I have been having some email discussions this week with my old friend and teacher Brother David Steindl-Rast about his favorite subject, gratitude. David has been thinking about gratitude for many years. The title of his most famous book is Gratitude, the Heart of Prayer, and now, in his seventies, he is getting very excited about the internet and is hard at work on an ambitious web site, called, I think, Gratitude. And if you are fortunate enough to meet Brother David you will feel his gratitude. When you meet him you will feel that he feels grateful to meet you, even though it might be hard to understand why. He just seems genuinely grateful for the world and all that is in it. He is a person with a viewpoint, very politically involved, and he has his likes and dislikes. But he never seems to complain, and gratitude is never far away from his thoughts and feelings. He appreciates the world.

He sent me an article he wrote about gratitude. In it he writes, “Do you remember a time when you went outside at night and looked up at the stars, seeing them as if for the first time?” He quotes Eugene O’Neil:

[quote text=”For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life.. -to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. For a second you see the secret – and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!”]

Brother David sees this sudden and immediate sense of belonging that you sometimes can feel, and that I think is fostered by our practice, as being the condition of gratitude. When we see ourselves as separate atomized individuals in a world full of other separate atomized individuals, we don’t feel grateful. Quite the contrary, we are complaining all the time because there is plenty to complain about. We have so many things we want and need, and whatever we actually get is never enough. No amount of love or possessions or gratification could ever fill the gap between us and the world. So we’re looking for something, thirsting for something, always dissatisfied. In Buddhism they call this trishna, thirst.  Like hungry ghosts we are thirsting endlessly for something that we never can get. We are deeply restless and dissatisfied.

But when we feel suddenly a rush of belonging like the one O’Neil describes- something that comes really for no reason, something that we haven’t earned or created for ourselves, but it just arrives, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, perhaps when we are not expecting it at all, we naturally feel a profound existential gratitude. Brother David says,

Why do I call that wild joy of belonging ‘gratefulness’? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether undeserved, utterly gratuitous – life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

I think most of the time most of us feel as if we are looking for something.  We go through our days and weeks more or less happy or unhappy, but mostly not really attending to our condition. When we do take the time to attend to what we are feeling in the depths of our heart I think we are rarely feeling contentment. Mostly we are feeling a lack, something missing. Sometimes we don’t know what we think is missing, and sometimes we have an idea what it is. But I wonder if we ever actually know what it is.  We think we want something in our lives we don’t have, or want something out of our lives that we do have but don’t want, but really I don’t think that’s the source of our restlessness. Because we have all had the experience of getting that good relationship or that good job or the new house or degree, and still, after a while, we feel again the empty space inside.

The other day I spoke to an old friend who has had a recurrence after many years of cancer. I think she is in a rather dire situation but she seemed surprisingly cheerful and upbeat to me- even though she had just had major surgery, and had, a few months ago, just lost her sister to exactly the same cancer she now has. She said to me, “I don’t spend too much time on ‘why me?’ or on thinking about all the terrible things that might and probably will happen. I am just trying to stay with every day as I find it and to do what I can.” She reminded me of a talk Issan Dorsey gave at Zen Center many years ago, in which he told people he had AIDS (Issan was a Zen center priest, a very outrageous fellow who had been for years a drug addict and famous female impersonator. He founded the Hartford Street Zen Center and Hospice. He died of AIDS in 1990). She said that Issan said, I don’t say, why me? I say, why not me?

As far as I remember, Issan, like my friend, accepted his condition with a grace and cheer that was truly remarkable. Rather than complaining about what he had that he didn’t want, he took pleasure in his condition, he enjoyed his health and his illness up until the day he died. Saying “why me” means we see ourselves as separate beings among many beings. We want good things for ourselves and we want to avoid bad things. Saying “why not me” means that we know that we belong with everything and everyone, we aren’t separate. What can happen to any one of us can happen to me and I can accept it. It’s not a tragedy and it’s not a surprise. Gratitude is wide enough even to cover our own suffering.

People ask many times about suffering and spiritual practice. “How can we open ourselves to the suffering of the world?” they ask. “Doesn’t doing that make our lives sad and depressing? Don’t we need to be careful about compassion? Won’t we get burned out and discouraged if we open ourselves to all the world’s problems and difficulties?”

