what is experienced. Buddhism teaches us to notice that happiness and unhappiness are choices that are usually made at an unconscious level, and calls to us to bring this choice-making up to the level of consciousness. It teaches us to be present to experience as much of the all of what is happening as we are able.
So – what do we want? We want to be happy and we don’t want to suffer, and if life is filled with the wonderful, the terrible and the neutral, and we experience these evaluations to a great extent by how we are conditioned, what happens if we train our minds to seek the wonderful and to look deeply into the neutral and even the terrible for hidden wonders and opportunities to grow in joy, wisdom, compassion and skillfulness? What happens if we train ourselves to find reasons for gratitude with whatever life presents us? Won’t there be more happiness and less unhappiness, more gratitude and less resentment?
Deeper still – and this is what Buddhism is opening us to – there will be discovered a peacefulness, a sense of equanimity, an ability to abide with what is – no matter what it is – with a faith and confidence in ourselves that we will be OK – and that this is not happenstance, but the fruit of our practice in mindful living. When we bring consciousness into our experience, into what is happening around us, to us and within us, and we learn to be masters of responding to the full potential of each moment rather than reacting to superficial elements that register our “happiness-unhappiness meter,” our lives most certainly become deeper and richer. We discover that we have choices no matter what is happening, and we discover that the choice for gratitude is a powerful tool for affecting the quality of our lives.
Gratitude for the bounties that life bestows is clearly an important element of living with depth and quality, and fortunately for most of us, in the balance, our lives have been bountiful. Certainly in the flow of human history, to be an American at the beginning of the 21st Century is an absolute bubble of security and plenty. There are no plagues or famines, no invaders sweeping across the borders pillaging and enslaving as they go. It’s pretty important to remember that these devastating circumstances have often been the general human condition throughout history and still are in some places on this planet. We are free of that, even if, right now, for some individuals, by American standards, life may be pretty difficult. On the whole, our lives are remarkably blessed.
We still are vulnerable to death, disease, family disintegration, job loss, financial crises, and for far too many, either transitory or implacable poverty, so, on the individual level, even though the society on the whole may be pretty comfortable, life can get very difficult. It is in these circumstances that the choice to see reasons for gratitude as your response to life can be, while not easy, very important.
There is a story of a man who lived on the Chinese northern frontier in the days of the Mongol Empire. One day his only horse ran away over the border. Everyone tried to console him, but while the man thanked the consoling people for their concern, he also said, “We must wait and see.” Then, one day the horse returned, bringing with it a Mongol pony, and everyone congratulated the man. The man again said, “Thank you but we must wait and see.” Soon thereafter, while trying to ride the Mongol pony, the man’s only son fell and broke his hip. Consolations came and the man again responded with hesitancy to commit to the meaning of the event. The story goes on that the Mongols invaded, all able young men were called to fight, and nine out of ten were slaughtered in the fight, but because of the hip injury the man’s son had not been conscripted and so was spared. Through it all the man maintained equanimity, and equanimity is peace, and peace of mind is the essence of that which is even deeper than happiness or unhappiness.
Another story has a man, this time in the south of China, walking through a forest when he is chased by a tiger. He flees, and finding himself trapped at the edge of a precipice over a killing drop, he notices a vine growing from the face of the cliff within his reach and outside the reach of the tiger. He clambers over the edge and holds on to the vine knowing that to fall is certain death. As Chinese symbolism would have it, two mice, one white, one black, pop out of a burrow and begin gnawing at the vine. The tiger is above him, falling to his death is below him. The man notices a berry growing within reach and eats it. His mind is filled with appreciation at how sweet the berry tastes. Rather than the reactive choice of terror, he consciously sought a small element of the moment that could bring delight. In this moment of certain death, he made a choice for gratitude. Both these stories point to what in the Biblical tradition could be called “the peace that surpasseth understanding.”
Do take time to notice the beautiful commonplace and make the choice to give thanks that there are no tigers or invading Mongols in your life, or if there are, hold to waiting and seeing while noticing that there are also berries just within reach, even if the berry is only learning that you have reserves of strength and peace deeper than you imagined. Remember: ”Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders … Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing.” That remembering is a choice for gratitude that heals our pain and lightens our heart.