Who is the ‘I’ that experiences gratefulness? Are we all impersonal drops in the one vast Divine Ocean or, in some way, unique facets of the one Spirit of Joy? I find this difficult to comprehend without creating dualism. Perhaps this cannot be explained, only experienced. — Ian, Calgary, Canada

Your question, Ian, goes deep. In fact it penetrates to the very core of philosophy, to the age-old challenge, “know thyself!” What makes your question so engaging is that it springs straight from experience. As you experience gratefulness you are alert to a seeming contradiction which most people fail to notice: in our peak moments of gratefulness we experience limitless wholeness — we are one with our true self, with all other beings, and with the ultimate Ground of Being ; and yet, this very experience of all-oneness contains already some sort of other-directedness, some sort of tiny seed that will unfold into thanksgiving. Here lies the contradiction. Isn’t thanks always given to an other? Yet, what other can there be, if all is one?

The contradiction which you noticed is subtle. You are right when you say: “This cannot be explained, only experienced.” To explain means literally to flatten something out, to reduce it to a level plane, as when you reduce the hills and valleys of a landscape to a map. On the two-dimensional level of logical explanation the two aspects of gratefulness must necessarily seem to contradict eachother. Experience goes beyond logic, however. Logic is a valuable tool, but life has more dimensions than logic.

You experienced both oneness and duality at the very core of your gratefulness; at that moment you were in touch with Mystery. This seeming contradiction within the mysterious Ground of Being is acknowledged and overcome by the Christian notion of God as Trinity.

Does it seem far-fetched that we should arrive at so subtle a theological notion by drawing out the lines of our personal experience? Not at all. How, do you think, theologians arrived at speaking of God as tri-une, in the first place? By paying close attention to their own deepest experience, as you did, Ian. There they experienced themselves both over against the all-transcending divine Mystery, and yet one with it. (“I and the Father are one.” Jn. 10:30) They experienced that their very being was pure gift, given by the Source who pours being into all beings; and, as thanksgiving spontaneously sprang up in their hearts, they realized that Giver, Gift, and Thanksgiving were one and divine. We need not (and must not) project this divine actuality on some theistic God “out there.” We need only acknowledge that we are totally immersed in this mystical depth of gratefulness, that it is the very life of our life.

Well, Ian, you asked a big question. I wanted to honor you by a big answer. You might need to re-read it once or twice. If it is too big after all, don’t hesitate to come back, and I will try to cut it down into smaller bites.

— Your Brother David


Br. David Steindl-RastTrust
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Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.