As mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.
And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.
For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015
Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.
Precious human life
It starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …? Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?
We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”
In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.
Waves on an ocean
We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.
Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.
Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)
3 reasons to feel good
Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”
By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):
For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.
But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.
Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.
- My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
- Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
- Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.
Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.
We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.
As the same NYT article says:
It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Is no news good news?
“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.
Opposite of taking things for granted
Also, as Louis CK says in this video:
Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.
I like his anecdote:
I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.
Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*
Try counting them
Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!
Heartburn or heartwarm?!
Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?
This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.
*Update on Butters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.
Awww,what a beautiful kitty…and how reminded i am,of all my favorites,who Do go away,eventually…re-minded. Event-ual,the word formation,itself,pointing at obvious clues.
Last year,in Canada,id take my kitten to the beach,oceanside….she Loved to run ,and play
and we’d chase each other…its a stormy,loud,frightening place ,but i thought and felt,when she was terrified,id pick her up,go out on a boulder,w waves crashing around us,and just hug her,coddle her,tightly ,and speak in our special language,that develops…and she would reawaken ,just come alive,and know ‘it’ was all fine. Then we would run,some more,till dark…
The 1st time she saw sand,she went wild,digging,and id scream “look at the size of that litterbox!!!”.
That memory/scenery is both deeply touching,and troubling.
THAT,is how i want to be with my loved ones. Reassuring,warm ,calming ,’knowing’,these and many more,all elements of ‘love’. There arent many souls,with whom ive felt comfortable sharing those ‘ways’ and means… but You,are one. I shall always cherish our special times,lessons,and interactions…you were one of the few,who could assume and manage
truest,pure loving and generative kindness and
giving! Thanks,for all of the many givings!
And ,that youve given to So many!
Ive never stopped loving you,in my heart and mind,and it is always sweet music,hearing your steady,darling voice !
May you be forever blessed and treasured…
For,you are a true treasure trove of sweet,pure
loving…i miss your company.
♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡ giving !
“look at the size of that litter box!” 😂 Thank you for your kind message!!! Love you too, Kevin, you were (are) a lot of fun to hang out with.
Thankyou for your beautiful writing. Butters was very fortunate to have been born into your care.
Butters was the luckiest kitten in the world because for some reason Venerable Geshe-la not only said he was praying for Butters as he was dying on my lap at 2am but also emailed in the morning to say he had done powa. I will never forget that particular act of kindness even though it is one of countless he does every day.
One of the most beautiful posts I’ve read. I am thankful for you. May Butters have a most fortunate rebirth.
Thank you x 2!!!
I am grateful for your blog–I always learn so much! I am also grateful Butters had you and knew unconditional love amidst his suffering.
Thank you 😘
But it still makes me cry that Butters died.
I know. Samsara is hard. But Butters is so much better off now, I am sure of it, maybe not even in samsara any more.
I am so sorry for the loss of Butters. Thank you for all of your stories. I connect with them so much and look forward to meeting you at your August Mountain Retreat!
How lovely, me too!
i have lots to be gratefull for but its all small change as the things I really want and others take for granted ive never had. 48 and never had a relationship, apparently im a good kind honest person, but this seems to count for nothing in this world. d
I know what it is like for the grass to feel greener, but I like to remember that a lot of people choose not to have relationships and they still feel immensely fortunate, perhaps even more fortunate sometimes 😉 So we can feel grateful whether we are in a relationship or not.
Hi Luna. Recently I’ve been trying to notice all the people in my day who aren’t being mean to me. As it goes it’s actually most people! I feel grateful to them, because they could just as easily be mean!
As for the ones who are mean, I have come to view them as the exceptions that prove the rule. Also, of course, I remember that it’s just their delusions that are making them act that way
🙂 Good practice!
Though it is very painful at times and I work hard to overcome it with both Dharma and western psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals, at the best of times I am grateful for my depression and anxiety, without which I would never have sought out Geshe-la and found the precious Buddhadharma in the first place. But at the same time I realize that it is time to be done with these delusions and develop true renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom realizing emptiness. How fortunate I am to have these powerful alternatives. Gary
“Suffering has good qualities” said Shantideva. However, we still want to get rid of it as soon as we can 🙂
Bless how beautiful to end with such love and compassion from this earthly life 🙏 Prayers are a beautiful way to help those we love dearly pass to the higher side of life 🌟
I remember praying for my dog of 17 years and loved as much as life it’s self.wishing for him to leave from his tired old shell and be free and as he took his transition I saw what would appear to my mind his physical shell in the arms of a holy being 😉👍🌟 all animal are very precious and bring so much joy and unconditional love bless them all xxx
Animals are so very precious, it is true. (They seem to bring out the best or the worst in human beings.)
Butters was blessed to have spent time with you of all people in the world….last moments were of love…may it be a smooth rebirth into a strong life….sometimes pooly souls come to those who have the intelligence to care for them…thank you for sharing…we lost out beloved Toffee dog one year ago. We still love him …I don’t understand why he had to go….but as the article said I am grateful he gave us 2 extra days before he left though he was in pain. I am grateful…for the 2 days and the 10 years he shared with us before that…he was a wise soul. Thank you for your article…can i ask when Monks pray for an ill/sick one but they still die…what do they make of that? I am still confused as I did all i could but Toffee still had to go i guess…but I still wonder how monks feel when the prayer ends in death…a gentle question if you have a moment it may help others too?? Very gratefully your friend Mona
Thankyou for your comment and I’m sorry for your loss of Toffee. Death is inevitable and all the prayers in the world can’t change that. But prayers can help the person whose turn it is to die. And through spiritual training we learn eventually to become deathless.
I’m glad that butters spent his last moments in this life with someone who loved and cherished him.
I felt privileged to be able to help him.
As usual beautiful and profound. I’m grateful for these posts.
Thank you Eric 🙂