In these November days, we are hearing a cornucopia of encouragement to be thankful. Even as the marketplace rushes us from trick or treating to tinsel and wrapping, the wisest among us will stop for a moment to be thankful for all that we have in life. Somehow the gray November horizon and the crunch of leaves underfoot inspire me to be mindful of the countless gifts I’ve received in my life. I have enough to eat. My persistent flaws aren’t often embarrassingly visible. I have enough documentaries on my smart TV to fill two lifetimes. My tween children mostly like me. What did I do to earn or deserve this embarrassment of riches? Precious little, if I’m honest.
Here at Copper Beech Institute where we practice mindfulness and gratitude throughout the year, we want to celebrate this annual American cultivation of gratitude even if it ends with a tryptophan-induced coma and a Thanksgiving day food-baby. I’m a big fan of gratitude and with all the research lately, it’s hard to argue with being thankful. After all, gratitude is a part of nearly every spiritual tradition and research suggests that practicing gratitude can foster better immune function, reduce stress and lead to greater levels of happiness. We’re learning that sometimes happiness is the source of your gratitude and sometimes your gratitude is the source of your happiness. So let’s be thankful, and let’s also take a moment to explore the very purpose of gratitude.
As a mindfulness teacher, I am very thankful for all the November encouragement to be thankful. In these days, social media will hypnotize us with images of fuzzy kittens sharing messages of gratitude and impossibly toned women in expensive yoga gear thanking the sunset with outstretched arms. Still, I’m also reminded by the poet Goethe that “there is a strong shadow where there is much light.” Even gratitude can have a dark side.
Sometimes I wonder if gratitude can become a pretty mask for narcissistic consumerism – a permission slip to attain more. It can lead us to become tone deaf to the needs of others and reinforce our own craving for what we think will bring happiness but ultimately can never satisfy the deepest longing of the heart. Gratitude can quickly become an elite privilege when it neatly reinforces our sense of entitlement. I struggle with the reality that I’m thankful for all that I have even when I have ridiculously more than I need. It’s a fantastic irony that the day after we celebrate being thankful for what we do have, we celebrate shopping for what we don’t have. In our culture, there is a well-worn path in which gratitude seems to flow effortlessly into greed. While we are busy feeling grateful and #blessed, there is untold need in our world, in our neighborhoods and in our own families. Can we cultivate thankfulness in a way that doesn’t reduce gratitude to a self-help gimmick akin to fad diets and beach-body workouts?
Gratitude as it is practiced by the great spiritual traditions is no insulation from the world but a platform from which to be a light with and for the world. In the end, true gratitude reveals connection. The art of being thankful connects us to those who have given us gifts while inspiring us to be gift-givers in the world. The truth is that our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others are connected. Everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else. So I’m all for “following your bliss” as long as the bliss is actually “our bliss” — one that includes a vision for the way we can all thrive as a human family.
The purpose of any spiritual practice is to foster the opening of the heart in service to all people, especially to those who are most vulnerable. As I practice gratitude more intentionally this month, I seek to discover how my gratitude might help me to be more connected to Syrian refugees or to listen to the grief of Parisian families or to turn toward the suffering of those I encounter on a daily basis. I commit to exploring how gratitude might even help me to be conscious of my own suffering so that I do not pass more suffering along to others. As so many sages have taught us, suffering that is not transformed within us is eventually transferred to those around us.
Gratitude reminds us that we belong to each other. This reality of connectedness, monetized by Facebook and easily forgotten by armchair quarterbacks, is at the heart of giving thanks. When thankfulness flows into compassion and compassion blossoms into action, then the true power of gratitude is realized. So whether we are thankful for the cat, a football team, or the love of family and friends, may our gratitude remind us that we are all in this together.
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