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Gratitude: Maturing in the Ocean of Experience


Most people are familiar with Meister Eckhart’s, 13th and 14th century philosopher, theologian and one of the great Christian mystics, statement on thankfulness… so simple, yet not always easy to really live. “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Think about this for a minute… how many of us and how often do we think of “thank you” as a prayer? And an even bigger question for me is, “Is this true? IS it enough?”

Does saying “thank you” constitute a spiritual practice unto itself? Perhaps. Some days I’m not so sure. These days it can be difficult for people to know gratitude, feel appreciation or even some measure of jolly – as Christmas is right around the corner. When I look at the spiritual masters throughout the ages it is certainly a quintessential practice for a life of meaning, peace, compassion and love. It would seem that gratitude is the Swiss army knife of spiritual tools. It can be used in any situation… problem, victory, solution.

When I look at the spiritual masters throughout the ages gratitude is a quintessential practice. It would seem that gratitude is the Swiss army knife of spiritual tools.

What’s important to remember though, is that, for these masters, it was a LIFELONG practice, always evolving, always moving them deeper and deeper into their own interior world, ultimately discovering the places within themselves that needed healing. Which is why it’s a fundamental, necessary spiritual practice, yet not the easiest thing to be disciplined about.

All around the world
The writers of the Gospels show Jesus giving thanks before many of his activities, whether it’s the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, or the Last Supper. In both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the writer conveys Jesus giving thanks before multiplying the loaves and fishes, and he often gave thanks when he was alone in prayer.

Yet Jesus giving thanks is not a new thing. The practice of gratitude is a part of almost every world religion, faith tradition and life philosophy. The Islamic faith focuses prayers 5 times a day, in part, giving thanks. One of the five pillars of Islam is the observance of Ramadan, a month-long holiday of fasting and turning one’s attention to those with greater needs than our own, putting the believer into a state of gratitude.

The Hebrew Bible is full of thanksgiving and prayers of gratefulness. The Psalmists use the word for thanks more than 50 times, and the Christian Bible has more references than that. The apostle Paul, in his letters, wrote “thanks” over and over urging us to be grateful IN all things, yet not necessarily FOR all things. In the Buddhist tradition gratitude leads to metta, lovingkindness, it melts the barriers we build between each other. I like that – melting barriers – we certainly could use a whole heck of a lot more melting, or the “global warming of hearts” as my friend Eyyup says.

It’s a good practice to get into. The next time you find yourself in a position to mutter ‘thanks’, pause, look the person in the eye, and say it slowly, with conviction. Thank. You.

The Hindus say giving thanks is a life-giving soul quality. In the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, we learn that giving thanks is an exercise of our free will. I REALLY like that. WE get to choose to give thanks for not. The faculty of WILL is the Chooser within us each. Yet how often do we say “thanks” almost mindlessly, not necessarily CHOOSING it with our whole being? And not that we aren’t meaning what we are saying, but how intentional is it? Did you stop and actually look the person in the eye? Was the energy behind those two words “thank you” saying, “No – really – THANK YOU!

Trust the darkness
When things work out well, it’s seems to be natural to express relief, joy and appreciation. But what if things don’t work out? Or “working out” is an experience that is a whole lot less comfortable than we would have liked? Can we still be grateful (and I don’t mean rose-colored glasses, or convincing ourselves there is a pony-under-there kind of gratitude)?

And what about all those times we hear someone say “Thank you God?” What if you don’t believe in God, or if you believe, like I do, that God is principle, not an entity or being, and thinking in terms of oneness, where do we aim our thanks? What are we grateful for and who are we grateful to? And in case all these questions seem to complicate things even more, here’s my last question: Does gratitude need an object at all?

All over the world people are dying in wars. Children are training as soldiers, being torn from their families, and never being educated. Women are marginalized, beaten, and trafficked. LGBTQ communities, refugees, immigrants, and more, stand outside the doors of love and mercy, waiting for someone to say, “Welcome home, you belong here – always have, always will.” Massive shooting deaths, racism, the resource poor… I don’t need to say more, our world looks crazy at moments throughout my day.

