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July 7, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all ones waking hours let one practice the Way with gratitude—Metta Sutta

Recently,  a friend of mine told me that she had recently begun a practice of remembering things that she was grateful for, before she went to sleep. I immediately tried to do that and noticed how good I felt. I noticed how it helped me to feel the intimate, but often unacknowledged, connection that I have with others, and with life. I experienced a deep sense of belonging, which is the condition of gratefulness.

During the past week or so, I have also noticed how my sense of gratefulness for things in my life has been transformed into a general attitude of gratefulness toward everything! Of course, I am impressed by someone’s expression of generosity toward me but I have become less taken by the details of its expression and more on what is being expressed. I see that to pick and choose one moment over another is to miss the point. Gratitude is before all picking and choosing. It is just an acceptance for everything that is, before the mind labels it “good” or “bad,” “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” As my grandmother used to tell me, everything is a blessing, but some things are harder to recognize as a blessing than others.

Each moment is a unique expression of possibility, with its own “causes and conditions,” that gives us an opportunity to practice that is rarely met with, even in a “hundred thousand million kalpas.” When I am aware of the preciousness of the present moment, the only thing I can do is to try to be open enough to experience what is being offered and to accept it wholeheartedly with nothing left over. It is neither deserved nor underserved. It just is. When we are awake to what is being offered, we are grateful,  and our gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.  When we feel totally alive, we feel grateful and when we feel grateful, we feel alive. How wonderful!

Thomas Merton said, “To be grateful is to recognize [Love] in everything. Every breath we draw is a gift, every moment of existence is a grace. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder. For the grateful person knows that Life is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” This last sentence goes to the heart of why we need to have some sort of spiritual practice. The deepest truths of any teaching mean nothing until we experience them in ourselves.

Remember how you felt the last time you took an evening walk under a new-moon sky when all you could see were stars? Remember the awe and wonder that you felt? Remember how the distances felt so vast, and the time so endless that your mind became quiet? If you’re like me, you noticed that you couldn’t come up with any words to describe what you were feeling—if you were with a friend all you could do was point. You were in front of the limitlessness and vastness of everything. You felt small and you felt large. You felt old beyond years and as innocent as a child. You were alive! And I suspect that a feeling of gratefulness filled your thoughts, your feelings and your body. You felt free of the usual boundaries of your life as you lost all sense of separation. There was nothing but gratefulness.

Is there a way to experience our lives in this way in the midst of the chaos of our day-to-day lives? We don’t have enough time to wait for external conditions to align themselves in just the right way before we can experience our lives in this way. Instead, we need to work on aligning our internal conditions, right now, right here. I think that is why we come to a difficult practice such as Zen. 

Once we experience our life as a gift freely given, our practice becomes a grateful response. In the Metta Sutta, we are told: Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all ones waking hours let one practice the Way with gratitude.  Following these instructions, Dogen said, “Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude fo being alive.”

Perhaps a first step (and a last step) would be to try to make everything that we do into an expression of gratitude. As Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Another beautifully crafted post with such an important message. Keep at it.

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