Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

gratitude 5
turkey

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

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.

Looking back at this life

death

We will all be dead soon, waking up in our next life. This’ll happen within a few hundred months at most, or maybe even next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow, or even today. All that’s going with me is my mind, more or less purified and controlled, and the karmic potentials from the actions I have done.

Trish, a friend of mine aged around 55, once asked me with great interest: “What would you do if you had only two months left to live?” This wasn’t just a theoretical question — she had just been diagnosed with cancer and deathdied two months later. And if you think about it, this never is just a theoretical question, for we have no idea how long we have left in this life.

A very helpful practice, I find, for instantly getting perspective on what is valuable today is to think that I’m already in my next life looking back on this life, which is now my past life, and seeing whether I am satisfied with what I did in this life? Would I thank myself?! Would I have done anything differently? What is important?

(You know those interviews where people describe, for example, “52 things I wish I could tell my younger self”?! It’s a bit like that, only on a more cosmic scale.)

This makes me appreciate what a precious human life I have now, and how, as Buddha said, this world is not my permanent home, I am just a traveler passing through.

Life is suffering, of course, while we remain in samsara, and we have many challenges. Lots of horrible, sad things happen, including the loss of everything we like sooner or later, having to encounter things we don’t like on pretty much a daily basis, and so on. However, a characteristic of a precious human life, such as the one you have now, is that we are not so overwhelmed by our sufferings that we can do nothing about them.

What upsets us the most?
chickens scratching in dirt

Looking in the wrong place?!

I think it’s always worth remembering is that whenever we do not succumb to inappropriate attention, delusions cannot arise, and our mind remains peaceful and free. It remains peaceful and free because it is naturally peaceful and free. Our mind free from delusions is happy, content, and whole. We have everything we need. The ONLY thing that upsets our happiness and makes us experience mental pain is our delusions. The delusion of ignorance also make us believe that both solutions to this pain and ways to be happy are to be found outside the mind, so we waste our time scratching around; when in fact there is nothing there outside the mind.

However, the sooner we are convinced of the entirely creative power of our own minds, the sooner we will know that we can make ourselves happy; and that if we can gradually gain control over our thoughts and lives, the good times, no the best times, lie ahead, not behind, starting now. This is a proper relief. Looking back, I know I will appreciate the times I stopped myself following just my short-term preoccupations, and used my thoughts to fulfill my deepest wishes for happiness and freedom rather than subverting them. Instead of wasting valuable time thinking, for example, “Oh woe is me! I wish that person would talk to me! My life is going nowhere! My job is exhausting! My taxes are stressing me out!” I could be thinking “I’m so darned lucky, I have everything I need to make spiritual progress every single day and hour. I don’t care if that person talks to me or not, my happiness doesn’t actually depend on them but on love, and I can love them unconditionally whether they like it or not. My life is so going places because I’m training my mind. My job gives me a chance to help people, practice patience, remember other’s kindness, etc. Nothing will stress me out if I look at it the right way and I have that choice.”

Those are just examples, of course, off the top of my head – but whenever we notice ourselves experiencing any disgruntlement or mental pain whatsoever, it’s guaranteed that inappropriate attention is at work. We can learn to change our thoughts to take our minds and lives in another happier direction, on the path to liberation and enlightenment. Looking back, we’ll be very pleased that we did.

planet earth from spacePlus it’s a win-win because with the same positive thoughts we also enjoy ourselves now, in this life, as well as setting ourselves up for a great future – the same minds work for both.

Imagining ourselves as the person we’ll be in our next life and looking back at this one also helps us stop identifying so tightly with the self and hang-ups of this life – maybe a bit like someone in space looking back at Planet Earth. Space solves problems, grabbing on tightly does not.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Geshe-la meditating in his roomWhen I look back, what always strikes me the most is how lucky I am to have found my teacher, Geshe Kelsang. I feel like he’s been around me this entire life. His real nature is omniscient bliss and emptiness, and I consider him to be the kindest emanation of enlightened beings, who will take me wherever I want to go if I let him. I want to be sure that I never take this cosmic connection for granted, but to make it stronger in this life. I need for him to follow me into the next life and to stick around until I attain enlightenment. That is the one thing that is guaranteed to end my suffering and enable me to help others once and for all.

Looking back at this life from the next, I am quite amazed at this unprecedented opportunity to generate renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, and Mahamudra realizations. These have the power to solve my problems both now – instantly – and in the future, and to make me and others totally happy. I have not found a problem yet that cannot be solved by applying the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage Tantra, and completion stage Tantra. And I have access to all of these, maybe for the first time in aeons, if ever; as well as the companionship of tens of thousands of people also practicing this Dharma, including some spectacular friends. My life need be no different to the lives of the past Yogis, Mahasiddhas, and scholars whom I so much admire, who took advantage of their teacher and the Buddhist teachings. This includes of course Geshe-la himself, whose devotion to his own teacher Trijang Rinpoche I find inspiring.

If I look back and see that I have wasted my chance to gain deep realizations — to partake of this banquet of delight while it was all laid out before me — what would I say to my past self?

Forget the sideshows

side showWhat kind of relationships do we really want to have had with others, once we are looking back at these? Surely not sticky relationships that are built on the inappropriate attention of attachment? For not only do these end in pain, but in retrospect they seem like a massive waste of time, sideshows distracting us from the main attraction of this life.

An arresting (for me) verse in Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Like mistakenly  believing
A poisonous drink to be nectar,
Attachment with grasping at objects of desire
Is the cause of great danger.

I have been deeply attached to every single living being at one point or another over countless previous lives, I have suffered grievously on their behalf; and where exactly has that got me, or us? Also, because attachment undermines our interest in anyone other than our object of attachment, it thwarts our love and compassion too, it seems to me. It’s about time I gave up the attachment that has sabotaged all my previous lives, and cultivated bodhichitta in its place.

Kind people

speaking of kindnessI find it helpful to look at my connections of this life and see how I would have wanted these to go if I was looking back at them, especially perhaps for people who have been kind to me. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Today, for example, thinking about my parents, I realized again that I could never have asked for better ones, I couldn’t have invented better ones. Half a century of unconditional love and support, and counting. Wonderful people, kind examples; and my life has been interesting and brilliant thanks to them. Even Geshe-la said, rubbing his heart, that they were “very spiritual”. Chances of having such good parents the next time around?! Very slim. Depends on creating a huge number of good causes. So, am I making the most of these ones? And am I doing as much for them as I can? Maybe I need to ask them – hey, anything more I can do for you, ma and pa?! (They are reading this, because they also support my blog 😉  They are probably also embarrassed because they are modest and British. But, hey, life is short, and why wait to say stuff like this in the obituaries.)

I’d be interested to hear the perspective you gain when you look back at yourself in this life?

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