Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

turkeyAs 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

world hurtsIt 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!”

“That’s awesome!”

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.  gratitude 5

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.

gratitude 4Maybe 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.

gratitude 7We 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?
Mighty Quinn and Butters
Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

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 ButtersButters
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.

Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All!

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me
prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

(I wrote this article last year but it still seems relevant this year!)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.

“Let Every Day be Thanksgiving!”

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me
prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.