Well from the point of view of separation this is certainly so.  If we see the world as separate atomized individuals all of whom have needs to be fulfilled, then it is certainly true that we will be overwhelmed by all the unfulfilled needs of the world, and we will feel that it really isn’t a good idea to be concerned about the needs of others. It is much too difficult. Just seeing to our own needs is difficult enough.

But if on the other hand we see the world as a world of belonging, a world of connection, a world in which all things swim together as one, without edges and boundaries, like the stars in the nighttime sky, making one ineffable pattern, one continuous being, then I don’t think we are weighed down by suffering.

It is true that our hearts will be tender, and tears will come to our eyes when we see suffering. Recently I was in Northern Ireland with His Holiness Dalai Lama and we were listening to stories of victims of the troubles there – a woman who could no longer walk, a man who could no longer see, a murderer whose heart and spirit had been broken, probably for the rest of his life, by what he had done. And His Holiness cried to hear their stories. And yet, that same afternoon, only a short while later, he was laughing uproariously as he yanked on the beards of a Catholic priest and a Protestant Minister between whom he was standing for a photo opportunity. He was so overcome by hilarity, really it seemed as if he’d lost it! The picture of His Holiness cracking up as he held the white beards to either side of him was in all the European papers the next day.

So yes, when we feel and train in the fundamental reality of belonging we do sympathize deeply with suffering, but this is not something hard to bear. Because along with the sadness we feel a powerful gratitude for what is. We cry, but also we can see the beauty of what is, even in the midst of suffering. Where there is this true sense of what the world actually is, a vision we have of belonging, a felt sense of it, there is always mixed in with the sadness of suffering a wide calm feeling. And there can even be joy as well, perhaps the purest sort of joy, as we recognize the preciousness of life, and its utter gratuity: life is present in us and all around us. Why? Did we earn it? Did anyone earn it? Even when life is difficult it is still life, it is still connection, and where there is life, where there is consciousness, there is gratefulness.

All my life I have been contemplating a question of Heidegger’s that has always struck me as strangely profound: Why is there something, why not rather nothing?

Have you ever thought about that? We take our life, we take life, we take existence, for granted. We take it as a given, and then we complain that it isn’t working out as we wanted it to. But why should we be here in the first place? Why should we exist at all? Why should anything exist at all? Really there’s no reason for it. Why not nothing rather than something? Nothing would be simpler.

Our world began about 15 billion years ago

Our world began about 15 billion years ago, cosmologists tell us. At that time there was no time, no space, no matter, no life. No one can say what there was.  To say there was nothing isn’t even right. No can can say and no one can know – it seems to be beyond the scope of consciousness to know what was before there was anything like was or is or will be. It is only in the next instant after that that we can say anything. A tenth of a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second later (that’s 10 to the minus 43rd power) the heat of the big bang, whatever that actually means, cooled off to 100 million trillion trillion degrees, cool enough so that something that hadn’t been before – the force of gravity – could appear.

It seems to me that gratitude then isn’t so much an emotion or a feeling as an actual fact, maybe even the primary fact, of our being at all. If we are, in other words, we belong, radically belong, are possessed by, embraced by, all that is, and gratitude is literally what we are when we are most attuned to what we are, when we plunge deeply into our nature, and stop complaining.

After that not much happened for 10 to the minus 34th power seconds- in other words, a tiny tiny fraction of a second passed uneventfully, allowing the universe to cool down even more, enough so that matter in the form of electrons and quarks appeared. There was also an equal amount of antimatter and the development of more forces, like the strong force, the weak force, and electromagnetic force. In the ensuring teeny tiny fractions of a second many more things took place: the first second of time after the initial bang or whatever it was was probably the most eventful instant in the history of the universe. Matter and antimatter evolved several more kinds of particles, and then something unexpected took place. No one seems to know how or why.

Where there had been a perfect equilibrium between anti matter and matter, so that there was, in a sense, no existence but only perfect statis, there was all of a sudden an imbalance. This imbalance, though very very slight, caused the matter and antimatter to fall out of their perfect balance and to necessarily collide. The collision produced light. This is before the existence of any stars, any suns.  Some sort of primordial cosmic glow. Let there be light.

The collision destroyed almost all of the antimatter, leaving mostly matter.  About a minute after that, neutrons and protons began coalescing together to form heavier nuclei such as helium, lithium, and hydrogen. The temperature cooled down to about a billion degrees.

About 300,000 years later, with the temperature now at only about 3,000 degrees, atoms were created.

After a billion more years these atoms formed large clouds that gradually swirled into galaxies.