People are underfed, overworked, underpaid, condemned to a life that will likely never change. Where is life in that? Is there thanks to be found in that? And what is there to be thankful for if life is so fleeting, transitory and fragile? If we can learn to trust darkness as a part of the pattern of life, then we can come to believe that the darkest moments we see in our family, community, nation or world, are the moments of something dis-eased closing down and dying off. But only until the light shines once again… and lest you forget, WE are responsible for that light.

Personally, my favorite practice of gratitude or gratefulness comes from a Hindu teaching: if you can’t say thank you, if you’re struggling to connect to gratitude, then speak this affirmation, “I am a spiritual being of light, maturing in the ocean of experience.” That’s a very nice way of saying, “I am immersed in an experience that totally sucks, and I am so frustrated, lost, sad or angry, that I can’t see anything to give thanks for! BUT this loathsome experience is growing me!”

If you’re struggling to connect to gratitude, then speak this affirmation, ‘I am a spiritual being of light, maturing in the ocean of experience.

Darkness signals a change in the growth of our lives. It is announcing a whole new world is emerging. I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you by whom – me, you, us – and I can tell you HOW in at least one way – the practice of gratitude. Darkness deserves our gratitude. We grow in the dark, and bloom in the light, my way of saying that all growth, all life, all well-being does not take place in the sunlight. Life most often begins in the dark. In this we come to understand that the practice of gratitude is at work in life even when we can’t see it, feel, taste it or touch it. It is our mechanism for sunlight.

Maturing in an ocean of experience
“I am a spiritual being of light, maturing in the ocean of experience.” Makes me smile every time. THIS I can work with. THIS practice can redirect me, bring me to a place of gratefulness, of knowing the GREAT FULLNESS OF LIFE. The truth is that all these pieces of life, the good and the unpleasant, are what Joan Chittister calls “alleluia points of life.”

The truth is that all these pieces of life, the good and the unpleasant, are ‘alleluia points of life.’

The root of the word “alleluia” is to praise, so these alleluia points of life are a practice of praising IN all things. When I come to realize that drudgery and pain in life can be fulfilling and have meaning, then there is nothing I can’t do, nothing is too much – this is living the alleluia life, this is the activity of giving thanks. Each of these moments give us the chance to live life over and over again, to do now what we couldn’t or wouldn’t do an hour ago, last week or last year. This is my maturing in the ocean experience.

Finally, while thanks does need to be expressed verbally, it does need to be lived. It’s much more than a feeling, it is an activity. How do we live gratitude? Best answer I know is to give. It’s a natural expression of gratitude, puts us in the flow of living those alleluia moments. And give whether you feel it or not – just do it. Don’t overthink it, don’t second guess yourself, just close your eyes and leap.

Find ways to contribute and always trust
Look for chances to add to any situation. Every moment becomes a gift and you are literally rewiring your brain when in every situation instead of asking “What can I take” – you’re constantly asking what you can give (and I don’t mean stuff or money). Instead of being a consumer, be a contributor. Soon you find that your actions begin to catalyze a rich network of ripples. And you tap into the joy of purpose. Activities such as adding good cheer, finding a way to be of service, loving more overtly, extending a smile or a compliment and tipping more, increases whatever life presents. Remember, PAUSE and say THANK. YOU. And mean it with your whole being.

Count on people to be generous, we are hard-wired to give. Amazing things happen when we shift from the habit of quid pro quo to trusting that people and life are naturally generous. It sparks something deep inside and you enter the flow of an alleluia life. Give whatever you can in life, and when you don’t know who will receive your contribution, choose to trust in the whole cycle. Things will move beyond the control of the personal ego, and every contribution becomes a profound act of trust. This trust generates a web of resilience – a generative life of compassion. This is why gratitude rarely needs an object.

Practice being a person of increase and thanksgiving. Our gratitude will lead us naturally to giving, we’re grateful so we give, and then we receive, and then we are grateful some more! What we will do for a life of meaning, peace, compassion and love will always be far more powerful than what we will do for money.

When we participate in the action version of giving thanks, we can skip the question of what or who we are grateful for or grateful to, we can simply be in thanks in all things, living the alleluia life. Then if the only prayer we ever say is thank you, it will indeed be enough.

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