After another two billion years matter coalesced further into stars, which threw off planets to create their own solar systems.

Three billion years later, circling an average star, an ordinary planet we call the earth was born.

It would appear that none of that had to happen. Certainly you and I had nothing to do with it, and our recent appearance in this universe, although connected absolutely to all of it, the necessary causal fruition of it all, is literally gratuitous. It seems to me that gratitude then isn’t so much an emotion or a feeling as an actual fact, maybe even the primary fact, of our being at all. If we are, in other words, we belong, radically belong, are possessed by, embraced by, all that is, and gratitude is literally what we are when we are most attuned to what we are, when we plunge deeply into our nature, and stop complaining.

But of course just as our gratitude is a natural fact, so is our complaining also natural. I am sure that as long as there have been human beings there has been complaining. It must be that that small imbalance between matter and antimatter that I mentioned a moment ago is the source of the complaining. Existence itself is a result of imbalance. That things exist at all means that something is off kilter. So existence has this job- to recognize its being off kilter, to complain about it, and then to return to, to restore, the balance, even though it never is actually restored.  Existence strives for balance and never achieves it, but it has to strive for it. So we do that too; we are unhappy and we complain. That’s natural and necessary. But we can’t just complain. Our complaining has to lead us to gratitude, otherwise our imbalance becomes something destructive.

The Cabalist Isaac Luria had a very effective metaphor for this. He said that in the beginning of the creation of the world some mistake was made. God had been pouring the divine spirit into vessels but one of the vessels cracked and the light fell down into what became the world. It was the purpose of spiritual practice, Luria said, to find the light and return it to its source, so as to return wholeness to the world.

So in our practice we need to work to cultivate this sense of gratitude, that comes from our feeling of belonging. Although as I said gratitude just comes to us without our creating it, still, we need to cultivate it, we need to open ourselves up to be able to receive it as a gift.

Cultivating gratitude

Most religious practice has to do with cultivating gratitude. When we do zazen, as Dogen tells us, we are not examining ourselves or trying to make personal improvements. We are sitting within Buddha’s heart, releasing ourselves to that aspect of ourselves that deeply belongs to the universe and is grateful for it. When we bow and make offerings and chant sutras and dedicate them we are expressing our gratitude that there is something and not nothing, and that we have a way of entering that something which is also nothing in the fact of our existence. There are also many other practices, from recitation and visualization, to tonglen practice, where we breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out relief for that suffering, actually taking in others suffering with gratitude and offering peace and healing.  And we can invent other practices that we can do all day long to recall gratitude and let go of complaining. To practice this way is not to make an effort to make ourselves stupid, forgetting all the horrors of this world, or pretending that everything is fine when it is not. No, to be grateful for and with what is, doesn’t deny difficulties; rather it embraces them and accepts them as a necessary step in the healing of them.

I myself try to cultivate the open space of gratitude every day.  And when I feel it – grateful for my own body, grateful for the clouds and sky, grateful for my family and my teachers and for the teaching of Buddha – I know that my spiritual health is in order. When I don’t feel it, I understand that I am off, and I try to right myself.

Gratitude is something very profound. It takes us to the edge of time and space and beyond. To be grateful for life as it truly is is also to be grateful for death as it truly is – not to underestimate life, not to underestimate death. Our complaining mind divides the mystery of life and death into two parts, one called life, and one called death. But in the light of gratitude, we know that things really aren’t like that.

In Buddhist funeral services we always say, in true reality there is no coming no going no increase no decrease no birth and no death. This is a deep expression of our gratitude for existence as it is, our knowing that life in order to be life is always full of death, and death, in order to be death, is always full of life.

Because of this understanding we don’t see impermanence as a threat or a tragedy. We don’t see aging and dying as necessary evils we brace ourselves to endure, but rather as fruitions we try to enter with calmness and appreciation.  I find it interesting that although we more or less see death as a personal defeat, and do all we can to deny and avoid it, the great religious founders of the world have always seen death as a sublime victory. Jesus’s death is his most perfect act, containing within it his eternal life and redemption; Buddha’s death is his Parinirvana, not a sad loss but a joyful culmination. Through our practice of gratitude we can imitate our teachers and go forward with our lives, come what may, whether it is suffering or joy, arriving or leaving, in the spirit of gratitude. And we do this not only for ourselves alone – which makes no sense at all anyway – but for and with everyone.

— from a talk on gratitude given at Green Gulch, November 2000